Mark Athitakis Newsletter #1

Blogging, David Goodis, Barbara Tuchman, environmental writing, more.

Front Matter

My friend Owen likes to say I invented blogging. 

TL; DR: I did not invent blogging. But I was doing something bloggish close enough to the dawn of blogging that his claim is not entirrrrrrely half-baked. In the fall of 1995 I was fresh out of college and living in a shoebox studio apartment near downtown San Francisco. I had a $100-a-month stipend from a magazine internship and marching orders from my parents to stand on my own feet in six months. Out of anxious restlessness, I used my old college website account---still accessible, because back then who cared---to launch something called Running Board Weekly. The site/blog/whatever included a short personal riff, a book or record review, and links to things I found interesting on the nascent web. 

(The name was inspired by my commute to my internship via cable car. I preferred to hang on to the side---standing on the running board, the star of my own personal Rice-a-Roni ad.)

Running Board Weekly wasn't a blog, let alone the first one. But the more important thing about it now, for me, is that the site/blog/whatever began (and ended) early enough not to get caught by search-engine spiders. Google never experienced it, so for all intents and purposes it never existed. Thank goodness. Nobody needs to read about my breakup with my college girlfriend, or the time I came home to find a neighbor dead on the front step of my apartment building, or the lunch-and-learn I attended in which a startup CEO insisted that the future of the web indisputably depended on audio, not images.

But if I don't miss the content of Running Board Weekly, I've missed the feeling that came with it---making a thing that was mine, putting it out in the world, uncertain of who might read it and what it might become over time. I was chasing that same feeling about a decade ago when I started a blog called American Fiction Notes. I write for pay a lot, and I enjoy that. But for whatever reasons, it's never delivered quite the same feeling.

So, here's a newsletter. At this point, I'm way behind the curve, just as I was when I started a litblog. But I hope you find it of interest as it (hopefully) evolves and I try out features and sort out what works. My goal is to create a place where I can talk about my reading and writing in one place, be a little looser and go a little longer than I do elsewhere. I hope you'll tell me what you like, don't like, and want to see here. In the meantime, thank you for reading.

Concierge Desk

George Pelecanos recently took part in the New York Times' weekly "By the Book" feature, in which writers respond to some potted questions about their reading habits and favorite writers. Pelecanos' turn, alas, became memorable not so much for who he included in his responses as for who he didn't; he didn't name a single woman author in the interview. (Would it have been better or worse if he'd delivered shout-outs to Harper Lee or Flannery O'Connor, the go-to choices for guys who don't generally read women?)

Lauren Groff@legroff

This one goes out to all the men who contacted me to say that my interview (in these these same pages) was bitterly unfair because I said out that men don't read women: Here you go, sweet gents.https://t.co/egKys6VPhk

August 25, 2018
Pelecanos' lamentable faceplant aside (I like him, though he’s got his tics), I was struck by his claim that David Goodis is "largely forgotten today." I don't buy that---at least among crime-fiction fans he seems to have cemented his status as one of the premier authors of the 40s-50s noir era. An essay I wrote in 2007 gives a little background on his work and why he's worth reading. On the off chance that Pelecanos is right and he’s new to you, here are three Goodis novels I'd recommend:

1. Down There (1956): AKA Shoot the Piano Player after Francois Truffaut's film adaptation, this is the most cleanest and most propulsive exploration of Goodis' favorite themes of art, loss, despair, and how we get ourselves together in a crisis. It's included in the Library of America's Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, which also includes two more classics, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me and Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, as well as two I haven't yet read, Charles Willeford's Pick-Up and Chester Himes' The Real Cool Killers.

2. The Wounded and the Slain (1955): Probably completely unreliable as a guide to Jamaica, but in truth this could really be set anywhere, being one of his most interior and existential novels. Its semisuicidal hero wanders the mean streets of Kingston, hoping to be done in, then does in somebody else, carrying his anxiety nearly to the last page of the book. “On the surface you cut his throat in self defense, and under the surface, under all the rum and silliness, your mood was homicidal,” he tells himself. “Now go ahead and try to deny that.” 

