Last spring I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles where I was very impressed by the quantity and the quality of small literary journals in the exhibit hall. There’s far more of them out there than you probably suspect.
I had nearly no money to spend, no cash that is, and very few of the small presses are actually big enough to accept plastic, so I didn’t get very many. But, I did buy a copy of The Pinch which is put out by the University of Memphis and The Santa Monica Review which is put out by Santa Monica College. I’ve a friend who worked for The Pinch while in graduate school and someone from The Santa Monica Review was giving away free copies as fast as people would take them. So I took one.
For this round I read the first two pieces in each: Silver State by Ashley Farmer and Contact by Ryan Ridge in The Santa Monica Review and Homecoming by Justin Carroll and My Murderer’s Futon by Sarah Viren from The Pinch.
All four pieces were good. The Santa Monica Review pieces were good but not great. I liked Ms. Farmer’s a bit more than I did Mr. Ridges’s but Contact really was not my cup of tea, so I should disqualify myself a bit. Since I’m the only judge for this little tournament, that’s not really an option. I was struck that both stories featured abusive police officers. Has this just become an accepted trope now? Are we at the point where decent behavior from the police is just not believable in fiction anymore?
Ms. Farmer’s story is about a young woman whose relationship has just ended. She is driving east from Los Angeles towards the mountains where she hopes to join a group of women who are prospecting for silver in an abandoned mining town when she is pulled over by a police officer. At first she things go along well, but when the young officer realizes she is going to join the all women’s mining camp, things turn a bit ugly.
Contact is about a young man who runs into an old acquaintance. The two spend the bulk of the story doing drugs and talking about stuff people who are doing drugs talk about. It was well written, but I’m over this story. Keep your drug induced ranting to yourself and stay off my lawn!!! Here the bad police officer was just an off-the-cuff mention about a time on of the two young men was picked up by the cops who did not take kindly to his behavior to say the least.
I found the first piece in The Pinch to be more of the young men talking under the influence type stuff for the most part. Homecoming rises above this genre due to its setting, a small Montana town about to be overcome by an enormous wild-fire. The people in town hang on as long as they can, have their annual Homecoming parade though ashes are falling all around them and the football team is wearing oxygen masks so they’ll still be in shape for the big game.
I can’t say how people would behave in Montana, but we’re no strangers to wild-fires here in California. While I’m sure there are people who wait as long as they can before evacuating, no one would stay in town to be in a parade not with ashes falling all around them. We’ve seen what can happen and we know what to do. Get out of Dodge before the traffic gets really bad and while you can still get a cheap motel room.
But that aside, the story is well written, just too many young men doing things they shouldn’t be doing. I have to say, after reading two stories in a row like this I began to wonder why no one ever writes about the kids in high school who are working hard to get into the best colleges. I know they’re out there. I know they read stories so there must be plenty of them who write them. Why do the bad students get so much press?
What put The Pinch into the win column for me was Sarah Viren’s non-fiction piece My Murderer’s Futon. Through an odd fluke of events, Ms. Viren found herself living in a Galveston, Texas apartment with famed killer and cross-dresser Robert Durst’s old furniture. While Robert Durst was eventually acquitted on self-defense grounds, most people who followed the case believe he was guilty of murder. If only they could have found his victim’s head. It’s kind of a long story.
When Ms. Viren moved to Galveston to take a job as a crime reporter for the local paper she rented an apartment from Robert Durst’s old landlord. She didn’t rent his apartment, but she did need furniture and the old landlord happened to have all of Durst’s old furniture in a nearby garage. Would she mind sleeping on a murderer’s futon? No, she would not. Nor his television, his kitchen table and chairs, his VCR, his lamp, etc.
The mix of reportage about the Durst case and life with the murderer’s furniture made for amusing reading. It was creepy in an entertaining way. Like a story just a little too dark for This American Life. I liked it a lot.
The Pinch advances to the next round.