I. Rhapsode on “Sonata For Small Dreaming Spaces”
The happy piping that comes and goes on the wind, swallowed up in string quartet darkness and sudden tympanic crash of surf only to be borne up like spray, speaks to them, all of them, secretly, insinuatingly, of the mischief and license in which only the owners of land may indulge—in which the good and the beautiful may perish at the hands of the gross, the popular, the ignorant, only because goodness and beauty rise naturally from such decay.from “Coda: Night, Mystery, Secresie and Sleep,” Gary Amdahl (2013)
Imagine, if you will, a classical music radio station broadcasting into the wee hours a program of “string quartet darkness,” hosted by a posessed and prepossessing madman (a madman who is yet a besotted musicologist as well as skilled technician of the airwaves, no less), who has selected a number of masterful compositions which, taken together, seem arranged with but one object in mind: to penetrate the heart, trouble the spirit, and keep a body up much, much later than is good for one, mulling over the sharpness of the poignance one is made to feel by the dark arts of his music—no more than mere phantoms of the mind, really from the perspective afforded us by high noon’s own blinded insight)—and obsessed by what, if anything, all of that could all possibly mean.
Such was your faithful reporter’s experience reading Gary Amdahl’s 2013 collection of stories, The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts (not so much read as overheard, I insist, on the winds of the Maestrale, originating in that Mediterranean of the Mind alluded to in the epigraph above), whose cover features an archery target whose heart-shaped bulls-eye is pierced by a pin, an illustration which, shrunk to 0ne-fiftieth the size becomes a typesetting ornament to adorn the title page of each individual story and, lest we forget, also appears in the header atop every blessed page.
This is a book meant to be taken as a whole, in other words, as a unity.
But what is the nature of that unity?
And what or who is the Intimidator that still lives in our hearts?
These are not rhetorical questions. I am typing them out with my fingers even as I am asking them in my head, my lips trailing along behind in mute, dumb-show, whispered sympathy, asking for a friend.
The program begins with A Sonata for Small Dreaming Spaces, three stories which intend to follow the sonata’s form of “Exposition, Development, Recapitulation” (or so I’m told—SOED). The first of these three stories, “The Breezeway” is narrated (as are several in this collection) in the first person by an avuncular Implied-Author who pours the sweet liquor of his confession in our ear such that, gratified to be singled-out so as to be taken into his strictest confidence, the story/memoir reads like straight-on autobiography or its kissing-cousin, Autofiction…
But in this we must instruct ourselves to take goodly care: by the end of tonight’s program, in the penultimate Favole per musica senza musica (“fairy tales for music without music,” Google Translate sez), before the mad and maddening alchymical Coda rounds to that “Mystery [and] Secresie” of the murder’d “Sleep” of “Night” which shall ever-elude us, we may wish to question which Gary Amdahl are we even dealing with*** here? A first (as well as most assuredly and most preliminary) answer would be that Gary Amdahl of the small, dreaming spaces (of our minds, dreaming of Gary Amdahl’s dreaming mind) of the “Sonata for Small Dreaming Spaces,” the trio of stories which question just who could should or would possibly even write or read this book….
***Aside: The second story in the collection, “The Lesser Evil,” raises that question overtly: a character named Gary Amdahl, who has written a well-received debut collection of stories titled Ostrogoth (2006) (not-quite-just like “our” Gary Amdahl has), meets a doppelganger named Gary Amdahl (or, *meets* him in a *story*, where he can explain to both himself and his other self that though he dislikes that other self, because he is an “asshole” who just happens to look like him and behave (badlly) like him toward other human beings (but dotes on animals, just like him, too), he does have one-up on said doppelganger: he (the *real* Gary Amdahl) is the *Creator*, and the other he (the *other* Gary Amdahl, the Gary Amdahl in the story, is the creation.
But, you object, they are *both* in the story, the two of them!
But, I admonish you, neither of them are anywhere! The story is just marks on a page, after all: the *real* fictional story is just all in *your* **head** !!
