The Intimidator Still Lives in our Hearts: Re-Introducing Gary Amdahl, the Inland Empire's Chekhov

The far and wide of readerly reach is often rewarded with time to linger, camp out, even put down roots in that place where resides, writes, exists a favorite writer, a discovery, a prize, a locale in which things happen which further complicate, define, explain and challenge. Devotion to artists, writers in good times and bad is earned, surely, but finding an affinity with and an empathy for is the joy of being a fan, a disciple even. I am that way about the English novelist Penelope Lively, about the American novelist Meg Wolitzer, about the fabulist composer of alternative social studies in dreams Stanley Crawford, about my mentor Jim Krusoe.  And they are just a few of the living ones. Among those gone, well, don't get me started: Vonnegut, Heller, Grace Paley, James Baldwin. Lucky for us (and for him) the Inland Empire's Gary Amdahl is alive and kicking, if gently and consistently and elegantly, at the expectations of readers and yet, always somehow meeting them and beyond, a reader's reader and a writer's writer and this reviewer's champion. 

Yes, the somber-seeming fellow in the Hawaiian shirt is my writer of the week, my "I dare you"  challenge. Trust me. In his most recent short stories, out now in a new collection titled The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts, and in his previous collections and novellas, Amdahl offers surprise after surprise so that if you've read nearly all his work (as I have), you wonder at your own gullibility or faith, need or desire, expectations and how to measure your satisfaction. I swear I stopped at one point in reading a new story, set down the book, and wondered out loud to my wife about how, exactly, Amdahl was going to complicate, turn, answer or otherwise write his way out of the plot or premise and do that thing that he does: square a circle, or circle a square. 

I did not, could not, would absolutely not (!) linger or wait for an answer to my largely rhetorical question.  Lo, it was quiet and the book demanded it, so I quickly picked it up again and continued. And, yes, it arrived, that complication or detail or development which - how to say this - revealed what the author had been doing all along and which I, one of his biggest fans, had still somehow not anticipated, not exactly. 

To hose myself down a bit here and fill you in, toward offering a more reasonable and less 
ecstatic introduction up front, here are the facts, or something like them.  Amdahl, from Minnesota, won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize for his first collection, Visigoth. The prize is a big deal, with Susan Straight a winner for her Aquaboogie, for instance. Other aspects of his life seem shrouded in mystery or irony, but the record indicates he completed university, studied and wrote plays, won a fellowship and a couple of other prizes. He taught, and worked at Dutton's in Brentwood, and married a wonderful and successful fellow-writer and lives in Redlands and seems to have struggled with writing but built an impressive publication history - in Fiction, The Gettysburg Review, Gordon Lish's The Quarterly and, yes, Santa Monica Review, lucky us - which has earned him a following, as they say, a reputation, fans like me whose devotion, alas, exceeds sales or magazine profiles or reviews. Screw that. 

Amdahl answered with two novellas, packaged cheerfully as I am Death, after one of the two (I am Death: Bartleby the Mobster, about an investigative journalist who finds himself doing some unlikely work ghost writing for a gangster.)  While Visigoth seemed to be in some large part about existentially fragile tough guys and weaklings and 
varieties of hollow male stereotypes challenged, revealed, painfully considered, it is the writing and its near-operatic syntax and elegant construction at sentence level that both adorns this socio-philosophical character critique and which causes one to, well, hum along. Here's the opening of "The Volunteer," following an epigraph from Conrad.

"William Axelsen, a young man of mild features and demeanor, possessed of no certain skill but well employed, given to musing inventories of himself and even to melancholy dreams of a skill and the violent or at least consequential and illustrious exercise of it, picked up another piece of firewood, oak split and dried so long it seemed weightless, almost feathery, and knelt with it before the stove."

And that, friends, is just the first sentence. Bill has problems, which as the Conrad suggests, result in part from his "expression of [his] faith in the safety of [his] surroundings." They are not safe. No. This is a story about, well, hockey and violence and maleness built on fear, and embarrassment. It is, as so many of Amdahl's stories, about freedom. 

With the new collection arrive stories both bigger and closer, simultaneously. In "The Breezeway" we are given loss (in a death) and abundance, sensory too-much-ness, the evocation of childhood perception told from the distance of years of adult reckoning and puzzling. "When, for Christ's sake, when did I come to know what I know now? How could I have failed to mark the date, the moment, how could I not remember where I was? I must have known something from the very beginning, but did not, could not, understand it."

There is more autobiography and autobiographically playful asking and answering of above question in the other short, long and very long short stories in this collection. Rereading some published already, I find I might understand better now the playwright Amdahl as in the longer stories especially (the title one, about driving the freeway, Dale Earnhardt, working at Dutton's and "We Whistled While We Worked," about early century textile workers), where one is focused onto a small story only to have the stage grow, the bigger world arrive, the implications fall into place like a pleasingly dreamed, expected, imagined set. Aha, that is where we are, were, all the time!  

