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Michael Carroll’s ‘Little Reef And Other Stories’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

The characters in the moving, innovative stories of Michael Carroll’s debut collection always find themselves just to the side of the world’s attention. In the beautiful “Referred Pain,” the lonely wife of a famous writer entertains graduate students desperate for his approval. In “Barracuda,” a young woman working at a PR firm meets the pop star who is their biggest client. In all of these stories, Carroll explores, with confidence and humanity, lives torn between awareness of all they have and bitter grasping for what they still want.

Little ReefIn the first of the book’s two sections (largely set in Florida), New York City represents the success that the characters long for. In “From the Desk of…Hunter B. Gwathmey,” the book’s first story, a young writer wins a high school writing contest and meets the local literati. For all that at first they strike him as glamorous, he soon realizes they aren’t living the kind of life he hopes for. “I hated Jacksonville, but then it occurred to me, in a sickening, sneak-preview-of-real-life type of revelation, that not everybody could live in New York, and that even some smart, talented people ended up having to make do in the provinces.”

It’s a realization that haunts this collection and its various talented, almost successful characters. “Not everyone was going to be successful,” Carroll writes at one point, “and it was cruel to ask them to try to be.”

Much of the pleasure of the book’s first half lies in Carroll’s depiction of the south. “Florida was a nutty business,” Carroll writes, and he excels at capturing the bizarre mix of awkward politeness and hysteria that characterizes so much of the southern manner. These stories offer one of the most convincing representations I’ve seen of southern speech—not by mimicking accent or dialect, but by tracing the shape of southern talk, with its suspensions and redirections, its sudden fits and starts.

The unpredictable drift of southern conversation may lie behind the unconventional shape of many of these stories. In an interview with the writer Andrew Holleran, Carroll speaks about his desire to break free of the traditional structure of the short story, in which rising action leads to climax, resolution, and epiphany or realization. Instead, he allows his stories to find their way in a looser, less predetermined way, allowing for sudden juxtapositions and unexpected turns and constant, vivifying surprise.

MichaelCarrollIt also allows for the emergence of what may be Carroll’s greatest strength, his ability to inhabit the deep consciousness of his characters. “What was writing except a direct line into someone’s head,” the wife in “Referred Pain” muses, and what makes Carroll’s characters so vivid is the access we’re given to their experience of their own lives.

And so, in “Referred Pain,” when the protagonist has an affair with one of her husband’s students, we experience it with an intimacy beyond mere explicitness: “He dropped his head next to hers and drove the side of his face into the pillow looking the other way. Her hand motions got wider and she felt his thighs relaxing and when he rose up she kissed his chest, too desperately, she thought. You didn’t do anything too desperate, so then she cooled off, tried to make a joke, yet keeping her hands near him.”

This experience of consciousness is nowhere more intense, and nowhere more moving, than in the five linked stories that make up the book’s second half. Each of these stories, which are told in both first and third person, centers on an aspiring writer who is in a long-term partnership, then marriage, with an older, much more successful novelist whose health is in decline.

In everything we learn about their lives, and also in the description Carroll offers of the older writer’s work, we’re invited to imagine that these characters are thinly disguised versions of Carroll and the legendary writer Edmund White, whom Carroll recently married after a relationship of nearly two decades. Like White, the fictional Perry has suffered a series of strokes, and his younger partner, who has spent years preparing manuscripts and keeping house, finds himself increasingly taking on the role of nurse.

“My job was to shop and cook and clean,” says Scott, the younger member of the couple in these stories, “and his was to create.” It’s easy to hear bitterness in the line, and these stories are extraordinarily candid in their depiction of a loving but not easy relationship. “There was no plan for who we were. Night was long for us. We’d go to bed separately. I read, which had become my coping strategy. I could live with him as long as we slept separately.” 

And yet what’s clearest in the stories of Scott and Perry, especially in the extraordinary “Admissions,” is their care for one another, and Scott’s terror at the prospect of an unbearable loss. It’s this terror—the awareness of death—that gives these stories their moral force, and that translates the grasping for fame or achievement into a profounder struggle. And it’s love that finally allows Carroll’s characters to escape—only for a time, but no less authentically for that—from their self-made prisons of jadedness and need.

Invoking the southern religious language that haunts these pages (“One day the Bible would have no effect on Scott at all. But not yet”), the protagonist of “Barracuda” casts a bit of hope in the way of her gorgeous, promising, limited friends: “From emotional midgets—too beautiful to live inside their awfully conflicted selves—sometimes came great, kind gestures, and perhaps they, too, would be saved. Despite their sweet bastard selves.”

