Boyle on writing

“Take the writers out of the classes, put them in dark cells with a plug for their monitors, a slot at the top of the door for pizza and a slot at the bottom for waste. Every time a finished story comes back out that top slot, you write them a check for a thousand dollars. In six months, you’ll have Tolstoy.”

T. C. Boyle, portions of response to question “What are your teaching methods?” in an interview as published in The Paris Review 155, Summer 2000

Making the grade: A book review of the Graywolf Annual: Short stories

The Graywolf Annual: Short stories
Edited by Scott Walker
A Book Review

Of the twelve short stories in this collection — the very first in the Graywolf Annual series, published in 1985 — only five make the cut; that is, less than half of the collected pieces provide a clear, moving epiphany that generally characterize good fiction.
Yes, the anthology barely makes the grade.
But that’s if you’re looking at it from the bean counter’s perspective.
Overall, the anthology’s not too bad.
In an age of memes, tweets, and status updates, five pieces in this volume provide examples of fiction’s raw, unmediated power, compensating for the shortcomings of the other seven (two of which, by the way, have been previously unpublished).
In no order of importance, these five works are Andre Dubus’ After the Game, Richard Ford’s Winterkill, Elizabeth Cox’s A Sounding Brass, Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins, and Bobbie Ann Mason’s Hunktown.
Those familiar with Dubus will find After the Game hardly a departure from his easy, conversational approach to storytelling.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“I wasn’t in the clubhouse when Joaquin Quintana went crazy,” so goes Dubus’ first line.
Direct and honest, the story provides a warm familiarity similar to slipping into an old shirt or an old shoe.
Ford’s Winterkill, Cox’s A Sounding Brass, and Mason’s Hunktown all feature haunting endings, their protagonists lying in wait for tectonic shifts in their damaged, incomplete lives.
Winterkill’s Les Snow preserves what remains of his personal space by slipping outside unobstrusively to get some time to fish by himself to avoid being noticed by his friends.
A Sounding Brass’s Ginny embraces the challenge of raising her two kids immediately after her husband is killed in a freak hunting accident.
Hunktown’s Joann takes it all in stride, despite what appears to be her second husband’s attempt to move to the city and form his own band and her divorced daughter’s carelessness in managing her own life.
Wolff’s Our Story Begins is no less impressive although factual errors slightly disrupt the narrative action.
Charlie, the main character, eavesdrops on three coffehouse patrons who talk about a priest who brings Miguel Lopez de Constanza, a Filipino, into San Francisco.
The whole story is implicitly premised on the fact that Filipinos living in 1980s Philippines speak Spanish.
“Let’s say that for some reason, you, Truman, find yourself in Manila dead broke. You don’t know anybody, you don’t understand anything anyone says, and you wind up in a hotel where people are sticking needles into themselves and nodding out on the stairs and setting their rooms on fire all the time. How much Spanish are you going to learn living like that?”
Too bad — cursory research could have easily corrected this wrong impression, even during that time when the internet was a pipe dream.
Fortunately, the oversight doesn’t prove to be too distracting. Wolff’s piece is still one of the best in the collection.

Sabado nights: a story in eight tweets

Half an hour past midnight finds self-proclaimed protagonist in his self-proclaimed Bat Cave, confident that victuals will last the weekend

Unfortunately, certain cold beverages do not fall under the category of victuals, which explains why he remains awake at this unearthly hour

And so, he continues to Tweet, formulating thoughts into 140 character configurations while warding off the threats posed by sheer thirst.

While Tweeting, he discovers that Oprah Winfrey will end her show in September 2011 — a development best appreciated while nursing a beer.

To thwart outbreak of beverage crisis, self-proclaimed protagonist takes a quick shower, hoping cold water will get mind off beer. Bad move.

The failed strategy is further complicated by tweet from @Kid_Kilatis who mentions Frank Sinatra, bringing images of bars, saloons, women

Situation getting out of hand, protagonist mutters to himself, left hand clutching neck. Will tomorrow night be any different than this one?

Drastic plan change proposed. Instead of spending whole weekend indoors, protagonist promises to leave apartment and purchase more supplies.