Here’s what Gary Amdahl (or one of them) has to say about it all:
The artist can sit in his cell looking at a skull for years, abandon his family, lose his friends, and remain as powerless and confused as the day he began his spiritual exercises: the origin of other people, the source of the continuous production of new life, the means of the extinction and creation of souls…must have something to do— mustn’t it?—with the imagination of…for lack of a better phrase…highly trained sorcerers. And by extension, artists. We must, I mean to say, we artists must be the visible end of that spectrum. We must have something to do with the creation of something out of nothing, and therefore ought not be driven from town for thinking, for suspecting, that we can make “another self.” But in the end there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t prove it’s even possible much less produce the goods—or the bads, as the case may be, the evils—and you have to give it up and learn to enjoy the simple things in life. Literature is a weedy meadow made terribly soft and lumpy with the graves of doppelgangers, with “secret sharers” and twins and doubles and dream narrators who can be no one else but ourselves [….] (34)
By the third story of this opening salvo of a sonata, one Gary or another takes us to an American Legion used book sale, to find a book by Gary Amdahl (a book, I Am Death (2008), which I happened to absolutely and unconditionally love, as if it were my own love- or brain-child, BTW), a book which the author promptly buys for the bargain price of five dollars and proceeds to put to immediate good use….
…But let’s set that aside…aside, and return to that first of three stories which soften us up for the rigours of the program to follow: “The Breezeway,” a sentimental journey into a family’s past, a tale of unsentimental togetherness and heart-piercing loss, a story headed by an epigraph from Chekhov which asks us to consider “the vanity of sorrow”:
“Why does the heart grieve and refuse to listen to reason?”
(Um, are you asking little ol’ me? Dunno…maybe…because…it’s the heart?
“Why does one want to weep bitterly?”
(Because…bitterness is to weeping, as, as, OK, as bachelors are to unmarried men?)
Or how about: because, like the son in the Woody Allen joke who won’t take his father-who-thinks-he’s-a-chicken to the psychiatric hospital, we need the eggs, the imaginary knowledge and faulty memories of the heart which keep us/make us feel…alive in some way? For example, when as a very young child our narrator wishes to make a present of his toys to his unsmiling mother, whose birthday it was not, by wrapping them up in the wrapping of her just-laundered laundry
The problem was that I had used one of the carefully ironed curtains as wrapping paper. I believe after she scattered my toys and threw the curtain back onto the ironing board, she sat down and cried. She must have. I can certainly see myself doing so. I am sure she put me on her lap and hugged me. Of course I am relying on a perforce unreliable memory, but the memories are there, crystal clear, panoramic, and as effectively detailed as any novice storyteller could hope for. What I do not know, what I do not know with certainty or even the hope of the possibility someday of certainty, is this: was I three years old? Or was I four? It makes a great deal of difference. […] I have […] suggested , I think, that there was some mystery, some unhappiness that was being lived through about which I had not the slightest idea […] I saw and understood so much that I am not just baffled but angry about the things I did not see and understand, or saw but did not understand, or saw and understood but ran away from, forgetting either naturally or unnaturally but so completely as to be surprised by it all now. (22-23)
Loving others means not only getting other people wrong, it means remembering all that wrongly too, and refusing to let go of such memories, cos they’re all we have of them—”the memory of memory” (25), of us, now that it’s too late. We need the eggs.
II. Four Short Paragraphs on Two Symphonies of Fear, Wrath, and the Death Wish…
(…two stories that make up the (s)core of the musical composition which is this book of (Re)Memory and (Un)Forgetting, and roughly a third of its running time/length).
The first, “The Cold, Cold Water, (D-sharp minor)” is a tale of a boy-man (a right booby diminutively-named Bobby) and his beloved cottage up in the north of the northernmost part of those supposedly United States where the land, which borders on the cold, cold water of Lake Superior, is so remote from all possible humanity that it might as well be Canada.
Time passes, as time does. Bobby (after telling a tall tale about a daysail on those cold, cold waters, waters which famously wrecked a ship called the Edmund Fitzgerald, as well as inspired a song of said shipwreck, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a song sung by a legendary Canadian born by those same cold, cold waters) sheds wives as well as clothes, and decides to go for a coldwater swim….
The second and title story, perhaps my favourite or co-favourite (and which is the one wherein we learn the Intimidator’s true, somewhat prosaic, if still mightily intimidating, for all that, identity—no spoilers here), involves another Gary, a man ill-at-ease with himself as well as with his redneck neighbours, and who is only really at home in the independent bookstore in Santa Monica where he works and to which he is forced to commute to, from Truckballs Falls in central Cali down to the City of ostensible Angels—some borne aloft by the wings of fame and some fallen, whom he serves (“like a balletic Hamlet,” as A.S. Byatt might say) in his capacity as a kind of unofficial store manager and general attender-to customer needs, wants, complaints, real, imaginary or otherwise.
The arrival of Gary’s father initiates further complications: Gary has to deal with the very real presence of what felt to this reader as a kind of magical past…
Exhibit A: a birthday photograph of the narrator’s paternal grandfather, who could be an analogue for what is arguably the narrator’s dawning-self-understanding, that he narrates this story because, like the grandfather in the photograph,
“he [is] clearly enjoying himself […] and yet the ere was a look of very great seriousness in his eyes, the look, I thought, of a man who had struggled with a demon a long long time ago, who remembered it with painful clarity, and who did not wish to forget it” (95).
