Getting out of Buffalo, and finding a writing life in Greensboro
by Jordan Green
Greg Shemkovitz is far more self aware than Eddie Lanning, the protagonist of Lot Boy (see accompanying review).
Seated at a café table outside Spring Garden Bakery in Greensboro on a cool weekday morning, he’s explaining how he conceived the character — his attitude, backstory and dialect — how he built a world around a Ford dealership and service garage on the south side of Buffalo, and how he experimented with second person to convey perspective and drive the narrative forward.
A lot is happening all at once for the 35-year-old Shemkovitz, a Buffalo native who moved to Greensboro with his wife in 2010. Lot Boy, his first novel, comes out on July 21 on sunnyoutside, a small publishing house in his hometown. He’s carrying around first drafts of five other manuscripts, including one started in 2011 that he’ll be revising over the summer. After bouncing between adjunct gigs at area universities, he’s landed a faculty position at Elon University. He and his wife have bought a house in Greensboro’s mannered Sunset Hills neighborhood. And they’re expecting a second child any day now.
“All the signs that indicate the baby’s ready to come out — they’re all there,” Shemkovitz says as he fills his to-go cup from the house coffee urn.
Whatever the pressures of turning out a novel, pursuing a teaching career and being a father, he seems to be maintaining a good equilibrium and taking joy from the process. In that regard, he’s 180 degrees from his character Eddie Lanning, who is responsible for the most menial jobs at the car dealership his father owns. With only the smallest glimmer of circumspection, Eddie lurches into an ill-conceived criminal scheme while creepily stalking an ex-girlfriend, an addict in recovery and amputee.
“It can be considered autobiographical in some ways,” Shemkovitz says. “I lived there, I worked there, and I left. I did barely any of that stuff that Eddie did. That should be obvious — or at least I hope it is.”
While taking some time off from his undergraduate studies at SUNY Oswego, Shemkovitz worked as a lot boy — a job that entails everything from detailing cars and emptying oil pans to ferrying customers home.
“I was cataloguing what was going on,” he says. “Stephen King says he lets his characters go and records what happens. That’s kind of my approach.”
In its first incarnation, Lot Boy was written as a novella for Shemkovitz’s MFA thesis at UNCG. He put the project aside, and in fact didn’t write at all for two or three years, while he was teaching GED classes to welfare clients in Philadelphia.
“I kept thinking about the novel,” he says. “You get these ideas. You want to get the story right. I sat down with it again. I said, ‘I’m going to revisit this story without the deadline of graduation.’”
Shemkovitz wanted Lot Boy to be an entertaining read, above all.
He admires the book’s stripped-down prose, noting that he could probably turn it into a young-adult novel if he excised the profanity from his characters’ dialogue and interior musings.
“You don’t have to have a dictionary nearby to read it,” Shemkovitz says. “There are no 10-cent words. This a book with a lot of buy-one-get-one-free words.”
Beyond providing enjoyment, Shemkovitz believes literature can also be enriching.
“With this book I’m not trying to changes lives,” he says. “It’s enriching enough to get a glimpse into a service garage and go along for a ride with a guy that does things you and I would not do. That’s what a documentary does. He’s not really sympathetic, but you’re stuck with him. He’s real: There are guys like that in the world. Beyond the fraud, he takes cars off the lot and wrecks them. He drinks and drives. He’s not really a bad guy. Nobody’s really bad.”
“Wilford Brimley’s bad.”
Then he laughs.
In the novel, Eddie calls the fence “Wilford Brimley” because he resembles the grandfatherly actor in the Quaker Oats commercial. The conceit is that the fence is the most ruthless character in the novel. He never gets a real name, just Eddie’s mocking reference.
Suddenly Shemkovitz is mortified by a thought, and stops to Google the actor’s name on his smart phone.
“Wilford Brimley’s not dead, is he?” he asks. “If he’s not alive I’ll be a jerk. Okay, he’s alive. He’s 80.”
Then the author wonders aloud whether his protagonist is a sociopath.
