A Celebration of the Unsettling: Gordon B. White’s Debut Collection: AS SUMMER’S MASK SLIPS AND OTHER DISRUPTIONS

 

I have it on dependable authority that Gordon B. White maintains a daily regimen of long-hand writing exercises (you might glimpse a mention of this practice by way of some of his social-media posts). It’s a presumption, but I can’t help but consider that this pen-to-paper practice (diurnal journaling not being a unique task for many writers, though possibly an exhaustive disciplinary tactic to civilian sensibilities) has been a galvanizing ingredient in the syllable-by-syllable precision of White’s fiction.
“Writing exercises are maps, not the destination,” writes novelist Bret Anthony Johnston. “They are the keys to the castle, not the castle itself.” As such, Gordon B. White reveals himself as both cartographer and locksmith in his debut collection, As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions.
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A coiling of quality and control, White’s collection houses a reverence for language and style, and showcases a devotion to the expansive spectrum of influence — a fictive continuum ranging from an intellectual, arthouse aesthetic to Creepshow escapism. White flexes enough of a scribbler’s muscle to make the collection, in its aggregate, subtlety instructive — pay attention to not only how he’s crafted the tales, but how (and perhaps his editorial collaborators) have elected to structure the collection.

The first half of the collection is threaded with themes of psychological precariousness and the necrotic logic of religious delusions; we abrade here too glimpses of deteriorative mental states and the gloomy aspects of domestic relationships.

The collection’s opener, “Hair Shirt Drag,” is a brief examination of social-sexual norms and a meditation on ritualized expectation — certainly, for our protagonist, but also for us as participants. A tale riddled with telegraphic pinpricks which act as an accretion for a final incantation: the story’s hue also functions as a reflection for White’s collection itself. “Words don’t mean nothing,” says the tale’s narrator. “It’s only intention that makes things happen.” White, however, is all too aware of the potency of words.

White’s initial acts also bear a sequence of shorter, flash-fiction pieces which successfully play like tonal interludes between stories (“But you were right. The Beast is coming”); likewise, further on readers will find “The Hollow,” a brief piece which works more like a well-defined sketch — a fermenting barm with all the characteristics of a fully-formed story eagerly waiting to be fed.

But by the second half, White quietly gives readers over to a series of more sober stories with an analysis of duality and the significance of altruistic paternality (which I’ll get back to in a few seconds).

Of note is “Open Fight Night at the Dirtbag Casino,” a poignant contemplation on the oxidizing qualities of revenge in the face of forfeited salvation. As short story collections are a useful tool for showcasing an array of creative capabilities, White demonstrates a variety of devices — on display here, a penchant for voice (“believe me, babies”) is shrewdly executed.

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I can’t help but subjectively project the possibility that this tale was borne out of White’s laborious ethos when it comes to his craft. “I don’t have a way to keep track of how many times we’ve done this,” admits the narrator, and it’s interesting, in a macro sense, to wonder at White’s back-to-the-drawing-board awareness — which all writers resignedly confront — as he repeatedly slips on the skin of would-be short-story protagonists. “You’re never the same train hitting the same wall, the same straw on the camel’s back … [y]ou just gotta keep spinning, again and again, to see where it lands.” White’s violent piece concludes with a tenebrous and potent punch.

Opening, on the other hand, with a flurry of fistacuffs, is “Eight Affirmations For the Revolting Body, Confiscated From the Prisoners of Bunk 17.” Bound to a prison camp during an Us-versus-Them global war, the story hits satisfying dystopian notes while narratively balancing on razor-wire between horror and science-fiction. It’s scary and bleak, but closes on a bittersweet “note.”
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But it’s “The Buchanan Boys Ride Again” that breaks the thematic fever of the first half of the book. A sort of salute to 80s horror and stitched with action-comedy quips, my main nit is a lack of clarity in the “creature” component’s explanation, the story, in commendable capacity, suffers from the same symptom as “The Hollow”: the skeletal system clearly urges expansion.
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“The Buchanan Boys” is infused with enjoyable humor, but the underpinning preoccupation is clear and quite touching: the (ostensibly mundane) magnitude of fathers.

And while readers will glean as much in the closing sequences of stories, the collection’s dedication page is succinctly poignant. “For my father James — a teller of tales and gone too soon.” Gone, yes, but White has ensured that the man’s presence, and influential legacy, reverently resonates on our page.
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Aided by a sluicing first-person execution, and imbued with themes of duality, loss, responsibility, the reflective “Birds of Passage” stands as the collection’s closer.  “As I myself grow older, I often think back to that night on the river. About how there’s a world around us, but beyond us, too. A world that takes things, changes them, but sometimes gives them back. All of it — all of it is ripples.”

