Wednesday

Dec. 5, 2007

Failure

by Philip Schultz

WEDNESDAY, 5 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Failure" by Philip Schultz, from Failure. © Harcourt, Inc, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Failure

To pay for my father's funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can't remember
a nobody's name, that's why
they're called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.
The rabbi who read a stock eulogy
about a man who didn't belong to
or believe in anything
was both a failure and a nobody.
He failed to imagine the son
and wife of the dead man
being shamed by each word.
To understand that not
believing in or belonging to
anything demanded a kind
of faith and buoyancy.
An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father's business failures—
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis—
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand. Indeed,
my father was comical.
His watches pinched, he tripped
on his pant cuffs and snored
loudly in movies, where
his weariness overcame him
finally. He didn't believe in:
savings insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the essayist and novelist Joan Didion, (books by this author) born in Sacramento, California (1934), who made her name with a series of bleak essays about contemporary life in the 1960s and '70s, collected in the books Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1967), The White Album (1979), and The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Joan Didion said, "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does... Writers are always selling somebody out."


It's the birthday of the essayist and humorist Calvin Trillin, (books by this author) born in Kansas City, Missouri (1935), who started out working for the religion section of Time magazine, which he did not like. He said, "I finally got out of that by prefixing everything with 'alleged.' I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go."

In 1967, Trillin began writing a regular column for The New Yorker magazine called "U.S. Journal," which he saw as a chance to write about ordinary people who didn't usually get covered in the national press. As a result of traveling so much Trillin began eating in a variety of local restaurants, and at a time when most food writers focused on gourmet food from France, Trillin wrote about barbecue ribs in the Midwest. His first collection of food writing was American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater (1974), in which he declared that the top four or five restaurants in the world are in Kansas City. His most recent book is his memoir About Alice (2006).


It's the birthday of the mystery novelist James Lee Burke, (books by this author) born in Houston, Texas (1936). He's best known for his series of detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux, an ex-New Orleans policeman, Vietnam veteran, and recovering alcoholic. The first novel in the series was The Neon Rain (1987) and the most recent, The Tin Roof Blowdown, came out this past summer (2007). Burke said, "I believe that whatever degree of talent I possess is a gift and must be treated as such. To misuse one's talent, to be cavalier about it, to set it aside because of fear or sloth is unpardonable."


It's the birthday of writer John Berendt, (books by this author) born in Syracuse, New York (1939). He was an editor at Esquire magazine when he took a trip to Savannah, Georgia, on a whim. He fell in love with the place and decided he wanted to write a book about it, and the result was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), which broke the record for consecutive weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. It's believed to have increased tourism in Savannah by almost 50 percent.

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