“He’s not Don Draper,” Shemkovitz says. “He has the traits of a sociopath, but he doesn’t have the power. Isn’t that every teenager? Can you be a sociopath and not have power? Because he’s a 27-year-old lot boy. He hasn’t mentally grown up. Teenagers at their worst don’t have the cognitive backing to make rational decisions. Yet here they are desiring to break the rules and test boundaries.”
Shemkovitz carries around a smallish notebook where he jots down ideas for his manuscripts: problems that need resolution, ideas for pacing and scene setting, new perspectives. He advises against waiting too long to revise a first draft, considering that the author’s perspective can shift over time.
“I didn’t think about whether Eddie was a sociopath when I was writing Lot Boy,” he says. “I can’t reread it now without asking myself that question.”
Review: 27 Views of Greensboro: The Gate City in Prose and Poetry by various authors, Eno Publishers, 2015
Greensboro is a city of silos — not in the literal sense, though there’s plenty in this place to suggest its not-so-distant agrarian roots.
The silos in Greensboro are invisible, constricting our view of the larger picture through racial segregation of schools and neighborhoods, socioeconomic stratification, selective memory and inherent tribalism.
From 27 Views of Greensboro, a compilation of essays and poetry by some of the city’s best-known authors, journalists and educators, the reader gets the sense that it’s always been this way, and it always will be.
Recollections of idyllic childhoods run alongside disturbing memoirs of inequality — sometimes in the same piece, as with News & Record Editorial Editor Allen Johnson’s story about the house he grew up in while the downtown neighborhood was transitioning from white flight.
That underpinning of racial tension is a theme that runs through nearly every story. Logie Meachum’s recollection of the bus lines that ran past the Magnolia Hotel called the place “a known safety zone, even for the more famous and well-known coloreds, as we were called in those days.” Journalism teacher and former N&R columnist Lorraine Ahearn tells the story of a grand old house from the city’s Gilded Age that slid into dereliction after its street was renamed to honor Martin Luther King, and then back to respectability as the neighborhood gentrified into Southside. Memories of the 1960 Woolworth’s sit-ins come from all sides: the black participant and the white observer and the clueless child who didn’t understand until years later.
The most compelling of the racial memoirs comes from author Linda Beatrice Brown, who in “A Nice, Nasty Town” busts the sit-in from its own silo and contextualizes it with the story of Josephine Boyd, the first black student to attend Greensboro Senior High in 1957.
She was pelted with eggs, threatened by a Klansman and called the N-word so many times she may have become numb to it, but probably not. Her family’s pets were murdered, a large tree felled across their driveway and her father’s business, a snack bar, “inexplicably burned down.”
Another theme concerns the transitory nature of the city beyond its generational residents. Historian and journalist Jim Schlosser’s captivating snapshot of the dirty days of Hamburger Square and the trains that moved people through lays the groundwork for the sentiment, with a slew of essays by writers who thought they were just passing through and ended up staying for decades.
It’s best captured by journalist Ed Cone, whose family history is analogous to that of the boom days in Greensboro, with his piece “Ghost City.”. He manages to find a connective thread, defining us by what we were, what we aspire to be and, most tellingly, what Greensboro is not not.
“We brag about our GPS coordinates in terms of proximity to the mountains and the beach, and even the geological designation of piedmont is defined by the region next door,” he writes
Fred Chappell manages to capture an abstract portrait of the city in just a few brushstrokes with a few observations from the bar at the O. Henry Hotel during an ice storm.
Filling out the volume are separate pieces — funny, poignant, whimsical, authentic — that give a mosaic of what it means to live in this city where the trains run through all day and the shadow of Feb. 1, 1960 still looms large.
And that, perhaps, is where the book misses its mark. Because while the writers have an enlightened view of this vein of racism running through the city’s history, there is not much about the sentiment that moved some Greensborians to throw eggs at Josephine Boyd in 1957, other than a sort of blanket condemnation.
Perhaps, in silos of our own, it’s possible for us not to see that in some ways, the eggs are still flying.
Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust, Press 53, 2015
In Rebecca Foust’s latest collection of poetry — Paradise Drive, published by Press 53 in Winston-Salem — she concludes several of her pieces the way someone might end a street fight, twisting a switchblade in their enemy’s gut for greater impact before disappearing past trash cans down a dark alley.
