Other Writing

http://thestoryprize.com/2014/11/tracy-daugherty-on-walker-percys.htmlA short essay on Walker Percy’s thought experiments.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/company:  “Company,” an essay on friendship and storytelling in The Los Angeles Review of Books, April 2014:  “I know what George was wearing that night.  Not because I remember, exactly, but because he always wore the same thing in those days:  a pair of cut-off Levis, two or three frayed threads noodling over his knees, and a gray T-shirt stained with Jack Daniels.  I also know, from his habits rather than from any particular memory, that as he told me his story he smoked one Kent after another and lined up the butts in a round gold ash tray on his desk.  He had tied a blue scarf around his skull as a sweatband.  He sipped his Jack from a chipped yellow glass and bobbed his head to Tom Petty as he fished up details of a New Orleans bar (sawdust on the floor, a black and white Magnavox tuned to the Saints over the racketing Foosball machines) where he’d once got into a fight over a woman he couldn’t remember.  She was black.  That’s about the best he could do . . . ”

An excerpt from the essay, “Old Haunts:  The End of America and Its Fictions” from The Georgia Review, Spring 2001:

On January 6, 2000, Michael Sager, a property manager in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was checking buildings downtown in anticipation of a cold snap. He wanted to make sure that the pipes weren’t leaking, that they were properly protected in case of a freeze. In particular, he was concerned about a building that had once housed an upscale restaurant, Finales, on East First Street. The restaurant had been closed for a week and the building was sitting empty, unsupervised. In an alley beside the property, by the former restaurant’s kitchen door, Sager noticed liquid pooling and spilling down the street. It was peculiarly thick and crimson in color. He assumed a pipe had broken somewhere and that the red-brick pavement, as well as the late afternoon light, had created the strange hue. Following the stream to its source, he saw it seeping from underneath the doors of the Francisco Ray Embalming Service directly behind the old restaurant. The blood–for that’s what it was, he understood clearly now–was filling potholes in the alley three to four inches deep, and rushing to a storm sewer on the southeast corner of Detroit and First Streets, which drained into the Arkansas River. Immediately, Sager contacted the Tulsa City-County Health Department, and an inspection by a storm water management team found the blood flowing from a sewage backup in the mortuary. Subsequent investigations determined it was legal for embalmers to dispose of blood and other bodily wastes in the municipal sewer system, although the usual practice was to pack biomedical hazards in secure containers and haul them off to incinerators.

The mortuary owner was ordered to disinfect the alley using an extra heavy solution of twenty percent bleach and eighty percent water. Straight bleach was ordered to be poured into the potholes and then vacuumed up. “We had lots of jokes about [the mortuary] when we opened,” Patrick Hobbs, Finales’ owner, told a Tulsa World reporter. “’If you don’t like this grand finale [to your meal], we’d say, you can get the ultimate finale next door.’”

A novelist might use this anecdote, and its unsettling details, to convey the grittiness of urban life. I can imagine it nestling effectively inside a hard-boiled crime story, the fetid backdrop to the detective-hero’s unsavory profession. But I can also imagine another context, in which the gruesome imagery might transcend the merely disgusting and cause a reader moral as well as physical queasiness, perhaps even adding a fantastic air: Gabriel Garcia Marquez instead of Raymond Chandler.

I discovered this bloody alley one day in a pair of newspaper articles while researching the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, a nine-member panel charged by the Oklahoma House of Representatives with conducting a historical study and developing a record of the May 31, 1921 riot in downtown Tulsa in which thirty-five square blocks were destroyed and scores of African-Americans killed.

The commission had been established in 1997, eight decades after the riot; by early 2000 it was ready to issue its preliminary report. The panelists concluded that “government at all levels” had failed to provide the “moral and ethical responsibility of fostering a sense of community” that could bridge “divides of ethnicity and race” in Tulsa in the early 1920s. As a result, racial hatred was “institutionalized” in the city, “tolerated by official federal, state, county, and city policy.” Therefore, on the morning of May 31, 1921, armed vigilantes provoked by the false rumor of a white woman’s rape by a black man felt free to enter the African-American neighborhood of Greenwood, pull families from their homes, burn the properties, murder an unknown number of people–probably hundreds–and bury them later in mass graves. To date, the Tulsa riot remains the worst occasion of racial violence in American history.

The commission recommended restitution “in real and tangible form” to survivors of the riot, most of whom were children at the time and are now in their eighties and nineties. Restitution “would be good public policy and do much to repair the emotional as well as physical scars of this most terrible incident in our shared past,” the panelists wrote. They suggested individual compensation, as well as educational scholarships for the city’s African-American community.

Right away, many of Oklahoma’s politicians tried to discredit restitution. “People are going to say, ‘If we do this for Tulsa, where does it stop?’” said Robert Milacek, a Republican House member from Enid. “What about the Mennonites whose homes were burned during World War I? And the American Indians. We could go on forever.”

Abe Deutschendorf, a Democrat from Lawton, agreed. “Who’s at fault [for tolerating racial tension]? What I’m hearing is the state. Sorry . . . you did not make that argument convincing to me,” he said, despite the panel’s photos of several lynchings from the time, carried out with full knowledge of public officials; a Tulsa high school yearbook featuring a page of black-hooded, Klan-style “knights”; and a popular postcard from the era, sold statewide in drugstores, of a black man’s torching death in southeastern Oklahoma, captioned “Coon Cookin’.”

My own interest in the Riot Commission stemmed from my grandfather’s life-long career as an Oklahoma politician and a proponent of civil rights in his state. His beliefs provided my context for the fouled alley. Here is how I saw it: thirty-five blocks of downtown Tulsa had once vanished in hateful violence. Bodies lay unclaimed–in fact, unknown–in the ground there. Now, a handful of folks was trying to restore the city’s memory of the events, and in some small way rectify the tragedy. Powerful people, backed by money and easy media access, were working hard to silence them. In the middle of all this, a building started to bleed.

Editors and teachers often tell young writers, “Find your own voice,” but I have always been interested in the kind of literary sensibility that is drawn to past voices, voices dead and gone but still reverberating, somehow, in our lives. I am not thinking about ghost stories exactly, though, from near its beginnings, in the work of Hawthorne and Poe, say, our national literature has often dwelled in haunted houses. I am thinking about stories layered with time’s multiple details–additions and the evidence of subtractions–the way that old buildings, over decades, carry the scars and glories of their remodelings (and accidents), revealing the history of a place.

Stories, like buildings, are social sites and mediating spaces, meeting spots for writers and their readers, carefully constructed areas where private and public lives overlap. Entering an old building, we may hear creaks and mysterious settlings–ghostly voices–speaking to us from underneath the smooth façade; we may feel invisible others observing our most intimate acts. Similarly, we may wonder about the relationship between a story’s surface and its foundation: how do history and memory shape, support, or warp a narrative?

I want to try to talk about the past here, its continuing presence in the deep structures of things, to see if we can learn anything, as people who inhabit both buildings and stories, from our time-haunted communal rooms with their layerings and erasures–for it has seemed to me lately that American fiction, like America itself, is increasingly faceless and present-tense. As a result, it has lost much of its former substance. As the literary critic Sven Birkerts recently observed, “Whatever happened to the American past? Which is to say: Whatever happened to America? . . . [We have] shifted from a simple, direct, unmediated sense of reality to one that is completely mediated [by television and the Internet]. For the real we are substituting the virtual.”

Community is difficult to maintain without a firm sense of history and place–and without community, who or what will foster the “moral and ethical” responsibilities that can help us overcome our social “divides”? The trappings of place–alleys, street grids, architecture, graffiti, stains, tire-worn grooves–as well as yesterday’s failures and achievements should make us keenly aware that our biological, social, legal, and even our spiritual needs are inseparable from one another, intertwined with others, the way plumbing, wiring, and insulation come together to form our public and private shelters.