Welcome back to The Book I Read with Michael Jarmer Writer Guy, a podcast/blog series where I talk about books and reading, writing, listening, teaching and learning. It’s October, the leaves continue coming down, and, at my place in particular, surrounded as we are by gigantic oak trees, a few more weeks from now and we will be utterly buried in leaves. I’m feeling a little congested today, because, as you may or may not know, Oregon is on fire. We’re safe here, just dealing with some super chunky air quality.
For those of you who are new to this series or have just forgotten, I belong to a rich community of graduates from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. I have made efforts during the course of my little project here to talk and write about fiction writers and poets who have become friends of mine from this incredibly inspiring group. Over the last weeks, and years, our community has lost a number of significant, dear luminaries, teachers from the program, colleagues and peers. My thoughts have been that perhaps one of the best ways to celebrate the life of a literary touchstone would be to read their work. So, over the last couple of weeks, I have dedicated all of my reading time to one fiction writer and two poets, all of whom have recently left us, all of whom have had immeasurable influence on me and on this tight community of writers from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson. Today I hope to talk about the fiction writer, Kevin McIlvoy, and to save a dedication to the two poets for my next episodes.
While I was a student at Warren Wilson, I never had the good fortune to be assigned Kevin McIlvoy as an advisor, but I knew even then he was extraordinarily popular, a highly coveted mentor during the process we all simultaneously loved and dreaded, that process where the program directors and staff were matching students to the appropriate advisers. I’d seen McIlvoy give lectures. I had seen him give readings. One in particular I remember: an uproariously funny story about piano movers. I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard at a literary reading. It was clear that the man was fiercely intelligent, hilarious, and universally beloved. So, not having had a personal teacher/student relationship with him, over the years our paths would cross from time to time, on social media, or (a particularly vivid memory), meeting in person once at the AWP conference when it was held in Portland, a couple of decades or more after I was a student at Warren Wilson. I was astounded that he remembered me, called me by my name, treated me with generosity and enthusiasm, the kind of which you would expect from someone you knew well. Through my limited experience with the man, it was clear that kindness exuded from him. Even if he didn’t know you well, he made you feel welcome and cared for. And after his death, story after story, anecdote after anecdote came flooding one after the other in the comments streaming through Facebook, an out-pouring of love and affection for this man, for his brilliance as a fiction writer, his genius and generosity as a teacher, and his kindness as a human being.
I am somewhat embarrassed to say, that up till now, I had never read a book by Kevin McIlvoy. It had to have been several years ago now, I purchased a collection of stories, but I had never gotten around to reading them. So, what I want to share with you today is my first experience with the fiction of Kevin McIlvoy. I have no way of knowing if this collection, titled 57 Octaves Below Middle C, is typical of his work or not. To the best of my knowledge, this collection must’ve been the second or third to the last book he published in his lifetime, so it’s recent–2017.
Typically, when one approaches a collection of short stories, the cover text will inform you of that fact—in the case of 57 Octaves Below Middle C, nowhere on the cover does it say “stories.” So, at first, a reader may or may not know what they are getting into, and while the table of contents reveals approximately 43 distinct titles, or, you might assume, due to the lack of conventional capitalization in most cases, 43 distinct language things that might be titles or the first lines of chapters; it’s really difficult to know for sure what you are approaching. For some reason I can’t explain, I approached this book as a novel. I was three pieces into the collection before I was completely disabused of this notion.
At 167 pages, divided up into 43 individual pieces, some exceedingly short, none of them longer than say seven or eight pages, one might think that this would be a quick read—but I was thoroughly surprised about how long it took me to finish—and I think this happened for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is that once one finishes a short story, one might take some time to reflect—and knowing that what comes next is likely distinct and independent from what was just read, a break might be welcomed. An opportunity to cleanse the palate. Or, because we suffer these days from exceedingly short attention spans, we find ourselves finishing a story and then going for a snack, or reaching for our stupid smart phones or doing some household chore. I think all of this was applicable to my experience. But most importantly, I think, after reading a story from this collection, my brain felt so thoroughly exercised and occupied—often baffled, often befuddled, almost always bemused—I was kind of exhausted. I probably never in this experience read more than four or five pieces in a single sitting, about 10 or 15 pages at a time. Let me try to explicate my befuddlement–
These were the strangest stories I have read in a long, long while. Donald Barthelme comes to mind, with his tales of falling dogs and zombies and porcupines at the university, absurdities abound, the dialogue is full of what appears often to be non-sequitur exchanges, and like Joyce’s Wake or Burgess’s Clockwork, the language sometimes is off the charts playful, poetic, and musical to the point of feeling like maybe that’s the point—and that is not a criticism: it’s perfectly sound and reasonable and rewarding when playfulness is, poetry is, or music is the point. . .I suspected throughout, however, that there was more going on here—even if after a first reading of a story I could not tell you what it was. One thing was certain: these are stories that often beg for a second reading. Or a third.
