Oct. 4, 2010

Small Boats

by Steve Kowit

The California tuna fisherman
who bought my van in Puntarenas
had a son who'd been killed in the war.
I remember sitting in the heat & listening.
He was a bald guy with a bulbous nose,
& a talker. He made his
wife bring in Mike's photo.
Then he started in on the Chinese,
how they were going to take over the world.
"William, don't... please...
no one's interested..."
The coffee cup rattled in her fingers.
Afterwards we bussed back along the coast road,
a thick fog rolling in off the Pacific
like a Sung scroll:
small boats disappearing into the mist.

"Small Boats" by Steve Kowit, from Lurid Confessions. © Serving House Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of humorist Roy Blount Jr., (books by this author) born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1941). He grew up in Decatur, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. He wanted to write humor for the New Yorker Magazine, but he couldn't get a job there, so he took a job at Sports Illustrated magazine instead and wrote a humorous account of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team. That became his first book, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load (1974), which was so successful that he quit his job at Sports Illustrated and has made his living ever since as a freelance writer. His most recent book is Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory (2008).

It's the birthday of the man who said, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong — but that is the way to bet." That's fiction writer and journalist Damon Runyon, (books by this author) born Alfred Damon Runyan in Manhattan, Kansas (1880). His mother died when he was young, and his three sisters grew up with various family members in Kansas. But young Alfred Damon was raised in Pueblo, Colorado, by his dad, who was a gambler, an alcoholic, a literature enthusiast, and a newspaperman.

The boy was kicked out of school in sixth grade for "excessive horseplay" and got a job for his dad's newspaper. By the age of 15, he was recognized as beyond his years in both his writing ability and his ability to drink and chain-smoke. He met all kinds of characters, and he wrote about them for the newspaper and also in his short stories. He spent a few years traveling around and working for papers, and one of them misspelled his last name as "Runyon" instead of "Runyan," so he decided to go with it. He enlisted in the Army, tried and failed to start up minor league baseball in Colorado, and then moved to New York City, where beginning in 1911 he covered baseball for the New York American,one of William Randolph Hearst's papers. After he wrote his first baseball story, his editor informed him that "only Protestants use three names" and crossed out the "Alfred." So Alfred Damon Runyon became Damon Runyon.

Runyon became a legend of baseball writing. When he wrote about baseball, he wrote about the game, but he mixed in gossip, the latest women's fashion, weather, funny quotes, gambling advice, and his opinions about other sports (or anything else, for that matter). Once, he wrote from the perspective of a small boy — another time, from the perspective of a baseball.

And he started publishing short stories as well. Back in Colorado he had loved his father's stories about the Wild West outlaws he had known, and now Runyon sought out the equivalent in New York, the underworld of the Prohibition-era city. He found what he was looking for in the area around midtown Broadway. He himself was an enthusiastic gambler, and he found other gamblers, as well as con men, mobsters, prostitutes, hustlers, and boxers. He made friends with these outsiders, and he spent his nights with them, fitting in easily with their lifestyle even though he had more or less given up drinking after moving to New York, sticking to coffee and cigarettes instead. It was said that he would drink 40 cups of coffee to stay up all night, and then show up for work at the newspaper in the late afternoon looking fresh and clean.

Those characters inspired his fiction — he turned out short stories peopled by characters like Nathan Detroit, Good Time Charley, The Seldom Seen Kid, Little Miss Marker, The Brain, Louie the Lug, Big False Face, Harry the Horse, Madame La Gimp, and the Lemon Drop Kid. Some of the people he met had a particular way of talking where they always spoke in the present tense, so Runyon adopted that, writing in a strange mix of colorful slang and very formal speech, with no contractions and always in the present tense. One of Runyon's first books of short stories was called Guys and Dolls (1932), and his story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" inspired the musical Guys and Dolls (1950). His friends ranged from celebrities to criminals (and sometimes both), and the list included Jack Dempsey, Arnold Rothstein, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, and Walter Winchell.

He was married twice, first to the woman for whom he gave up drinking — but that didn't last, and his wife ended up an alcoholic herself. The second marriage was to a Mexican woman named Patrice Amati del Grande, whom he had first sighted many years before at the races in Juárez when Hearst sent him down to Mexico to cover the antics of Pancho Villa (whom, of course, he managed to befriend). Patrice was just a girl, and she was sitting with Pancho Villa, and Runyon thought that she was absolutely beautiful, plus she picked the winning horse and he didn't. She was 12 years old, she was illiterate, but he was determined. He told her that she should go to school and learn to read, and when she was older she should come to New York and he would get her a job as a dancer. So he paid for her to go to convent school, and it was almost 10 years later that she showed up in New York and got in touch with the New York American looking for him. As promised, he found her a job, and once he got divorced from his first wife, he married Patrice and told people that she was a Spanish countess. But that marriage ended when Patrice left her husband for a younger man.

Damon Runyon died of throat cancer in 1946.

He said, "I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is 6 to 5 against."

It's the birthday of Anne Rice, (books by this author) born Howard Allen O'Brien in New Orleans (1941). Her parents were Irish Catholics, and also free spirits, and they thought it would be great fun to name their daughter after her father, whose name was Howard. But she hated it so much that she changed her name to Anne when she was in first grade.

Anne was one of four girls, and she said that they were all a little weird, grew up isolated and strange like the Brontë sisters. They created fantasy worlds and made up horror stories together, and they liked to wander through cemeteries for fun. And while they walked through the streets of New Orleans, past falling-down mansions, their mom would tell them stories of horrible things that had happened inside. Even though Anne was fascinated by ghosts and violence, she was also a devout Catholic, so devout that she wanted to be a nun for a while. But when she was 14, her mother died from alcoholism, and her dad moved the family to Texas. Here Anne became a normal teenager, had friends, and edited her school's paper. She gave up Catholicism, inspired by the defiance of 1960s counterculture. She went to college and ended up marrying her high school sweetheart.

They moved to Berkeley, Anne got her MFA in Creative Writing, and they had a daughter. But her daughter died of leukemia at the age of five, and Anne's life fell apart. The only things she could do to cope were to drink and write. She worked on a story she had been reworking for years, a story about vampires in New Orleans. She had most of the plot in place, but she said that the vampires themselves were like cartoon characters, that they looked and talked and thought like the most stereotypical vampires. She had already decided that her main character, Louis, was haunted by the death of his brother, and suddenly Anne Rice was able to identify with Louis, and she channeled all her grief and rage and confusion into his character. She turned her manuscript into Interview with the Vampire (1976). The entire novel is an interview between a young reporter and Louis, who is a very reflective vampire.

Interview With The Vampire started out slowly, but it ended up a huge best-seller. Rice wrote more books about the same vampires, a series called The Vampire Chronicles. She also wrote stories about witches, and she even tried her hand at erotica. Then, after her conversion back to Catholicism in 1998, she wrote a series of books about the life of Christ. Her books have sold almost 100 million copies.

This year she's been getting a lot of attention because she announced on her Facebook page last summer that after 12 years, she was leaving the Catholic Church and organized religion in general. Her newest novel, Of Love and Evil, is due out at the beginning of November, a novel about angels.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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