Smooth Talk

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home

All your reindeer armies, are all going home

The lover who just walked out your door

Has taken all his blankets from the floor

The carpet, too, is moving under you

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

—-Bob Dylan, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Yesterday I had time to watch another movie on The Criterion Channel so I scrolled through the offerings and found one I wasn’t expecting. It was called Smooth Talk and was made in 1985. It was directed by Joyce Chopra and featured Laura Dern in her first starring big screen role (a year before Blue Velvet).

I have no idea how I have missed this movie over all these years. You see it is loosely (actually not all that loosely) based on one of the most crackerjack of short stories – Joyce Carol Oates’ ” Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”.

I have been a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates for a long time and have written about her short stories a few times before. There was Where are You? and Heat – but especially Life After High School – an incredibly interesting, subtle, and complex story.

And there was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. I first read this as a teenager and it made a huge impression on me. I have re-read it every few years and it hasn’t lost its power.

You can read it here. Go ahead, it’s worth it.

The story is based on the true story of “The Pied Piper of Tucson” – a serial killer that seduced and eventually murdered teenage girls in that desert town. Oates read the story in Life magazine (she refers to the killer as a “Tabloid Psychopath”) and then wrote the story as “Death and the Maiden.” She was especially fascinated by the fact that the Tucson teens didn’t realize this monster was a man in his 30s attempting to look young and many went along with the killings, keeping his secret.

During revision she made the story less about the killings and more about the teenage girl. The ending is ambiguous, though you get the feeling that it’s not going to end well.

I remember thinking that the story was unfilmable – it has too many phantasmagorical elements, an enigmatic conclusion,  and too much inside the girl’s head. But it looks like I was wrong.

The movie follows the short story surprisingly well. Obviously, it has to expand on the story quite a bit. Rereading the story, there is a lot to it that is spread out in the first half of the film. The girl’s mother has a bigger, more nuanced part – though a lot of that may be due to the genius of Mary Kay Place. Laura Dern has the young, beautiful, flighty, 15 year old, self-obsessed, stubborn,  teenager-y, Connie down perfectly. The story moved up into the 80’s where it fits better anyway, and the setting of a mall and big teen hangout hamburger stand across a busy road is dead-solid right.

****Spoiler Alert****

But at its mid-point the story and the movie take a sudden, terrifying turn. An odd, dangerous man named Arnold Friend (A Friend) shows up in an old Gold landyacht  convertible with mysterious writing on it. He proceeds to talk to Connie, left at home alone, and tries to talk her into going for a ride with him.

That is the first big difference, to me, between the story and the movie. In the story Arnold Friend is a borderline supernatural force, odd and mysterious (Is he wearing a wig? What is it with his boots? How does he know so much?). It is that character that I considered to be unfilmable. Treat Williams plays him in the movie and he is a bit too good looking and slick – though he does convey his own aura of danger and dread. I guess seeing the devil made flesh was going to be a letdown – but the movie was still interesting and harrowing.

And then, at the end, unlike the story, you find out, sort of, what happened after Connie went off for a ride with Arnold Friend.  He doesn’t kill her, he brings her back. In both versions it is implicit that her going with him was an act of heroism – she went to save her family from danger. Once she returns she seems to have grown a backbone. She tells Friend firmly that she never wants to see him again and then has a reconciliation with her sister. That is not how the story is leading – but it is a valid take and an interesting, almost happy, ending.

One other cool thing is that I discovered a movie review of Smooth Talk written by none other than Joyce Carol Oates herself. There is something amazing about a great writer putting down her thoughts on a film made from her work.

She agrees with me on the short story being ultimately  unfilmable:

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” defines itself as allegorical in its conclusion: Death and Death’s chariot (a funky souped-up convertible) have come for the Maiden. Awakening is, in the story’s final lines, moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waits:

“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with [Connie’s] brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.

—a conclusion impossible to transfigure into film.

And she acknowledges the choice used in the different ending:

The writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three. I assume they are professionals to their fingertips; authorities in their medium as I am an authority (if I am) in mine. I would fiercely defend the placement of a semicolon in one of my novels but I would probably have deferred in the end to Joyce Chopra’s decision to reverse the story’s conclusion, turn it upside down, in a sense, so that the film ends not with death, not with a sleepwalker’s crossing over to her fate, but upon a scene of reconciliation, rejuvenation.