The catchy cadences of Gordon B. White’s prose serve as stepping stones for readers crossing the pleasantly deceptive arteries of his disquieting narratives. As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions is an impressive exercise in precision, and a celebration of the unsettling.

SHADELAND’s Bittersweet Serenity

A little over two decades—twenty-two years and some weighty change:  this’s been the formative interval of committed cultivation which now defines the band Shadeland.  With their latest full-length, self-titled album (released in December, 2018, with vinyl available on April 13, 2019), the group has produced not only a sonic distillation, punctuating aspects which have distinguished them thus far, the LP Shadeland (Radio Cake Records) is a sonic saturation that—in a more macro perspective—reflects a mature concretization as creative craftsmen.

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Allen Kell (lead vocals and guitar) and Brad Hudgins (drums), creative comrades since the band’s inception, have overseen the progression of this nebulous endeavor that is Shadeland, with brothers Matt and Brad Johnson (guitar and bass, respectively) contributing the remaining angles of this four-corner frame (I’d be remiss not to mention Andrew Hibdon, who occasionally supplies skills on bass).

Kell and Hudgins have been candid in discussions and interviews about the challenges which have presented themselves since the late 90s; but embracing theses real-life, often mundane obstacles has proven their resiliency (as both musicians and men who are occupied with jobs and the true “fans” that are their families), and they’ve managed to maintain their momentum despite the vox-populi pitfalls which set most other bands to fail.

With their latest album, Shadeland, the band has coordinated the potential of pursuing a new artery of artistry, and making the decision to self-title the album has the resonative effect of a sobering rapprochement of their identity.  If you’re aware of their reputation, any encounter (whether live or otherwise) will prove to be fulfilling. If you’re new to the band, their determined persona will cling to you. Shadeland is a ten-song admixture of melancholy tempered by bouts of warm—sometimes painfully so—illumination.  Even the album cover articulates this underlying duality.

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Left to Right:  Matt Johnson; Allen Kell; Brad Johnson; and Brad Hudgins (Photo Courtesy Jon Ball)

In a piece of creative prose when managing characterization, it’s lazy, as a writer, to appropriate blatant descriptive comparison to, say, a well-known actor.  But, with the intent of drawing in a curious audience, I know few other ways than to make loose comparisons and struggle to do otherwise. Kell’s vocal textures—a petulant Jeff Buckley exercising occasional tinges akin to Muse’s Matt Bellamy.   

The tracks on Shadeland are seamlessly connected—even in the spaces which suture the tentative silences between the weave of songs.

did-not.jpgAs with their previous albums (Escape Plan; Red Giant; and This Ghost), the opening melodies—“Not The Only One” and the first-released single, “I Did Not”—operate as incremental snares, both setting an inclusive hook and telegraphing the embraceable vibe beyond.  The third track’s signpost is the lyrically loaded, “A Stranger Passing By” (which receives a brief, lyrical callback in the latter track, “Away In The River,” reinforcing the album’s bookend duality); but the pattern grows more complicated with the infectious fourth track, “Cicadas.”

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“Look Around You” closes out Side A, with a humble “hiding-on-stage” polarization—a humble, subtle Janus-mask exultation.

“Walking Into the End” is a punchy number, slyly coated distortive primer, and showcases the respiratory relationship in Hudgins’s phenomenal rhythm section—the bullseye union of burrowing bass and denting drums.  The song tonally operates like a curtain being swept aside in its denouement of the final three tracks.

Mentioned a moment ago, the ninth track, “A Stranger Remains,” employs a touch of intentional repetition in its wink to the “A Stranger Passing By” — there’s a circularity in it, as though both songs are gazing at each other in a warped mirror.  

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Shadeland is slated to release the vinyl version of their self-titled album on April 13, 2019, at Indy’s Square Cat Vinyl.

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An Indy local, I’ve come to know Allen Kell, as an artist, from a distance.  His discipline has transformed him. Sure: he’s a meticulous musician, a craftsman; but he’s also the rock star—and Shadeland is the rock band—that our city deserves.

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(Photo Courtesy Jon Ball)

Whether Shadeland achieves national or international acclaim is not the point (I’d wager any of the band members would accommodate the possibility, but have never created music with such an intention).  In their journey, Kell and Hudgins have navigated an unpredictable map bearing alterations in both their personal lives and in the industry at large.