Story now ends as protagonist moves on to other plans, including updating his Facebook status as he looks forward to tomorrow night’s beer.

(Certain punctuation regulations were relaxed to comply with Twitter’s 140 character limitation. Some entries didn’t have periods, for instance. Similar attempts in the future will absolutely do away with these oversights. Cropped photo on the top right was taken during the September 2009 launch of San Miguel Brewery Inc.’s Oktoberfest, which was attended by, among others, the Oktobabes, a group of lovely Brazilian women.)

Good books and groceries

books

GOOD books and groceries—like beer and tequila, socialites and squakings—rarely go well together. (I should know—I’ve sworn off tequila more than ten years ago—after having barfed bits of my brain out on a Bacolod to Manila flight minutes prior to touchdown, thanks to copious Cuervo Gold shots chased by beer the night before. Meanwhile, to this day, I remain confused which social category best deserves my working-class rage: uppity Makati coño kids with trust funds or unsophisticated squakings in Quezon City who can’t even ride the train right. But enough of this self-indulgent commentary lest it deteriorate into pure drivel, if it hasn’t already).
As I was saying, good books and groceries don’t go well together.
No one visits a bookstore to get a discount on Kobe beef nor does anyone make a trip to the grocery to try and stumble upon Adrian Cristobal’s Occasional Prose, which remains sadly out of print.
But stranger things have happened.
For more than two years, my wife and I have frequented this grocery, the name and location of which will not be disclosed for reasons that will become self-evident later.
Just last year, the establishment suddenly decided to put up two stalls filed with used, cheap books, many of which I would have been proud to call my own.
Acting on this impulse, I have, in various trips to the said grocery store, I have amassed a number of excellent titles.
Take my recent trip last week.
While my wife was busy figuring out what needed to be restocked in our household—not exactly rocket science for a two-member, one feline family—I trooped to the used-book stands and immediately scanned titles for possible finds. It was, by far, the best decision I have ever made regarding anything faintly related to groceries.
Besides acquiring the 29th issue of Granta, a UK-based literary quarterly, I also got myself a copy of the Granta Book on the Family, a special anthology featuring memoirs of American short story writer Raymond Carver, among others. The last, but not the least, of my literary haul was Best Music Writing of 2004, published by Da Capo press, which I am reading right now.
All three books—expensive-looking trade paperback editions in good condition—set me back by approximately P300, far cheaper than the latest issue of Granta, occassionally sold at Fully Booked for P700 or so.
On another occasion, I have bought Sleeping with Extra Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety by Atlantic Monthly columnist Wendy Kaminer, Bad Elements by journalist Ian Buruma, The Tale of the Scale: An Odyssey of an Invention by Solly Angel, a housing expert.
Which now explains why I will not disclose the name and location of the said grocery store for fear that readers of this blog, however few, may stake out the establishment, hiking competition for good but cheap books.
But since I believe in a level playing field, I will nevertheless give one clue regarding the whereabouts of the said grocery: it’s in Metro Manila. Hardy har har. Why would I take the fun out of grocery shopping?

———————

From the Six Degrees of Separation Dept.
Raymond Carver’s best friend is Chuck Kinder. Besides being a writer himself, Kinder, who also teaches fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, is supposedly the basis of one of the characters in Michael Chabon’s novel, Wonder Boys, which was later turned into a movie. When we were in the US, my wife and I occasionally joined the movie nights that he hosted at his house. I remember seeing the original Carrie movie and Short Cuts, a movie on which a number of Carver’s short stories are based. Short Cuts features, among others, jazz singer Annie Ross who plays, not surprisingly, a jazz singer. Ross is famous for being one-third of what I believe is the greatest jazz vocalist group of the twentieth century, LHR, also known as Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. LHR has influenced similar groups such as The Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices.
Picture shows covers of Wendy Kaminer’s Sleeping with Extra Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety and Best Music Writing 2004.