Serial killer inspires brilliant terrifying short story which is developed into a movie about a flighty young girl finding herself and her place and purpose. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Short Story (flash fiction) of the day, Where Are You? by Joyce Carol Oates

“You people who have survived childhood don’t remember any longer what it was like. You think children are whole, uncomplicated creatures, and if you split them in two with a handy axe there would be all one substance inside, hard candy. But it isn’t hard candy so much as a hopeless seething lava of all kinds of things, a turmoil, a mess. And once the child starts thinking about this mess he begins to disintegrate as a child and turns into something else–an adult, an animal.”
― Joyce Carol Oates

Downtown Waxahatchie, Texas

Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read a lot of what she’s written and understand most of it.

Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?

Life After High School


What I like the best about her is that she is not afraid to go for the jugular. I have a need to explore the thin membrane – the border –  between what we all consider our day-to-day lives and the world of evil chaos that is right there on the other side. She understands that and will cross that membrane and will bring you along with her.

In today’s bit if flash fiction she does that, in only 500 words.

Where Are You?, by Joyce Carol Oates


A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 20 – Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty – Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, by Joyce Carol Oates

Read it online here:

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

or, if you prefer, a PDF version here:
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Well, after yesterday’s bloody and frightening short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, I present you another one… even more horrific.

For some reason, I always associate these two stories with each other – there was a time I even conflated the authors a bit. Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates are very different people with very different backgrounds – but both are masters of the grotesque and bizarre realities concealed in this strange world we find ourselves wandering lost in.

I’m not sure which story I like better. Probably today’s – because of its supernatural and symbolic undertones.

The author said it was inspired by the case of the “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” – serial killer Charles Howard ‘Smitty’ Schmid, Jr. But the evil Arnold Friend with his gold convertible and shoes stuffed with newspaper is stranger and more ghastly than any mere human killing machine. He is a pied piper – a strange and mutated siren that draws the young, doomed Connie through the only protection she has – a flimsy screen door.

A while back I wrote about another Joyce Carol Oates story, Life After High School… and it was today’s, I suppose, that convinced me the purpose of that story’s protagonist’s murderous intent. He wasn’t as experienced, skilled, or evil as Albert Friend and he failed – his victim escaped into a life after high school.

Poor doomed beautiful Connie. It’s a shame what happened to her… whatever it was.

Does make for a good story, though.

Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out. The restaurant was shaped like a big bottle, though squatter than a real bottle, and on its cap was a revolving figure of a grinning boy holding a hamburger aloft. One night in midsummer they ran across, breathless with daring, and right away someone leaned out a car window and invited them over, but it was just a boy from high school they didn’t like. It made them feel good to be able to ignore him. They went up through the maze of parked and cruising cars to the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of the night to give them what haven and blessing they yearned for. They sat at the counter and crossed their legs at the ankles, their thin shoulders rigid with excitement, and listened to the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.

Life After High School

I read a lot of short stories. A lot.

All my life I have read voraciously and read short stories particularly. After the advent of the ebook and the portable reader I have been able to kick it up a notch. My Kindle goes with me everywhere and I’m able to read in the small nooks of time that I can scare up. The short story is particularly good to gobble up in these little snips and sips. I usually read one at lunch and another before I go to sleep. That’s two short stories a day… and over a few years… over a handful of decades… they add up.


Call Me Ishmael

Forty years ago, I had an English professor ask me about my reading habits. I told him I had gone to high school in another country and life there consisted of days of boredom sandwiched between moments of stark terror. I had picked up the habit of reading whenever I could.

“But it is mostly junk,” I said, “Cheap Science Fiction and stuff like that.”

“Your sense of story is very strong.” the professor said, “Talking to students over the years, I think that the important thing is to read and it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you read a lot.”

Not too long ago, on this very blog, I did my Month of Short Stories entries – where I wrote about a short story each day. I enjoyed doing that and promised to write more about particular works that caught my fancy.

The other day I finished a large collection of Joyce Carol Oates short stories called High Lonesome. It brings together her own favorites over forty years – from 1966 to 2006. Oates is a very prolific writer and it was good to peruse this sampling.

Alice Munro recently won the Noble Prize for her short stories and I like to compare the two writers. Munro is the unassailable master of the form – but on the whole, I prefer reading Oates. Munro’s writing concerns the life she has led and the people she has known and the wisdom she has acquired. Wonderful stuff and I am so happy she deservedly won the prize. However, Oates goes one step beyond – she kicks it up a notch. Oates writes about the void… the beyond… the horror that lies right on the other side of the tender membrane that divides our world from the realm of madness.