3. Of Tender Sin (1952) "It began with a shattered dream," goes the opening line of one of Goodis' most peculiar and chilly novels. Literally---set in deep winter in Philadelphia, it follows his hero, a just-so family man, thrown off-track by a platinum blonde. That's a cliche, as is the slovenly plot involving crime and drugs. But as that first line suggests, the mood is surprisingly dreamlike for the genre and especially for Goodis—-its mood is more heroin nod than drunken rage, taking the familiar noir narrative and coating it in a soft bed of snow.

What I've Been Writing

Have you heard about Stephen Markley’s debut novel, Ohio? Boy howdy I sure have. I’ve found it inescapable, largely because it’s directly in my critical wheelhouse (I like to think I have a few of those, but anyway): I wrote a book about contemporary Midwestern fiction that was published last year, and if Ohio was out when I was writing it, I surely would have included it. I reviewed it for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, arguing that it’s better as set of character studies than it is a Big Statement Novel About the Midwest. And I interviewed Markley for Kirkus, talking a little bit about balancing large themes and individual characters. There’s more to say about it, and I suspect I’m not done with it yet.

I’m a little more enthusiastic about The Arid Sky, a novel by Mexican novelist Emiliano Monge that plays with the traditional themes of a Cormac McCarthy-style western, shuffling the narrative to scour the heroism out of tales of violent bad guys. I reviewed it for the LA Times.

What I'm Reading, Essay Dept.

What’s the right way to write about the environment—-that is, the way that will encourage people to care more about it? The New York Times Magazine seems to be asking itself that question, first with a straightforwardly sober investigative report on the water wars in Arizona, then with an epic history on America’s ill-fated climate-change policy. The latest issue of Harper’s has a feature on the imminent approval of mining rights in a region of Arizona already cut to the bone by mining, and if the story is dry, the photos of the landscape are gorgeous. But that’s kind of the problem—-the pretty pictures are at once captivating in the context of the problem, but also enchanting. It makes even strip mines look pretty.

Are we losing our ability to concentrate on things? Can you remember the last article you read? How about that last sentence? (I’ll wait.) Laura Miller in Slate and David L. Ulin in the Paris Review both have thoughtful takes on the matter, arguing that while the internet is not necessarily turning our brains to mush, it’s opening up a variety of kinds of reading that our brains are still adjusting to. (See also Ed Finn’s “Art by Algorithm,” which advocates for a “centaur” concept of creativity, in which our imaginations are stoked by technology rather than stifled by it.)

What I'm Reading, Book Dept.

Everybody has daily reading goals, right? A few years back I began to feel exhausted with the stack of new books I was obligated to read for review and prize-judging duties. So I came up with a fix: Read more. Read something not-new every day, just 20-25 pages or so. It didn’t make my TBR stack any shorter, but it’s the smartest thing I’ve ever done as a reader: It’s how I got through Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Last Samurai, and more. My current not-new reading is Barbara W. Tuchman’s 1984 book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Doorstop histories aren’t usually my thing, but it was strongly recommended by two readers I respect, and she writes with admirable precision and an eye toward connections between our brutish past and brutish present.

She was inspired to write about the medieval era, she explains, due to its echoes of the WWI era—-plague, war, Christian ideals taking it in the teeth. But what mostly comes off the page is the sense that humanity’s station has always been degraded, in every era—-it is at once dispiriting and fascinating to read about pervasive anti-Semitism and institutional greed. So I’ve been taking a kind of comfort in the passages where I can tell myself, hey, at least we’re not that bad. To wit:

In village games, players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal's claws. Trumpets enhanced the excitement. Or a pig enclosed in a wide pen was chased by men with clubs to the laughter of spectators as he ran squealing from the blows until beaten lifeless. Accustomed in their own lives to physical hardship and injury, medieval men and women were not necessarily repelled by the spectacle of pain, but rather enjoyed it. The citizens of Mons bought a condemned criminal from a neighboring town so that they should have the pleasure of seeing him quartered. It may be that untender medieval infancy produced adults who valued others no more than they had been valued in their own formative years.

Have a story to share about people head-butting cats for sport these days? Please keep it to yourself.

End Notes

Speaking of the mid-90s and things that are largely forgotten today, here’s my favorite track from Jim O’Rourke’s 1997 album, Bad Timing, an exquisite collection of lush John Fahey-esque instrumentals. It starts slow, but hang with it.


Again, thanks for reading. Thoughts? Drop me a line at mathitak@gmail.com.