Errand

Published sometime in 2004 in the Philippines Free Press

Errand
A short story by Robert JA Basilio Jr.
2603 words

Ramon climbed the airconditioned bus and made a run for the nearest available seat, down at the end where the engine was. On the way, he almost stepped on a boy so small and thin he just didn’t see him at all, struggled past a guy with a knapsack so bulky that it blocked his way, and squeezed between two portly middle-aged women whose loud chatter about last night’s telenovela episode he apparently had interrupted.

“Sorry,” he curtly told one of the telenovela women, when he saw one frown
and the other smirk. Both women were dressed in the same uniform – a traditional government office ensemble of pink blouses and blue skirts. On better days, he thought, he wouldn’t let that kind of attitude go past him, whoever they were, man or woman, rich or poor, young or old.

But today, he did.

After all, two frumpy women were not worth his time.

Ramon then planted himself on the seat; head pushed back, left arm on window ledge, thighs tight on the cushion, grateful that he got a spot to sit down and take it easy.

He was all ready to lose himself in the somewhat improved state of his surroundings: the cool antiseptic air from the vent above and the muffled hum of the vehicles outside, both, he thought, could lull him to sleep.

After all, he was raring for some shut-eye, having pulled another all-nighter.

The person he was hired to follow around — a young moneyed businessman named Norman Yalung — placed less importance on sleep than he did.

Yalung had spent the past two nights mostly in an expensive karaoke bar in Pasay and a nearby motel, each night with a different female companion. He then went home for an hour in the wee hours at an exclusive Quezon City village.

Yalung, Ramon learned, had just been abandoned by his wife and kids about a month ago, apparently due to his nocturnal habits. But from the looks of it, Ramon could tell that Yalung was enjoying his new-found bachelorhood.

During the straight two-day surveillance, Ramon had gone back to his Sta.Mesa apartment at six o’clock in the morning, never having felt more exhausted than any time in his career as a private detective.

And just for today, he had decided to give up following Yalung around.

If the past two days were any indication, today was going to be no different from the others anyway. Same set of activities, but probably shorter hours.

And no leads at all regarding Yalung’s possible involvement with the criminal underworld that his client, Attorney Acebedo, had so stubbornly insisted on.

Next time he talked to the Acebedo, Ramon reminded himself, he would insist on extra compensation. After all, it was no joke following a sex-crazed night owl two days straight.

But thinking about all that can come later.

After all, he still had an hour to go — or even more, rush hour permitting — until Araneta Avenue, where he would get off the bus and take a jeep to Sta.
Mesa.

He closed his eyes and shut out the world.

Thank God, he said to himself, in a gesture of happy resignation, and drifted off to sleep.

There were a lot of many things he never liked to wake up to. A ringing phone was one of them.

Unfortunately, that early Thursday morning inside the bus, it was exactly
that which roused him from his deep sleep.

No less than his client, Attorney Acebedo was on the line, or at least that was what the caller ID function of his cellphone told him.

“I’ve been missing you a lot these days,” the attorney said, in his signature high-pitched voice that to him sounded irritating.

Sure you have, Ramon said to himself, thinking that this conversation, again, was one of those mind games that the lawyer played, to gain the upper hand in some mysterious contest which no one really kept track of.

Nevertheless, Ramon, despite his lethargy, was always ready to play, the result of having a quick mind whose default mode was either to take advantage or to take charge, a fringe benefit of having harmless — but usually educational — encounters with various small-time swindlers, pickpockets, and con-artists.

These were the very people he envied because they lived by their wits and their wits alone, scamming bets off unsuspecting passersby in loaded chess games, hawking fake gold jewelry pieces and using drops of calamansi to pass these off as authentic, defrauding anyone stupid enough to believe that the dinars and dollars their spouses earned abroad were worthy of their special inflated exchange rates.

All these years, Ramon had entertained the romantic notion that he was one of them; that, like many cheats and scam artists he secretly admired, he possessed a mind nimble enough to make a quick buck and a clean getaway, save for two exceptions.

The first was that he didn’t work for the money alone but mostly for the sheer satisfaction of seeing a case through and a job well done. The second was that his absolute loyalty was always reserved for clients.

This, incidentally, explained why he was still following Yalung around, despite the fact that he had been running into what he had already expected: a blank wall.

A few days into the case, his underground sources had already confirmed that Yalung had no connections whatsoever with a smuggling ring. An intimate connection with a circle of GROs perhaps but not to a criminal syndicate, however big or small.

But Acebedo refused to believe him.

And as such, even if he already knew he would turn up with nothing, the surveillance surely would continue for a couple more days.

Even though they were wrong most of the time, Ramon thought, clients were always right. Not only was this sound business policy, this was the best, and perhaps, only way to show how professional he was.

Unfortunately, his clients rarely returned the favor.

He never got accorded the professional courtesy and respect he expected and deserved. He got paid, sure, but every single time, his clients made sure that they got their money’s worth.

As such, while on the trail of errant husbands having affairs with worldly colegialas, wayward rich kids running away from home, he was also juggling his schedule to pick up a barong or two at the cleaners, deliver stuff to their offices, and sometimes, even buy some groceries. Never has such small errands been so crucial: he knew that he refused them at the expense of the case and therefore his job.

That early Thursday morning, cocooned inside in a comfortable bus, Ramon could give an update of Yalung¹s past two days, if his client so desired.

And update or no, he would make a pitch for bigger pay.

Unfortunately, Acebedo’s lawyerly and patronizing blather still emanated from the other end of the line.

“I’ve been practicing law for the past twenty years, Ramon, and may lightning strike me down if I’ve met a private detective better than you are,” he heard the lawyer telling him, extolling his patience, strength, and his other allegedly superlative qualities.

Ramon, still light-headed and lethargic, merely sighed, waiting for his turn to talk.

But he never got the chance.

This was because, from out of the blue, Acebedo invited him to lunch.

At first, he could not believe his ears.

Ramon stared blankly into space, reeling from the effects of interrupted sleep, trying his best to accustom himself with the ways of the world awake.

Here he was, shoulder and ear cradling his cellphone, thinking what on earth was the matter with the world today.

He pinched his nose with his right hand, held it, and sniffed. No client of his had ever invited him to a meal before. None, never.

But there was always the first time.

“Yes,” he told Acebedo over the phone. “Tell me when and where. Call or text.”

He listened closely and nodded. He pressed the end call button, sat up, and pulled at the front of his shirt, in the vague hope of straightening it out.

He looked forward to meeting Acebedo outside the office. Last time they met, he remembered, he was stiff and bossy. But this was because they were inside his office.

People, he thought, acted differently outside the workplace. They were kinder, less formal. Acebedo might just be one of those people. He might just be different from the rest.

About half an hour after their conversation, Ramon and the lawyer were already seated at the table in a virtually-empty restaurant.

“This place is crazy come lunchtime,” the lawyer told him. He looked at his cellphone, which, to Ramon, looked new. He was all ready to ask about it but decided against it at the last moment. It was awkward, he thought, especially with a person whom he had not been on familiar terms with.

But in any case, the lull in the conversation was cut short — fortunately – when the waiter handed both of them a menu.

Soon after, Ramon saw a part of Acebedo which he had never seen, telling him to get anything he wanted on the menu, cracking jokes about the legal profession.

Right after he was done telling him about how he handled the judge who preferred women over bribe money, the lawyer let off a substantial pause in
the conversation.

For Ramon, the pause was both awkward and unusual; awkward because he was waiting for him to finish and unusual because Acebedo was someone who stopped talking only when an actual judge told him to.

In any case, when Ramon was faced with that sudden silence, he experienced a heavy but nevertheless vague premonition that he had something more serious
to worry about.

“Ramon,” the lawyer finally said, in a tone which revealed a subtle urgency. “Can you pick up some papers from a client in Cubao and deliver them to me this afternoon? I would consider this a really big favor.”

It took a while before the request — such as it was — sank in. Pick up some papers in Cubao and deliver them at the office in Escolta.

This, he thought, was exactly what lunch was for. An errand. A plain and simple errand. He went to criminology school to become a messenger; a glorified messenger.