That is something I am interested in.

There are a lot of great and interesting stories in the collection, including the classic “Where are you going, Where Have You Been?” and the amazing “Heat” – which I wrote about before. Today, I want to talk about one of the later stories in the collection, “Life After High School.”

Spoilers will be written, so please, surprise everyone and read the story first. I found a PDF of it here.

“Life After High School” seems to be a popular story for school essay assignments – there is a lot written about it on this interweb thing. I looked at more than a few – and everybody seems to completely miss the point of the story.

You see… it’s really three stories in one. The first two are tricks played on the reader – then she hits you with the hammer, the third.

The first three quarters of the story is the tragic tale of unrequited love where Zachary Graff, the intelligent but socially awkward teenager falls in love with Sunny Burhman, the attractive and popular girl that everyone likes. He eventually, Senior Year, works up the nerve to propose to her and she, of course, says no. He is so heartbroken he kills himself by running his car in a closed garage. This devastates Miss Burhman, and she is “Sunny” no more.

So far, so good. An oft-told tale, one that every reader, especially a young person, will recognize and understand.

But Oates throws a twist. The story isn’t “High School” – it’s “Life After…” and, decades later a middle-aged Sunny Burhman contacts another student, Tobias Shanks, from those days. They meet for lunch and Sunny discovers that the two boys were gay lovers and that Zachary went to see him after she had rejected Zachary and, moreover, Zachary had left him a suicide note.

So now the story has morphed into one of a sensitive young man destroyed by society’s disapproval and Zachary’s proposal to Sunny was his last, futile attempt to “fit in.”

And that is where most people that read it leave the story. It is where I was ready to leave it… but not everything fit.

For example, the description that Oates provides of Zachary was a little odd. She said that most people were afraid of him. That doesn’t fit with the usual view of an odd, awkward, gay loser.

Also, Sunny says to him, “Zachary, it’s a free world.” But his response is, “Oh no it isn’t, Sunny. For some of us, it isn’t” A foreboding answer for a young person. There are plenty of other incongruities – I’ll leave some for you to find – enough to make my point clear on a second reading.

But finally, there was a detailed list of items that were found in his car at his death, it was said to be oddly littered. There was a Bible, some pizza crusts, textbooks, size eleven gym shoes, a ten foot piece of clothesline in the glove compartment, and the engagement ring in the car. (italics mine)

What was that all about? Why tell us all this? Chekhov’s gun says there has to be a reason… a good one.

So I was a little suspicious of the story. And then, I came to the last line… and the whole story changed. You see you think the story is one thing, then you think it’s another – and with the simple, final sentence it all changes, radically, for the last time.

After they have talked and read the suicide note, Sunny, almost as an afterthought, says:

“What do you think Zachary planned to do with the clothesline?”

And there it is.

Zachary wasn’t simply an awkward, misunderstood teenager… he was a killer. He didn’t propose to Sunny because he loved her (though he certainly did) – he was trying to get her into his car so he could kill her. When he failed, he went to see Tobias Shanks, his other love, and tried the same thing with him. Only then, with his homicidal needs frustrated, did he then off himself.

And the girl knew it. Sunny didn’t change her life after high school because of guilt over her rejection of Zachary. She was devastated because of the realization of how close she came to evil, how near she was to being an innocent murder victim, how thin that membrane that protects us really is.

Now… that is a story.

The funny thing is, reading what other folks thought about the tale, nobody else seemed to get it.

Here’s an analysis that is confused by the clothesline and the final line – the most important part of the story.

The clothesline is a symbol whose meaning is up for interpretation because the story does not give it a definite role. It could have been used to force Tobias or Sunny into coming with Zachary or Zachary could have planned to use it to kill himself

Here’s one that only notices the coldness of the final question (in my opinion, her detachment is her armor against the horror that lies beyond)…

Barbara Burhman’s final question in the story, “Life After High School” by Joyce Carol Oates was an appropiate closure because it is a reflection and direct unfolding of one of Barbara’s defining core characteristics and how she really truly feels about Zachary: cold-hearted indifference.

and finally, this one, simply says,

In the extract it was mentioned that Zachary had a clothesline in the glove compartment when the police found him dead in his car. It shows us that if the carbon monoxide did not work to kill him, he would have used the clothesline. It is an appropriate closure to the story because it shows Barbara and Tobias that there was nothing that they could do to save him. Zachary was determined to kill himself. I guess it shows some relief that he would have committed suicide sooner or later, if they might have saved him from the car.