… even as his mundane present life (being a prodigal son in perpetual yearning for an all-too-forgiving father; accumulating enough “petty grievances” of which, because they make him feel alive, he cannot let go; acquiring a precious, precarious sense of Self via the serf-itude of the precariat, the Yo-yo-ing life of the minimum wage commuter) threatens to spiral out of control as the bookstore descends into utter chaos, and…and only a Hollywood-level deus ex machina can save them all.
Genius-level stuff, in other words.
III. Fairy Tales for Music Without Music—and without those Happy Endings one has no right to expect from Fairy Tales/Capitalist Dreams
It is in these next three stories that Mr. Amdahl’s imaginative powers, which had been revving-up nicely in the previous section, kick into overdrive: the first, “We Whistled While We Worked,” being a kind of anarchist fable about 19th century child labour in the mill towns of New England, of two girls (one or both possibly being outright fabulations of the other) who somehow survive and even thrive in the soul- and life-destroying working conditions to join up with the IWW, the Wobblies, or International Workers of the World, dream of lives lived in and of the Theatre—and quite literally take their show on the road. This outrageous premise produces a thing of startling and troubling beauty, even as it undermines its own conventions, our faith in the goodness of humanity, and any possibility for the consolations of (let alone supposed transcendence of) Art-with-a-capital-A.
Exhibit B: it is entirely typical of this Unstable Fable to enchant as well as outrage us with the dangerous beauty its own self-undermining imagery and metaphors, even as it points a withering “J’accuse“-atory index finger at the horrors of industrial capitalism:
“…the father had been employed for several years as a matchmaker, which meant that he worked unshielded over great tubs of white phosphorous, the fumes of which in that cramped and dirty, unventilated shop rose up and hung in the air like ghosts of all the tyrants of history and prehistory, leaving only a radiant, naturally occuring poison. With his head in the clouds twelve hours a day and his hands in the tubs dipping and plucking thousands of little sticks, he began to come apart […] As his brain became dessicated, so did his bones become brittle. His jaw rotted and his teach fellout, and one day […]
[Nor do we, though we also do, of course!]
Thus at any rate did Rosemary narrate the tragedym the tale of the matchmaker sick with phossy-jaw who broke his leg stepping off the curb: many times and in many places, for many different reasons. She did not understand what had happened. Neither did I.
She blamed herself and yet could not understand where she had sinned or erred. And in what way, exactly, was she being held responsible? She had been a very small child and the truth, she suspected, was that she remembered nothing, that some other kind of activity was taking place in her mind that, perhaps, an agency representing some other kind of reality, dreams, for example, that wasn’t so difficult a concept, that an agent of dreams was operating while she was awake.” (144-145)
Speaking of agents, let’s talk real estate: in the second story in this sequence, “San Luis el Brujo” (“Brujo = “Sorcerer,” Gtranslate sez), two extra-white, older women visit another woman, an entrepreneur and custodian of a kind of nature preserve where she, the entrepreneur and her brother ostentatiously live lives of deracinated California ultra-luxury and ennui—and which she’d gladly unload on the highest bidder.
To say too too much about this story would be surely to spoil it, but let me just add that said entrepreneur believes in money-as-the-sole-source-of-value in the most philosophical sense of that phrase possible (if that means anything at all), while yearning for the kind of spiritual transcendence only Californians could yearn for, and then buy, after dreaming it all up out of thin air.
Also: that the entrepreneur’s brother lives for something far higher than even this, though what that is remains somewhat mysterious. So, we tourists (cos we readers are down with the visiting, uprighteous Ladies in all this, and can’t quite believe our eyes or ears, except that we have these Ladies, our Marlowes, to overhear what these Californicating Kurtzes have to teach us about this whole façade—which can be nothing more or less than the awful truth .
I’ll end not with the end…
(“Coda: Night, Mystery, Secresie and Sleep”), cos it’s too deep for me, an alchemical prose poem of colonization, assimilation, resistance, extinction and rebirth, perhaps? Quite hermetic, Hermes Triste/Trismegistus)
…but with the second-to-last story, “Saddling the Sorry Ass of Self,” my favourite or co-favourite, involving the diary of an infuriating narrator who means well, but just can’t help falling back into his old, addictive ways (and means of satisfying those ways, including: theft, outright lying about same, and utter betrayal of himself or anyone he was ever close to, or had shown him more compassion than he deserve(d)(s)).