But let’s begin with the absurdities:
- a man unwittingly joins a cult of Japanese lawnmower enthusiasts when he answers an ad from Basho for the sale of a Japanese brand Lawnmower.
- A man suffering from an extreme migraine vomits in the yards of all the neighbors on his block.
- A character referred to only as The Client is undergoing some sort of medical procedure or test that measures thought and feeling.
- A character referred to as Teacher Reptile goes on several rants laced with the lingo or slang of skateboarding—so intensely laced—that McIlvoy provides a glossary at the end of the book. More on this later.
- Two men are (accidentally? or deliberately?) locked inside of a freezer truck.
- Later, in a separate story, one of these men, the one that survived the freezer truck captivity, robs a bank and delivers three hold-up notes to three different tellers—simultaneously? In succession? In which he demands from each $70.70 cents, and somehow, kindly, gently, implicates all three of them as if they were accomplices.
- And there are stories with these oddly unconventional titles—here’s one: “The thing—the foot ruler thing—in the shoe store—it tells your size? I can’t remember what it is called. What is it called?” which is a story about exactly what you would think it would be about! And here’s another: “A word to Teacher Reptile’s readers and their parents on the occasion of Father’s Day and the anniversary of Teacher Reptile’s release from Eight Gates Correctional Facility.” It’s like a terribly long-winded news article title—onionesque in its absurdity, but with a more nuanced humor. Here’s the title of the opening story: “Basho, poet, diarist, recluse, sells lawn mower—used but like new.” Now, for the uninitiated, it’s strange enough but not impossible that a poet, diarist, recluse is selling a lawn mower, but if you know who Basho is, a 17th century Japanese poet, another layer of absurdity is piled on. Has Basho somehow lived into the 21st century—or is this just some guy, a cult leader, poet, diarist, recluse who just happens to share Basho’s name selling a lawn mower?
Several of the stories in this collection are linked. There are three Teacher Reptile pieces, the freezer guy shows up in at least two different stories. The Client makes a number of appearances as does his fellow hallucination, Deer Food, the name he has given to a fat, talking squirrel. There are a number of stories about a group of musicians in a band called Foggy Mountain Boys and a few pieces that take place in a town called Extraellaville. A couple of stories are set inside of a rehab center or nursing home. And other stories stand alone, without any companion pieces, but work with the whole nevertheless by continuing to provide surprises at every turn. One thing about the stories in this collection is that it is impossible to predict where they will go, how they will sound, what they will mean. And yet there is a consistency—a sense of unity between the disparateness—Is it tone? Is it the fireworks of the language? Is it the sense that you might be reading poetry after all? Is it the humor? Although, it must be said, that not all of these pieces are funny. Case in point: in the story “I was watching the movie, edited,” a man visits his ex-wife and her new husband and finds himself, with them, watching a home-movie out of which he has been edited. This piece is only two pages long—but it conveys the man’s sense of being a stranger in his own family—a blended family now, that, despite having “no intention of excluding [him] in any way,” has redacted his presence entirely from the film. And the heart-breaking last line about the experience of watching this home-movie: “We watched it 4 times, with little breaks in between.” Nothing funny about that—and nothing funny about the responsibility the narrator takes for the demise of his marriage and the sincere wish he holds for the future happiness of the new couple. McIlvoy, in a very condensed space, has illustrated the paradoxical nature of this new reality of a divorcee.
Before I conclude, I gotta talk about the Teacher Reptile stories. In part, because they seem central, take up more space than other linked stories in the collection, but at the same time, they are extraordinarily difficult to unpack. But I don’t think I can talk about them yet—until I reread them. So give me a second:
Okay, I’m back. From the three stories that feature the character of Teacher Reptile, these are my conclusions or observations:
- Teacher Reptile is not a reptile.
- Teacher Reptile is an ex-convict, having served a number of years in prison for a crime that is not particularly clear or explicit. “Murder-threatened some” is as close as we get in the first story—about which, his crime, our narrator reports: “Remorse Ancient Teacher Reptile possesses not.”
- He’s also a writer—he has composed, while he was in prison, seven volumes of a book, or a series of books referred to as The Wraths. His books appear to be popular with children and their parents, I think: the children of adults who are all ex-convicts.