Yeah, right. That’s a pretty slim reason to put that sentence in there for a writer of Oates’ skill. It’s like Chekhov included a gun so that the protagonist could have something to clean.

Am I off base here? Am I reading something into that last question that isn’t there? Is this really a tale of teenage angst, society’s rejection, and doomed love? Am I nuts to read into it a brilliant subtext of homicide and madness?

I don’t think so.

What do you think? – That’s assuming you do.

Short Story Day 2 – Heat

2. – Heat
Joyce Carol Oates

Ok, now for something completely different. We swerve away from the careful, slightly arcane prose of W. Somerset Maugham to the modern, spare, gut-wrenching writing of Joyce Carol Oates.

I have read a lot of her stories over the years. As a matter of fact, I’m working through a massive tome (well, it would be massive if it wasn’t stored as a collection of electrons in my Kindle) of her collected works… spanning more than four decades of her prodigious output.

One of her best is the classic, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been – which I re-read a week ago, read carefully, trying to fully understand the implications and observations of that frightening tale of adolescence and loss of innocence.

Heat is a very short, odd story. On the surface it is a horror story – the tale of the murder of twin girls, little more than children. It is more than this salacious collection of lurid facts, however.

The story is told from the point of view of another girl, a friend of the murdered twins. It is told in a simple, yet disjointed style. At first, it seems like a mannered, but straightforward telling of a horrific incident in the narrator’s youth.

If you pay close attention, however, the narrator begins including details that there is no way she could possibly know about. You can’t help but think, “Was she there? Did she see something? Was she involved in some way?” Of course she wasn’t… the reader knows this – but you can’t help but think.

Then there is the connection with the narrator’s adult life – her passions and destructive behavior. What is the relationship between these passages and the deaths of her twin friends from her childhood? Is she a reliable narrator? Why is she telling us all this?

The final line of the story seems to provide an answer – if not a complete and not a fully understandable one.

Now, if W. Somerset Maugham in his story seemed to hint at a second world, a world of chaos and primitive passions, one that civilized men almost always lack the courage to embrace – here we have Joyce Carol Oates completely tearing the tissue-like barrier between the two completely away – leaving the frightening reality that lies just beyond our everyday thoughts and actions completely exposed. It sits there bleeding and pulsing like a disembodied heart – and she enjoins us to look at it and acknowledge its existence through her fiction.

Or at least I think so.

Behind the icehouse in his car I’d think of Rhea and Rhoda and what happened that day upstairs in Roger Whipple’s room. And the funeral parlor with the twins like dolls laid out and their eyes like dolls’ eyes too that shut when you tilt them back. One night when I wasn’t asleep but wasn’t awake either I saw my parents standing in the doorway of my bedroom watching me and I knew their thoughts, how they were thinking of Rhea and Rhoda and of me their daughter wondering how they could keep me from harm, and there was no clear answer.
—-Joyce Carol Oates, Heat


I wanted to get in a (relative… for me) long bike ride today. I took my commuter bike and loaded it up with my Kindle, my camera, notebooks and pens, plus some extra water. My idea was to ride a bit, rest and read and then ride some more. I put together a route that wound through Garland, back across town to the Pearl Cup coffeehouse, then back home.

Nick is home and he rode with me east into Garland, then as we cut our way back he turned off and took the Owens Trail home. I was feeling a little off and decided I was getting overheated. It’s the first day over 90 – which soon won’t be very hot, but I haven’t acclimated to it yet – plus it’s very humid. So I hung out in a shade structure next to the athletic fields – drank some water and read a short story. Within a few minutes I felt a lot better.

I enjoyed talking sports with some guys that showed up with a truck full of coolers and grills that were setting up for an all-African soccer tournament later in the day. I took off, dropped down into the Spring Creek Natural Area and then under the highway to the Canyon Creek neighborhood.

The Pearl Cup has finally put a sign up and built a bike rack in front. Their mocha coffee had some nice latte art and plenty of caffeine and sugar. It was cool inside and I settled in with my Kindle to rest a bit.