Our Boy also happens to be the World Expert in Division III Collegiate Ice Hockey, all of which I have capitalised here on account of the seriousness with which the narrator takes his avocation and vocation: for, as someone who has sworn off gambling, he sure puts his knowledge of the minutiae of Div. III hockey to “good” use, i.e. gambling on supposed sure things and making marks for same in the sparse crowds at said games.
Echoing the story’s subtitle (“Getting the Hell out of New Bedford, Then Wanting to Get Back Only to Find It’s Too Late”), our diarist-narrator’s seemingly aimless, self-directed tour of his own personal Inferno, of ice hockey’s and the soul’s sub-basement, of…
Heading north. One goes east to sit with a master, one goes south for retribution and redemption, one goes west to dwell in uncertainty…and one goes north to go home.
…Western Massachusetts, Upstate New York, Vermont, and even Canada (Sudbury and Saskatchewan, e.g., get shout-outs) becomes such a tour-de-force for the writer that (i) I feel like immediately reading this story again, and (ii) really, really hope that Mr. Amdahl himself (or one of them) hasn’t got any skin in the game now, if he ever did have, cos his imagination here is just powerful enough to cause that to happen.
IV. Saddling the Sorry Ass of Self with…Words?
Q1: Like so many of Gary’s characters, Our Boy is more than a little isolated from those who would love or help him…Why is Our Boy writing his diary, then, instead of, you know, fixing things: is writing just a sorry-assed way avoiding reality—instead of embracing it by, you know, “reaching out”?
This is one troubling question this miracle of a story raises. Here’s another, related one:
Q1.1: So, is the kind of unlikely payoff this gambling addict’s after somehow analogous to the kinds of unlikely payoffs writers and readers are after, too?
Q1.1.1: Are we all living inside this story, then (and singing a Kenny Rogers tune about not knowing when to fold or what condition our condition is in) with him, scheming and dreaming-up our next impossible escape?
Q22.214.171.124: Should we then assume that there is a sorry ass of self which actually even exists, and if so, can it possibly be saddled, with or without a friend to boost us up there? (Again, asking for a friend.)
Qs 2a, 2b (and not 2b): Again, again: just who does this long-shot gambler think he is, expecting me to read such a crazy, motley, seemingly shapeless as his diary? And, seeing that it looks like I just did just that…anyhow, what recompense is on offer, then for writer and/or reader, if any, if they agree to Q2a and get stymied by Q1.1 (i.e. no “payoff”) and have no Qs 3, 4, or 5, etc., to keep the conversation going (after the story/concert ends), cos what happens when the music stops and the people who attended the concert stop talking about it or just, well, you know, stop?
Our answer comes from the gambler himself, of course, so, Caveat Emptor (and Creditor and Debitor and Lector, too….):
A: Ease on, ease on down the road…to the next game, the next book, the next imaginary friend/self
Words are a mixed bag at best, and using them for money is a mug’s game. Consider the source: hominid hooting and barking in the trees, a whispered and screamed but fundamentally poetic response to what the thunder said. What did the tunder say? That you are alive, that you are aware of yourself and your surroundings, that you are aware as well of your awareness, and finally, that you are aware of the awareness of others. Everybody around you is aware in the same ways, and of the same things, that you are aware. Most importantly, they are aware of you. You’re all alive and you’re all going to die. You don’t know where you came from, and you don’t know where you’re going, or when, or why. In the meantime? Words. (257)
Words, words: in the lean meantime, at least, we have these words, Gary Amdahl’s. We might not know which Gary Amdahl they came from, but know where they’re, haha, bound…
And we know where to go to get more of them, too: Amazon, of course, as with everything these days. Or better yet, that miraculous bookstore in Santa Monica… Now closed? OK, failing that, at how about an American Legion book sale near you, where you might meet one Gary Amdahl or the other, or—
Or us: In his book of interlinked short essays, The Curtain, Milan Kundera reminds us that, if we are looking for what unifies a work of art, it is our own readerly recognition of the truth of its unity: “Every reader, as he reads,” Kundera quotes from Marcel Proust, is actually the reader of the sorry ass of self.”
OK, I lie, a bit. This is what Kundera actually writes:
They define not only the meaning of the Proustian novel, but this one, too: in the end, what unifies The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts is its novel-ness, that in each separate movement of its symphony of sorrowful songs, and through the overlapping, recurring melodies in this its polyphonic fugue, this novel or collection of stories, call it what you will, leads us toward self-recognition. Flaubert was Madame Bovary, and Gary Amdahl is “Gary Amdahl.” And so are we.