- Teacher Reptile has a kind of savior quality for his fans—he speaks, and the narrator speaks about him, like some kind of amalgam of Jesus and Yoda—and the diction is chockfull of skater slang, literary allusions, what feels sometimes like Black English Vernacular, and what sounds full-on, especially in the second and third stories, biblical.
- Teacher Reptile is also known as a “disc jackey.” So music is also central to this character’s identity. Slightly veiled allusions to 80’s punk bands The Clash and The Smiths make appearances.
- The second Teacher Reptile story, titled “Greetings from Teacher Reptile on the Occasion of Father’s Day and the Publication of the Final Volume of the Wrath Septology,” gives a little more background as to what this individual may have experienced to set him on his unconventional path: his father leaves the family at his birth and his mother dies when he is 12. As a young’un, he must have already been a serious skater—and in one of the most quote unquote conventional passages in this series of story—we have a description of his last memory of his mother:
Bless us, O Lord, for these thy poisons that answer the prayers of the child learning murder. On my birth-morning twelfth that was her last, I asked her would she go with me to the lot to check my one mad skill. She brought the pastor who dealt us as a pair. She watched. She had never seen.MCilvoy, 57 Octaves Below Middle C
“What is that?” she asked me, her son, bait, juicy steak. “What is that where you go up and. . .?” And she and pastor wolf-laughing howled when I told them.
“Ollie. Tic Tac. Nollie.”
Later in that morning cameth I to she who pierceth me and cause me to wail. I fed the mother serpent the last portion.
Her eyes like unto the furnaces of torment she showeth me them the light eaten out, and I saw her suspect, no grindage, trick-sketchy, mobbed, plagued-mad and hamster-fetus homeless dead by my twelfth.
I called this passage quote unquote conventional only insofar as it’s one place where there sits a kind of narrative that is easy enough to wrap one’s head around. But what’s not clear, or, what remains mysterious, is how or why his mother dies—and whether or not he is in any way responsible. What are the “poisons” Teacher Reptile feels blessed by? What is meant that Teacher Reptile feeds “the mother serpent the last portion”? And at the same time our brains are constantly trying to connect the pieces—between the ex-convict, his literary art, his skating, his disc “jackeying,” the deaths of his parents, the nature of his criminality, and the paradoxical nature of his hero/savior status.
In the final and third story—here’s the title, it’s a mouthful: “And after these cries, I, Teacher Reptile, heard a dementer on the bank say to me from the lake of fire, “This is the second death” and “Here there shall be more pain”–, we get a more complete picture of Teacher Reptile’s formation as a creative, at least from what I understand, a formation instigated or inspired by a character he calls Uncle, the caretaker who would take on the responsibility of the young Teacher Reptile after the death of his mother. In a new abode, he is given by the Uncle a room of his own and seven keys to unlock doors in a seven-story tunnel that burrows under this room. Here’s a passage that describes what I think Teacher Reptile discovers inside the tunnel:
From that hour, the tree of life, which bear seven manner of fruit, yielded its fruits. I had table, board, food, board, bed, board, friends technical. Every several gate was of one pearl, each pearl full of eyes within: the books. The books—the books!—the dream-ramps, the books, the brain-noggles, the books like daddy-lap, daddy-arms the books, the airwalk grabs—the books and the books!—the paradises of sets to bust. The books the torpedo-quiet when-you’re-sleeping kisses. The splenic traumas leaping in, leaping out louder than bombs, the hunting-for-me books, the blood-on-their-jowls books. They opened unto me the strangeways, the garageland.McIlvoy, 57 Octaves Below Middle C
Okay, so it appears that something wonderful has happened—that somehow the Uncle has revealed to the boy the wonders of literacy and the power of literature. When I read this the first time I thought those Smiths references, to the albums Louder Than Bombs and Strangeways, Here We Come might have been a trick of coincidence, but no—in a subsequent passage there are also hints at the band’s name and Morrissey’s name. And I’m not sure how they fit into this epiphany, the transformative moment—other than the way in which these album titles might describe the sensation of discovering literature in this enormous way. Louder than Bombs. Strangeways, Here We Come. So they are associative—and fun—for now we’ll leave it at that.
Okay—so this revelation happens, which might be the pivotal moment in which the seeds of literary greatness are planted in Teacher Reptile. But remember that title—the title of this last piece–“And after these cries, I, Teacher Reptile, heard a dementer on the bank say to me from the lake of fire, “This is the second death” and “Here there shall be more pain”–It doesn’t seem to bode well for the future. And, as it turns out, our ex-convict Teacher Reptile goes back to prison! For what, I’m not sure—and as bad as that is . . .