A couple nights ago I finished a novel that I had found recommended in an article about the best books of this centuryThe True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey. It was a very well written, interesting book… and I’m glad I read it, but it didn’t speak to me in any personal way. Now that it is finished, I’m working on a huge collection of Joyce Carol Oates stories I carry on my Kindle – eleven new ones and more than two dozen classic stories from a forty year period. It’s called High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966-2006.

Her writing resonates with me. As I read her harrowing, dark short fiction, my mind fills with ideas that I will have to write out. I fill pages in my Moleskine with short story ideas. Her writing shares with me the desire to explore the too-thin membrane between our illusion-filled world and the horrific void beyond.

So I drank my coffee drink and a dozen glasses of iced water, read some stories, and wrote some pages. Then I took off, riding back to the thick creekbottom woods of the Spring Creek Natural Area, did a lap of the loop trail, and plopped down on a favorite bench to crank through another story.

It happened to be a well-known story that I was familiar with – had read a couple times before. It was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (read it here for yourself). I hesitate to call it one of my favorite short stories… though I have to call it that – because there is no other word that fits. It is simply too disturbing to embrace fully. But it is a work of genius.

Though nothing explicitly bad happens in the tale – there is no doubt that the world has ended for poor Connie. So much in the story is ambiguous and subtly horrific. I was reading slowly, carefully, and paying complete attention to the words splashed across the Eink display. In the corner of my eye I saw a jogger going by… then he stopped and I heard a loud “Oh!”

I looked up.
“Don’t you see it?”
“There, right there.”
I looked carefully where he was pointing, on the concrete trail right in front of where he was standing. There it was, a snake. A big snake.

I stood up and we looked at it carefully (from a safe distance).

“I think it’s a bullsnake,” I said.

“Here, I’ll Wikipedia it,” the jogger said, pulling out his iPhone. “It looks like the right pattern.”

I have seen bullsnakes before. In seventh grade we had one in biology class. I have no real fear of snakes that I have seen (as opposed to snakes I haven’t seen, which scare me) so I would rush my work and play with the snake. One day I wasn’t paying close enough attention and the thing managed to slip through my collar at the back of my neck, slithering under my shirt and winding around my chest. A friend of mind jumped behind me and managed to grab the tip of its tail – then pull the thing out.

Another day, I moved my hand into its aquarium cage too fast and the bull snake reared back and struck at me. It was harmless, but it scared me – I was a lot more careful after that.

Today, the jogger and I watched the snake crawl through the clearing and across the trail. If I moved too close it would rear like it was going to strike and I’d jump back. It was slender but at least six feet long – reaching pretty much across the concrete trail. The jogger finally decided to move on.

I sat down and started reading again, keeping one eye on the snake as it slowly moved toward the thick woods. A family came across the bridge and saw the snake. The father, riding an expensive, fully suspended mountain bike stopped, and then went after his small son – who was on a little bike with training wheels and went straight for the snake. He had no fear.

The mother followed along behind, walking a small dog. She veered way off the path, walking the dog through the thick knee-high scrub and weeds to stay far away from the snake. So she was afraid of the snake she saw, and then exposed herself to the snakes (that are undoubtedly there) that she couldn’t see.

Finally the snake reached the woods and disappeared in an instant. I finished the story – somehow the presence of the snake added to the darkness and terrible foreboding of the story. The snakes are there, whether you know it or not – sometimes they come out… and remind you of what is waiting, hidden, behind the membrane of illusion.

I think this is a bullsnake.

I think this is a bullsnake.



What I learned this week, December 21, 2012

Read a harrowing short story in a collection by Joyce Carol Oates the other night. It was literary in structure and style, but a crime thriller in effect. If I could, this is what I would write.

Spider Boy – from the New Yorker

High Lonesome, a great collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates

High Lonesome, a great collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates

This is from the Deep Ellum Brewing Company’s first anniversary party. Candy and I are in there, but you have to look quick.

Deep Ellum Brewing Company's Lineup

Deep Ellum Brewing Company’s Lineup

I feel like such a nerd, commuting to work on a bicycle. At least I’m not the only one.

LeBron James says he bikes to most Heat home games to stay in shape

Ever since seeing the wonderful movie Tampopo, I’ve been bummed that Dallas has a lack of places to get decent Ramen. Finally, that seems to be coming to an end.
Dallas to Finally Get a Dedicated Ramen Spot

Even better, the place seems to be a product of the couple that did the cool Wicked Po’ Boys place here in Richardson.