Sunday, March 10, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 6

Darrell Spencer on François Camoin's WHY MEN ARE AFRAID OF WOMEN

Could I, I'd tap dance this appreciation of François Camoin's Why Men Are Afraid of Women. Or I could provide one of those charts that chart the footprints for the tango or the fox trot or even a waltz. The ones that say this is simple, but we know it ain't. I'm looking for the image--the sound, the precise and exacting picture, the acoustical event that is a Camoin story. In his memoir, Some of These Days You'll Miss Me, Honey. Camoin tells us he is not a world-historical man. Never has been. Won't ever be. What his fiction is about is the particular, the idiosyncratic; what his fiction is, in the jargon of our time, is the incoming of the wooly other. We experience this invasion in the stories as accounts of contemporary life. "Miami," the book's first story, opens with the narrator's wife Marge insisting that he touch her belly; she is pregnant, and her belly is "tight as a beach ball": "'Touch it,' she says." The narrator resists; he gets all rhetorical and insists on his self:

What was God thinking when he made us like this? She's a good person, but all this love, all this touching we seem to need. I've got on a new white suit I bought yesterday, and I feel like a fool. I'm not rational this morning, and it's getting worse by the minute. I don't know how to tell her.

The stories throughout the collection enact the event we have learned to theorize but rarely experience until we experience a Camoin story; Caputo tells us that the incoming of the other (Marge in "Miami"; Loveman/Rachel in "La Vida"; Elder/Estrellita/Jamie in "Home is the Blue Moon Cafe"), that "excess or breach that exceeds and shocks our expectation," is, of course, the impossible act that breeds life. We tack, we zig, we zag, we tap dance, we fox trot, we waltz; we read a Camoin story, and there is, if we are reading well at all, an intrusion; we are overtaken, and we overtake in some form of daily and eternal strife.

But content is only part of the man's art. I suppose we have always admired storytelling (or claimed to), but it is in the last twenty or thirty years that, I think, writers like François Camoin have written stories that insist on narrativity itself. This is and is not a matter of prose. My image here is Dustin Hoffman as Ratzo Rizzo, slapping the hood of that cab, announcing, "I'm walking here." It's voice; it isn't voice. It's description; it isn't description. It's not craft; it is a living breathing critter. It is the writing. It's the writer declaring he or she is the writer. It's Lawrence Oliver explaining what acting is all about: "Me. Me. Me." Or even Miles Davis--that is, Listen; here's the give-and-get of human dialogue from "Diehl: The Wandering Years":

"You took your time," she said.
"Troubles on the road."
"For three months."
"Is he all right?" Diehl said.
"He's been worrying about you."

We have salsa, and exchange--the footwork--is loaded, content and sound and rhythm and syntax. And there is the description; here is the opening of "A Hunk of Burning Love":

Gene is already there when I come through the door of the New Deal Cafe and Bar. There's a sausage speared on the end of his fork and he's waving it in Rita's face. Gene's a fat man but a long way from jolly; he can in fact be mean as a snake if you give him half a chance. His hat is on the stool beside him, upside down with his work gloves folded in it. This morning we'll be digging postholes for a new fence in old man Hazzard's pasture.

A lot of writers can nail words to the page, but there is a precision and an eactness in Camoin's fiction that bears down on a reader. Again, I've gone after the analogies: (forgive me a sports one but) the prose is like the golf swing: open the window (the club face), close the window (club face): instruction that belies the complexity of the act. Or it's like riding an elevator with your savvy NY, NY uncle, the one who beautifully returns badly prepared food and tips big, the one who spins the world on one finger and leaves it hanging in the air.

From the last story in the collection, "Sometimes the Wrong Thing is the Right Thing":

I am nervous and as far as I can tell by looking across the table at him Charlie is dazed, puzzled, hopeful. Maybe more than a little sad too. I think he suspects that he and Stella are coming to an end of the road, and there is not much left in life to replace being married, unless you count playing stud poker Friday nights with his buddies from the body sho, and once a year taking a week off to go fly-fishing on a little river in Idaho.

There is a story here, and there are characters, and it all comes together nicely so that we confront what I see as the central loss of anything metaphysical beyond the wet dream that drawing to an inside straight keeps alive; but what matters here is what Miriam Marty Clark identified almost twenty years ago: "[T]he stories I am concerned with hold out not revelation, not a durable or ultimate knowledge, but narrativity itself. The forces that disrupt narrative are met by and converge for a moemnt with the need to tell, the power of telling."

I e-mailed my friend Rob Roberge, and I told him I was going to write a small piece about Why Men Are Afraid of Women. I asked him what he would  say about François writing; he wrote back what is all, I think, that needs to be said: "Hearing François read 'Marty' was the single most influential twenty minutes of my career. And, I thought, if that guy could teach me to write stories anything like that, I'd be happy."

Enough said.

Because: the blues, we know, is about mans and womans, and Mr. Camoin, he can sing them.

Darrell Spencer is the author of CAUTION MEN IN TREES (2000). He is also the Stocker Professor of Creative Writing at Ohio State University. He is the author of the novel, One Mile Past Dangerous Curve, and four story collections, the last of which, Bring Your Legs with You, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize.