Jan. 7, 2007

Guys Like That

by Joyce Sutphen

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Poem: "Guys Like That" by Joyce Sutphen. Used with permission of the author

Guys Like That

Drive very nice cars, and from
where you sit in your dented
last-century version of the
most ordinary car in America, they

look dark-suited and neat and fast.
Guys like that look as if they are thinking
about wine and marble floors, but
really they are thinking about TiVo

and ESPN. Women think that guys
like that are different from the guys
driving the trucks that bring cattle
to slaughter, but guys like that are

planning worse things than the death
of a cow. Guys who look like that —
so clean and cool — are quietly moving
money across the border, cooking books,

making deals that leave some people
rich and some people poorer
than they were before guys like that
robbed them at the pump and on

their electricity bills, and even
now, guys like that are planning how
to divide up that little farm they just
passed, the one you used to call home.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote The Exorcist (1971), one of the most popular novels of the 1970s, William Peter Blatty, (books by this author) born in New York City (1928).

It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker, (books by this author) born in Rochester, New York (1957). He started out wanting to be a musician, and was good enough at the bassoon that he got into the Eastman School of Music. He planned to become a composer, and then one day he saw his mother laughing uncontrollably at a New York Times Book Review essay on golf by the writer John Updike. Baker later wrote, "[My mother's laughter] was miraculous, sourced in the nowhere of print. ... Nothing is more impressive than the sight of a complex person suddenly ripping out a laugh over some words in a serious book or periodical."

At that moment, Baker decided that instead of becoming a composer, he wanted to be a writer. He supported himself as an office temp and a technical writer and spent years trying to produce a novel, but he had a terrible time with plot. So he wrote a novel with almost no plot at all, just details about ordinary life that he'd been thinking about for years. And the result was The Mezzanine (1988), an entire novel that takes place during an office worker's lunch hour, while he travels to a store to buy a new shoelace.

Baker has gone on to write a book about his obsession with John Updike, U and I: A True Story (1991), and a novel about a single erotic phone conversation between two strangers, called Vox (1992). His most recent book is Checkpoint (2004), about a man who wants to assassinate the president.

It's the birthday of novelist, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, (books by this author) born in Notasulga, Alabama (1891). She was working full time as a live-in maid when, in 1920, she enrolled in Howard University. Her first story, "Spunk," was published in Opportunity magazine in 1925, when it won second prize in a fiction contest. At the awards dinner, Hurston met author Fanny Hurst, who hired Hurston as her assistant and arranged for her to receive a scholarship to Barnard College. While in New York, Hurston published the "Eatonville Anthology," a series of 14 brief sketches, some only two paragraphs long, including glimpses of a woman beggar, an incorrigible dog, a backward farmer, the greatest liar in the village, and a cheating husband.

She eventually became part of the Harlem Renaissance. And it was there, in Harlem, in just seven weeks, that she wrote her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). It's the story of a black woman in rural Florida named Janie Crawford and her three marriages: the first to the farmer Logan Killicks, who treats her like a slave, the second to the politician Jody Starks, who treats her like a queen, and finally to the penniless Tea Cake Woods, with whom she finally finds true love.

Although for a time Hurston was the most prolific and most famous black woman writer in America, interest in her work faded away in the 1950s, and so did her money. She worked at odd jobs for the next 10 years, writing a few magazine articles every now and again. She wrote three novels that were rejected for publication. Her death in 1960 in a welfare home went largely unnoticed, and she was buried in an unmarked grave.

It's the birthday of cartoonist and illustrator Charles Addams, (books by this author) born in Westfield, New Jersey (1912). By 1935, he had a contract with The New Yorker to draw cartoons for them; he also sold cartoons to Life, Collier's, and Cosmopolitan. In 1937, he began to draw cartoons featuring a macabre family, including Morticia, Lurch, Wednesday, Pugsley, Grandmama, and Thing, characters that eventually became known as the Addams Family.

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