Previous reviews...
Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Orlando City Council Files Brief In Support Of Same-Sex Marriage

FloridaIn a 5-2 vote yesterday, the Orlando City Council decided to file a brief in support of same-sex marriage, and in favor of overturning a 2008 ban. The brief argues that marriage equality will provide for a safer and more humane living environment as well as encourage higher levels of job recruitment and tourism in the state of Florida. Currently, attorney general Pam Bondi has vowed to argue against same-sex marriage in several lawsuits (including one filed by six couples in January) but this brief (along with one filed by Miami Beach) is the first to be submitted by a city in Florida and indicates that Bondi has a tougher fight on her hands.

The Orlando Sentinel reports:

Though the city is not party to any of the cases now pending in state and federal courts, Mayor Buddy Dyer sought permission from the City Council on Monday to file a friend-of-the-court brief arguing in favor of same-sex marriage.

The council approved that request in a 5-2 vote. Commissioners Jim Gray and Tony Ortiz, the council's two Republicans, voted no. Gray said it's an issue that doesn't belong before the City Council. Ortiz said his east Orlando district is "very conservative."

BuddyDyerSeveral of the council members articulated quite eloquently the need for same-sex marriage in Orlando (which approved a domestic partnership registry in 2011 and banned workplace and housing discrimination in 2008), and in the state of Florida.

"It's so important to be able to love the person of your choice and have that respected by your state and federal governments," [openly gay commissioner Patty Sheehan] said. "Anybody who stands for discrimination can't just say they have gay friends. … Equality is for everyone, not just who you decide to be friends with."

Dyer (left) argued that being seen as an inclusive city helps with economic development and tourism.

"If you're a city that promotes inclusion and fairness and equality, then you're more likely to attract this generation of knowledge workers who are going to make our city successful in the future," Dyer said. "If you are seen as a city that promotes diversity, you are head and shoulders above those that do not."

Dyer has continually been supportive of equal rights for the LGBT community, and would like to see Orlando as a beacon of progress in the state of Florida.


Vigil For Florida Trans Woman Found Burned to Death

0621_NCLO__Shancez,Yaz'min_t607A vigil was held yesterday for 31-year-old Yaz’min Shancez, a transgender woman living in Fort Myers, Florida. Despite being burnt and hidden behind a dumpster, Shancez’s death was not initially being investigated as a hate crime according to Fort Myers Police Lt. Jay Rodriguez, but have since ruled the death a homicide.

“If you really think about it, a hate crime is killing someone for a specific reason, being black, Hispanic, gay.” Said Rodriguez. “We’re investigating as we would any other homicide.”

Shancez’s death is yet another example of disproportionately high homicide rates borne by trans women of color.

Shancez’s family has erected a memorial to her at the site where her remains were found, and is currently trying to crowdsource funds to give her the funeral she deserves.


Fort Lauderdale Approves Resolution Urging State Leaders to Legalize Gay Marriage

 Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale's city commissioners approved a resolution Tuesday night urging state leaders to take action to legalize same-sex marriage, the New Times reports:

The measure, sponsored by openly gay Commissioner Dean Trantalis, is nonbinding, and asks Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature to make gay marriage in Florida legal.

SeilerAs they had indicated before the vote, Mayor Jack Seiler (pictured) and Vice Mayor Romney Rogers opposed the resolution.

But it passed in a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Trantalis, Bobby DuBose and Bruce Roberts supporting it.

The statement did not appear likely to pass just hours before last night's meeting, NBC Miami reports:

"I got calls today from California, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Orlando, all wanting to know if our chamber was going to step up and step up to the plate," Chad Thilborger, the chair for the Gay and Lesbian Business Exchange said.

Supporters’ biggest fear if the resolution failed was the economic impact. According to the Convention & Visitors Bureau, there are currently 150 LGBT owned businesses in Broward County. Last year there were 1.2 million visitors who spent $1.4 billion dollars, most of that in Fort Lauderdale.

“My fear from an economic impact point of view would have been a Florida boycott with tourism as well as with businesses," Thilborger said. Of the more than 40 speakers, two were against the resolution primarily for religious reasons.