The album, Shadeland, is not a new map for the members, but it’s an opportunity for them to flatten out the folds and smooth the creases—it’s an atlas that bears fresh conduits and encourages the listener to join them through the next trajectory of this impressive journey.

Jim Powell’s ONLY WITNESS: The Intellectual and Liar That Reconstructed My Literary Life

This past Friday evening at the Indiana Writers Center marked the official launch of Jim Powell’s inaugural collection of short stories, Only Witness, an event which functioned as both a highly-anticipated release party and pilgrimage for the local literati.

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In attendance, it was easy to spot Dan Wakefield, long-time Indianapolis Star columnist, Dan Carpenter—Barb Shoup (novelist and Executive Director of the IWC); I was able to briefly catch up with Terry Kirts (senior creative writing lecturer at IUPUI), and gave a nod to Robert Rebein (novelist and interim Dean of the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI).  Susan Neville was also mentioned to be in the crowd; and of course present was Jim’s wife, former Indiana Poet Laureate, Karen Kovacik—his companion and ally, his “muse.”

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But there were many in attendance, from a spectrum of creative crafts, who packed the space to applaud not only Jim’s creative accomplishment in the form of Only Witness, but his influential vision as founder of the Indiana Writers Center in 1979.

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Only Witness release party:  March 8, 2019

To give Jim an errant, social-media “shoutout” would be an exercise in indolence; yet, on the other hand, I feel as though I could write in meandering, marathon-fashion about the man—about how he sobered my from my own indolent tendencies (read: lazy writing habits) as an apprentice, and provided guidance in how to develop into the thing that compels the more important thing into existence:  the writer producing the writing.  (There is, of course, a separate discussion here about whether or not writing—or any artistic discipline—can be taught:  about whether or not someone can teach another human being how to become a creative entity.  My answer is complicated, but I believe we have inherent traits which, if honed, can be calibrated to align with the frequencies of specific creative mediums.)

More than scribbling stories, Jim inadvertently guided me into how to become a more dependable husband and father.  Jim was my mentor during a particularly formative phase when I was desperately trying to grow up.  Those themes came out in my fiction, and Jim identified certain “pings,” suggesting how to negotiate and renegotiate (often through relentless revisions) the terrain of what I was trying to say—what I was trying to be.

Going back to the late-90s, my time on the campus of IUPUI (and along the landscapes of academes) was erratic.  But as the turbulence began to wane and my life began to gain some semblance of dimension (this was after I returned from my stint in both Chicago and “The Region” of northwest Indiana), so too did my devotion to the discipline of writing.  At some point, I began pursuing a degree in English.

I happened to be acquainted with (though various creative clicks) a number of local poets and writers, many of whom provided wisdom on how to navigate this venture—This is who you want for poetry…This is who you want for creative fiction…If you can, try to get David Schanker for his “Novel” class…This is who you don’t want for editing…

Jim Powell (who at that time was still acting as lecturer and advisor in the English Department) had somewhat a legendary reputation, mostly for his prowess in the literary arena, but he was also purported to be somewhat of a hardass.

Indeed, I would pass Professor Powell crossing campus, snatching covert, sideling glances at the man:  An ostensibly preoccupied individual, walking with an intent gait, toting a use-worn leather briefcase, surely filled with doomed manuscripts which had been mauled and executed with Powell’s red pen.  Poor, hapless bastards.  (Side note:  Jim used blue ink, not red; and that leather briefcase:  it’s a Coach from 1982, and has only once, in these thirty-seven years, required repair at a shoe shop.)  Thus, in pursuit of an English degree, it was statistically certain that the initiate’s meandering path would eventually intersect with that of one James E. Powell.

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What I would come to understand is that most of these misguided savants making caricaturist claims about Jim were rather flimsy when it came to being challenged by both their peers and instructors—yes, I refer to the micro-Coloseum of close readings and roundtable story analysis, but I’m also citing something more intrinsic:  they didn’t want to commit to the menial, solitary, and (sometimes painfully) private work of becoming a writer.

This didn’t appeal to their sensibilities, and so the calculus was that Jim was tough.  He is.  And he produces a durable product.