Can I just share with you the conclusion of this piece, and thus, the conclusion of the Teacher Reptile story trilogy, as it is a kind of summing up and a rapturous invocation that belies the title? Here it goes. The last three paragraphs:
Bless us, O Lord, for these thy holy cities of freedom. Bless us for thy prisons in which Teacher Reptile has incarcerated been and in which, at nineteen, all seven of his volumes he outlined in his first four hours of cell-time. Bless us for the nine-year first fraud conviction, and for the release from prison at twenty-eight. Bless us for the seven Wraths visited upon the world in the sixteen rapturing years following. For the old crimes, the incorrigible new, for the second sentence, the second verdict, for the beginning of the long-term without-parole time federal, bless us. Bless us for the return to prison until the Teacher Reptile shall be not less than one hundred and four.
For my kindling is the world border to border, noble barn to noble barn, and I have set afire the amazons and the paper-millions. Wrath-fires I have madeth for the Bible-clinging hands. And produced them bigger Wrath volume greater, longer and more fundamental as they have grown older. And made each book a closer as their minds have sealed closed. The Wrathmore website, launched sacred-glue-psychotic two-oh-one-two, reveals, quoth webwrathmaster, “Teacher Reptile is the only band that matters, the writer for all ages evo-delusional developmentally arrested cometh he, and for their unsaved fathers. Unquietly he cometh. And quickly.”
Seekaa. Seekaa. Seekseek. Seekseek. Seekseek. Seekseek. Seekaaa.McIlvoy, 57 Octaves Below Middle C
It is just difficult to read this without feeling celebratory, uplifted, tickled, hopeful, even though we’re told that Teacher Reptile will serve his sentence until he is one hundred and four! And this last paragraph, which consists of only this one nonsense word with slight variation over and over, Seekaa, Seekaa—a motif that occurs in all three Teacher Reptile stories and that leaves us with this one final puzzle as to the word’s significance and general weight in these stories. The best I can do, after a long time thinking it was a proper noun—as if the speaker is calling out to a particular person—is to conclude that, rather, the word is a descriptive noun—it resembles the word “seeker”—as in one who seeks. And in the reading and the writing, the skating and the disc “jackeying,” the preaching and the praying, the references sprinkled about to both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and to punk rock, to hero worship—I think as fans of Teacher Reptile, and readers of Kevin McIlvoy’s fiction, we all by necessity must become seekers—we are called out, over and over, to continue seeking.
I have said or written a lot of words about three short stories by Kevin Mc McIlvoy, stories that I am almost certain I do not understand. What I have said about them may be utter nonsense to another reader familiar with these stories and this book, 57 Octaves Below Middle C—which, by the way, is supposed to be the sound the universe makes!—But you know—I’m going to come back to this idea that I have probably expressed here before in my little podcast/blog series—it is one of the cornerstones of my theory of reading and of literature, for what it’s worth. It is possible and maybe preferrable to love a work of literature that you understand imperfectly, to be enthralled by a difficult text, to take pleasure and joy in confusion and in working your way through that confusion, and always to cultivate a sense of humility in the face of whatever it is that you do not understand.
Kevin McIlvoy will be sorely missed—I sorely miss him and I barely knew the guy, so I can only imagine the loss felt by his wife, his family, his friends and colleagues, and his students. He is the kind of person who leaves an indelible and singular mark on the planet and I am grateful beyond measure to have his fiction and his poetry to treasure and read and reread. I look forward next to tackling his last novel, One Kind Favor, published in 2021 by Why There Are Words press.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my 11th episode, the third episode of Season 2, of a podcast/blog series I’m making about books I am reading in a series called The Book I Read. Hope you enjoyed it.
Stay tuned for episode 12. Please come back to give it a listen or a read.
Until then, if you want to learn more about me and the stuff I write and the music I made, please visit michaeljarmer.com or herecomeseverybody.com to read and listen. Look for me on anchor.fm to subscribe and support for as little as .99 per month, or as much as you want. You can contribute to the sustainability of this little endeavor. You can find my novel Monster Talk at Powells.com, amazon.com, you know, almost anywhere you can buy books on line, but support your local bookstore, would you please. If they don’t have my book, they can order it for you. Hey, and get a copy of Kevin McIlvoy’s 57 Octaves Below Middle C directly from Four Way Books or from your online or brick and mortar bookstore.
Thank you so much for tuning in or reading. So long. Be kind. See you next time. Cheers. If you don’t hear from me within the next 10 days, Happy Halloween. Have an abundant autumn, will you please?