Of the many dilemmas Ramon always faced as a private detective, nothing ever came close to the sheer complexity of a small, tiny errand. An errand. It could make you or break you. While simply accepting it can endear you to clients (and sometimes, even to their respective families and colleagues), turning it down can transform your into an impersonal and mysterious entity who refused, for some flimsy reason, to get along. Reject something outright — say you had to go to the bank, for instance, or needed to visit a sick relative in the hospital — and you were automatically painting yourself in a corner, closing the door on future jobs.

While Ramon did his best to cover all his bases (making sure that the client’s wife went home safely, for instance, while staking out some mid-level executive in Makati, supposedly doing overtime), he never did get extra compensation, let alone gratitude for his efforts. Whatever it was he did that was outside the job, they were all part of it, ironically.

And these always made him think about the very essence of what he was doing.

What does it mean to be a private detective in Manila anyway?

In a city that was obsessed with cellphones and celebrities; a city that survived the onslaught of countless daily exposés detailing criminal activity and sexual aberrations of the rich, famous, and powerful, what does it mean to be someone who tracked down criminals and followed people around for some measly profit?

Absolutely nothing.

Either you were a security guard with a fancy name on a business card or a police cadet who didn’t make it to the academy. People like him, Ramon thought, were unseen, invisible, insignificant, same as the many others who pursued a trade or eked out a living no one really cared about. And if no one really cared about you or what you did, you were most likely to be taken for granted.

Which is exactly the treatment that he got from his clients.

You offer them professional services, you do your best to add to what they already know, and before you know it, you’re waiting on them hand and foot, giving them extras neither you or them deserved.

Unfortunately, as his days of unemployment grew longer, his jobs as a private detective grew fewer, he had learned to play the part. He really had no choice.

This was what Ramon had thought about when he saw his bus approach EDSA, where he had to get off and take the MRT if he wanted to pick up those papers in Cubao and arrive at Acebedo’s office on time.

After an excruciatingly slow FX ride to downtown Manila from Cubao, Ramon
found himself sitting across Acebedo inside his office, an inch-thick set of legal-sized documents on his lap.

The lawyer, a tall, heavyset man in his middle fifties, was slouched in his chair, barong sleeves folded, unnaturally silent, his lips locked in a tight frown. Acebedo was on the phone, staring blankly into space, one hand on the table, almost unaware that someone else was in the room.

Ramon noticed that he was slowly nodding his head, as if trying to convince the person at the other end of the line that he was in complete agreement with what he was saying.

Suddenly, the lawyer looked up at him and asked whether he had the documents
at hand. The question was quick, and straight to the point, without the pleasantries that usually marked their previous exchanges on the phone.

Ramon nodded, almost taken by surprise by this sudden curtness, and handed over the documents.

Acebedo, still on the phone, licked a forefinger, and opened the folder. The lawyer went through the pages, one by one, his eyes darting left to right, right to left, and then left to right again, in a nervous rhythm. After he asked the other line to wait, he coughed without even bothering to cover his mouth.

Acebedo leaned forward. “Is this all?” he asked.

“Yes,” Ramon said, in what he thought sounded like an unusually weak reply.

Although detectives like him did — and would willingly do — the dirtiest work imaginable as long as it involved a case, it didn’t mean that they were up for doing everything. No private eye worth his license would ever mind being caught up in a brawl, be arrested, nor have his reputation sullied, if only for the sake of a case or a client.

But this, Ramon thought, this certainly was not something that would push his worth up a notch higher in his client¹s eyes. Indeed, his wish for respect and recognition for what he was — a professional private detective — had remained just that: a wish.

Acebedo quickly shifted his attention to the documents again, muttering some
legal phrases to himself, as he skimmed through each page repeatedly. The lawyer nodded, closed the folder, and simpered.

Acebedo then looked straight into Ramon’s eyes, as if he was staring into nothing, into space.

“Please don’t forget to close the door,” the lawyer said.

Knowing that that was his cue, Ramon stood up, adjusted his pants, and walked out the door. He pulled the door shut, thinking that his clients were all the same. All the same.

Quezon City, Philippines
Jul 7, 2004