(My confession:  In my spring, 2009 semester portfolio submission, I attempted to give a wide berth to a pivotal revision within one of my stories.  Jim quickly noted that it was unacceptable, and that I would receive a grade of “Incomplete” until I made good on making the necessary narrative alterations; otherwise, I would fail the semester.  Inherently, I absorbed these demanding correspondences with a petulant validation for a suspicion I’d harbored all along:  that I had no business on a college campus—check that:  that my writing had no business on a college campus.  I made several attempts to change the dynamic between my characters and their circumstances, but nothing was working; and I would be nifty to simply say that all I would have needed to do was tinker with a few elements to mollify my instructor, but that’s not how it works, is it?  Although the art often requires agile embellishment, there really is no lying in earnest fiction.  Jim knows that, and he wouldn’t let me get away with it.  He never has.)

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But one the most pivotal periods of my life was between 2010 and 2011.  At this time, my modest house had evolved into a home which contained my recently-married wife, a six-year-old, a toddler, and a Golden Retriever approximately the size of Fenrir.  I was not only attempting to finish my English degree with the intent of becoming on English teacher (the former occurred in 2012, while the latter never happened), but I was also still trying to gain some footing with my fiction.

As I closed in on my final classes, viable options—essentially due to the day-long duration of my weekly occupation, and the fact that I had, during my prolonged stay on campus, exhausted all other available classes—were discouragingly sparse.  (It’s entailment, but the other element here was money, or in my case, lack thereof.)

Nearly optionless, I reached out to my coach.  Jim, after some light interrogation (“I will ask the questions!”) about my commitment to the craft, suggested a guided writing class, which was effectively a one-on-one workshop keenly constructed to propel a candidate through the rigors of a specific creative medium.  (In my case:  short fiction.)  His caveat:  The workload would be substantial:  enormous amounts of reading and responding, writing and revision, all of which necessitated sit-down discussions at certain intervals over the course of a both the spring semesters and three, summer months following that.  (Here’s some more entailment:  as opposed to roundtable story analyses, these sit-down discussions would offer no insulation—it was no secret that Jim has, like Hemingway, a built-in shockproof bullshit detector, and he would offer no quarter to a student who wouldn’t take the class seriously.)

The course was, in itself, course correction.  And while I was allowed to calibrate my own compass, Jim was manipulating the ambient magnetic fields.

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While Jim Powell has dozens of publication-ready stories in that proverbial, soft-side leather briefcase, nineteen polished pieces appear in Only Witness.  These tales therein have been refined over the past nine years or so, when Jim devoted less focus on what he could teach young minds as opposed to what he could teach himself.  There are a number of stories I had the honor of glimpsing their “bones” in their nascent days (“Shelter”); and there are more that resonate with peculiar significance (one of the stories contains a character bearing my daughter’s first name—coincidence?).  Still, more profoundly, there are echoes I can identify along my Midwest landscape.  Subtle sensibilities.  Sneaky, static-lashed frequencies.

What’s more, his collection’s title is quietly loaded as a directive:  it operates as, yes, a fitting, adjective-noun union, but it’s also quiet guidance:  that a writer, like a competent anthropologist, should only absorb and record the worldly interactions which they observe.

From Susan Neville:

Jim Powell has long served Indiana literature—both in his support of emerging writers and his knowledge and insight into the historical canon, which he has helped define.  and now in this new collection of short fiction, he adds his own unique voice to the list of writers who bear witness to this particular place.

Pardon the cliché, but it works in a summative sense:  Jim is a writer’s writer, and just as he’s generated his own stories, he has, likewise (though in mitotic fashion) helped to fashion the scaffolding for the lives of other writers.

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In 1977 (the year Star Wars premiered and the year I was born—I’ll let you rate the significance between the two), Jim and some literary comrades opened a bookstore in Santa Monica, California, called Intellectuals and Liars.  Jim is quoted as saying that they’re “two people you can’t trust,” and that, in his estimation, was an apropos description of both writers and poets.
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There are times when I’ve read Jim’s stories and wanted to ask a question—something to clarify, or something that, possessing an unshakable suspicion, I thought might be telling about his “real life.”  Jim is, of course, an intellectual, and, yes, a story-teller; but he is also aware of his audience which, for decades, were young writers.  “The artist acknowledges both the existence and importance of others,” writes Richard Russo in his introduction to 2010’s The Best American Short Stories.  “He starts out making the thing for himself, perhaps, but at some point realizes he wants to share it, which is why he spends long hours reshaping the thing, lovingly honing its details in the hopes it will please us, that it will be a gift worth the giving and receiving.”  Many years in the making, Only Witness is a gift which, if read closely, is not only entertaining, but—to the reverent reader—lovingly instructive.