Helpfully, the stories are arranged in autobiography and meta-fiction, with a mirror-self story and playfully (if darkly) organized doubt-suggesting author mea culpa-fest first. Borgessian, by way of Minnesota I guess. Then arrive the transitionally longer ones, with the real Gary Amdahl morphing into a character. The "Me is someone else" from the first section becomes full someone or someones else. But with a clear and active pulling of puppet strings and the tension of a rip in the curtain. The last three or four stories are fully choreographed character-driven stories now animated completely by author Gary Amdahl, drawn and dramaturged and staged by that guy to whom we were introduced as self-doubting author, cracked mirror image, memory interrogator. Some deal. (Needless to say, I recommend you indeed read the pieces in this order.  Or don't. Tell me what happens.)

The stories are mostly about how to account for the unaccountable. Dreams interfere, inform, complicate the story lines until, whammo, they don't, and what is plot and history and recognizable persons emerge to make things urgent in a fleshy way. You know that nearly-worn theatrical (Chekhov) warning, advice about the gun in the first act and what has to happen later?  Maybe it's that Amdahl's characters don't. So closely do we readers become them that we forget we are readers, audience, people with free will.

I love this writer's sentences, so much so that I have of course forgotten to anticipate the weapon, or anything else, only there to live the line, re-live, speak it out loud, look at the birdie, Andrew, oops you didn't see the hockey stick.  

So I leave you this morning with the heartfelt advice to buy and read this book, and with another killer sentence, this one from that long story about "propaganda of the deed" and the direct action of one of the textile worker circa 1910, one of the most successfully organized and furnished and articulated stories of Amdahl's.

"The father had been employed for several years as a matchmaker, which meant that he worked unshielded over great tubs of white phosphorus, the fumes of which in that cramped and dirty, unventilated shop rose up and hung in the air like the ghosts of all the tyrants of history and prehistory, or like fallen angels from which even evil had been wasted, leaving only a radiant, naturally occurring poison.

And that's just the second page. Damn! How can Gary Amdahl even do that? As it happens, he pretty much tells us in the final, beautiful, ecstatic story in the collection, "Night, Mystery, Secresie, & Sleep," a story so powerful that I cannot, will not speak of it here. (I'm quite serious.)

Calendar: UC Irvine on Thursday!  Great American Write-In Next Weekend. Festival of Books After That.

In a springtime blog post a middle-aged man's fancy turns lightly to thoughts of love, books,
 literary events, which are bustin' out all over. Here's what's up this week, and beyond, locally and a bit further depending on how far your reach allows.  First, travel writer (a woefully inadequate description) and all-around fiction and nonfiction master Pico Iyer speaks and reads at UC Irvine as part of its Conversations on Writing and Public Life Series. He'll be chatting with the estimable Amy (Farewell, Fred Voodoo) Wilentz on Thursday, April 11 at 3:30 in the terrifically welcoming Humanities Gateway,  where all the cool kids hang out. Room HG 1030.  

Stick around. Get a sandwich and a beer at the Anteater Pub as UCI also hosts novelist and Writing Program alum Alex Espinoza a few hours later.  Thursday, 6 PM in that same comfy room it's another in the Humanities Author Series. The author of a breakout novel titled Still Water Saints will read from and talk about his newest, The Five Acts of Diego Leon.  

Both events are free and open to all.

Espinoza will also be at the upcoming Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 20 & 21, once again at USC. I'll be there, as will about 150,000 other bibliophiles, passing out free copies of the most recent issue of the Santa Monica Review, and doing my best to represent the magazine's sponsor, Santa Monica College. Stand with me there at our friendly booth for more than a few minutes and you'll hear me play the tape loop of an enthusiastic and nearly inexhaustible cultural worker, bragging about SMC's enduring commitment to literacy and the literary arts. I am pretty sure it's the only community college in the country with a nationally distributed lit mag. The Festival, the booth, readings and panels, and hanging out with book people and friends?  A great way to spend a Saturday and Sunday in springtime in So Cal. More on the Festival and schedule of events next weekend.

Though not a lit event, my nearly favorite all-time community gathering and civic hootenany for
 peace and justice the easy, smart, fun way is, of course The Great American Write-In, this year on Saturday, April 13, 9:30 to 1:30.  If you don't dig it immediately, you probably never will. Just to say that the unshyly Left-liberal-progressive feminist anti-racist pro-ecology gals of Women For: Orange County have putting together this genius bit of political picnic for nearly 30 years. I wish they did it four or five times a year or, better yet, other communities would pick up the slack. Simple premise, easy to understand, and a nice place to meet girls. Older, beautiful, political girls! Women For rents the Delhi Community Center in Santa Ana, provides coffee and breakfast, arranges tables staffed by representatives from every bitchin' activist group in the county, and then invites you and me to sit down with others and write a letter based on the issues promoted by your favorite causes: shutting down San Onofre for good, reproductive freedom, universal health care, public transportation, whatever. After a half day of this intensive exercise of epistolary democracy, they collect the letters written to elected officials and other policy makers, affix a stamp, and send your effortlessly composed bit of lobbying along to Sacramento or DC or wherever/whoever you've decided needs to hear from you most. Again, springtime, when life is renewed and, helpfully, by these familiar and reassuring rituals of love for reading and writing and political activism. Women For: Orange County is where you go for directions and more,  

The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts, Gary Amdahl, Aristically Declined Press, 295 pgs., $ 14.00

I am Death: Two Novellas, Gary Amdahl, Milkweed Editions, 216 pgs, $15.

Visigoth, Gary Amdahl, Milkweed Editions, 212 pgs., $15.95

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on 90.7 FM KPFK in Southern California.


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