Watch NBC Miami's report, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Fort Lauderdale Approves Resolution Urging State Leaders to Legalize Gay Marriage" »


Wednesday Speed Read: Houston, Rick Perry, Florida, California Primaries

BY LISA KEEN / Keen News Service

NounequalrightsINFLAMMATORY PETITION LAUNCHED:

A “No Unequal Rights Coalition” launched a website Tuesday to circulate petitions in hopes of putting a referendum on Houston’s November ballot to repeal the city’s new non-discrimination ordinance. The top of the petition states, in bold type, “Biological males ARE IN FACT allowed to enter women’s restrooms in Houston under Mayor Annise Parker’s ‘Equal Rights Ordinance’, thereby threatening the physical and emotional safety of our women and children. Her ERO (sic) creates Unequal Rights for a tiny group of people by taking away rights of safety and privacy for the vast majority of our women and children!” The website notes that the group has until June 27 to collect at least 17,000 signatures. If it obtains enough signatures, the issue goes back to the Houston City Council, which can either repeal the ordinance or place the issue on the November ballot.

WhiteCHURCH WARNS OF PREDATORS AND PEDOPHILES:

In a June 2 letter to his congregation, Laurence White, who obtained his doctorate from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, warns that the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance “would (literally) open the door to sexual predators, pedophiles, and rapists to gain easy access to their desired victims with legal sanction.”

PerryPARKER AND PERRY UNITE?

Texas Governor Rick Perry and Houston Mayor Annise Parker held a joint press conference Tuesday to announce a statewide campaign to educate the public about human trafficking. The campaign calls for public services messages on taxicabs, public buses, billboards, and radio and television, encouraging people to call in reports of suspicious activity. According to the mayor’s office, Texas accounts for the second highest number of reports of human trafficking (following California) and Houston the highest number in Texas.

FloridaFLORIDA JUDGE DENIES INTERVENORS:

A Florida circuit court judge in Miami on Tuesday denied a request by three anti-gay groups to intervene in a lawsuit testing that state’s ban on same-sex couples marrying. In Pareto v. Ruvin, Judge Sarah Zabel said the groups, which helped pass the ban, “will not be directly and immediately affected if others enter into a same-sex marriage or are prevented from entering into a same-sex marriage.” The judge said the groups could file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, which is scheduled for a hearing on July 2.

E J_perezARLY RETURNS IN CALIFORNIA:

Openly gay candidates seemed to be doing very well in the early returns of yesterday’s elections in California. Three openly gay state Assembly candidates appeared to handily win their Democratic primary races Tuesday: Incumbent Toni Atkins, who just took over the gavel as the Assembly’s first openly lesbian speaker, and Richard Gordon of Sunnyvale each had 59 percent of the vote soon after the polls closed; newcomer Evan Low had 40 percent (update: wins) in San Jose. Bonnie Dumanis appears to have won her race for San Diego District Attorney with 55 percent of the vote. Kevin Beiser was holding 68 percent (update: wins) in his race for a San Diego Unified School District seat. Jill Ravitch won 69 percent of the vote in her run to be Sonoma County District Attorney. Ken Yeager was uncontested in his race for a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. The question marks at deadline were the first openly gay Speaker of the California Assembly, John Perez (pictured), in a very tight race in his bid to run for State Controller, and Sheila Kuehl is leading the field for a highly contested seat on the Los Angeles County Board. Former West Hollywood Councilman John Duran appears to be trailing in third in that race.

© 2014 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.


Florida Judge Denies Anti-Gay Groups' Motion to Intervene in Marriage Lawsuit

Circuit Court Judge Sarah Zabel denied a motion by three anti-gay groups to intervente in the lawsuit challenging Florida's ban on gay marriage, Equality Florida reports:

FloridaThe groups include Florida Family Action, Inc. (FFAI), Florida Democratic League Inc. (FDL) and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, Inc. (PULSE)—groups that support the discriminatory marriage laws at issue in the case.

Denying their request to be parties in the case, Judge Zabel found that these groups did not have a concrete legal interest in the case because they “will not be directly and immediately affected if others enter into a same-sex marriage, or are prevented from entering into a same-sex marriage.”

The court also noted that the “validity of their own marriages will not be affected,” adding that if these groups could enter the case as parties simply because they have strong beliefs about the issues in the case, “so would anyone who has a strongly held belief regarding the constitutionality of the Amendment and statutes at issue in this suit.”

“Today Judge Zabel reached the proper conclusion in denying extremists seeking a platform for their anti-gay rhetoric the right to intervene in this case,” said Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida Institute, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “This lawsuit is about fundamental, constitutionally protected rights that are violated by a measure that does real harm to our families. We look forward to the day when Florida joins the 19 other states and the District of Columbia, where judges have come to the conclusion that such a ban is indefensible.”

You can read the judge's order here.


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