If Foust were an athlete she would be a closing pitcher, brought in for her devastating fastball, unexpected sinker and off-speed changeup to take home the win. Or maybe a boxer, deftly delivering quick punches that disorient her readers before she lands an uppercut directly on the button.
Paradise Drive, a collection of sonnets narrated by a character named Pilgrim, is the 2015 Press 53 award-winner for poetry. Foust, A San Francisco Bay Area writer who attended Warren Wilson College in Asheville, deserves the distinction.
Foust’s poetic precision is almost wicked, calling to mind the captured sense of aimlessness and despair that is similarly chronicled in the prose of the great Joan Didion, particularly in a series of poems where Foust describes desperate California women committing suicide.
“She’s the slough all sin spawns in/ the one who was coached to rank linen/ by thread count and children by GPA,” she writes in “Despair,” one of several moving poems that ends with a knife twist: “She’d have said she was happy, if you asked./ (You didn’t ask.) The cop sips his Starbucks./ The grapple hook drags Phoenix Lake.”
In “The Options,” the first of two in a series called “How Then Shall We Live?” Foust writes “Join, while you can, the Cult/ of the Child,” listing several more choices before concluding with “Divorce. Kill yourself/ in a way that leaves the least mess.”
And other times the smoldering anger catches a coal, and lights.
“Let three times be the charm/ that life’s the bane. Or lays it on the men:/ may you be left. Poison yourselves. Jump. Drown,” she concludes in “Bane Laid on Behalf of the Latest Late Wife.” In another, where Foust takes a rare experiment with format and grammar like literary cubism, she ends a poem about a woman jumping from a bridge: “Lover, a lesion seeping like/ after he left her. Empty was found there./ It, at the bridge ramp, still running. The car.”
Some of Foust’s most memorable entries in Paradise Drive aren’t as heavy, instead aptly describing the alienation of vapid, elite parties and hiding in the bathroom to leave, or finally meeting a party guest worth talking to and realizing it’s just an illusion. “Yes, it’s a mirror and — s*** —/ you talking into it,” she writes in “Je Est un Autre.”
Foust’s cultural critique — especially when it comes to chic parties and their egotistical hosts posing as generously concerned with the world’s ills — are among her stronger moments, and that’s part of what calls Didion to mind. But it’s the narrator’s personal experiences that carry the most resonance, like “Prayer for My New Daughter” about a transitioning child: “You are soft as sown grass and fierce as cut glass./ You pack your new purse with lipstick, and mace.” Likewise, the three-part series “Party Etiquette” is the cripplingly poignant. The end of the first poem in the series, “Remain Upbeat and Polite” about an autistic son, ends like the brakes failing on a motorcycle barreling around a curve.
“It got tough to stay all nice and polite/ when they said, ‘Just a little blood,/ boys being boys.’ Yes, Pilgrim was pissed,/ her son razzed every day, maybe twice./ ‘Got Ritalin?’ And about what brick does, on contact, to a child’s perfect face.”
Or “Don’t Talk About This,” the third of the poems, which begins by describing the fear of your son hanging himself when you find the bathroom door locked. “Tell me… where to find/ the manual that tells how to respond/ to the loved child who from his snug bed/ whispers, I wish I were dead, Mom?/ Tell me, Dr. Spock, what to do about that,/ what does a mother f***ing do about that?”
Review: John Prine In Spite of Himself by Eddie Huffman, University of Texas Press Austin, 2015
The term we use in the journalism business is “uncooperative subject.”
It describes someone whose words, memories and insights are integral to the story, but who declines — sometimes politely, sometimes less so — to be interviewed.
That’s what journalist Eddie Huffman dealt with when constructing his biography of the Americana artist John Prine, which he managed to put together without input from the artist and his longtime manager Al Bunetta.
“The official reason from Oh Boy headquarters in Music City was that Prine Inc. was working on a documentary and songbook and considered my book to be ‘competition.’ My arguments that my book would complement rather than detract from their projects fell on deaf ears.”
Fortunately for Huffman, whose journalism credits span from Rolling Stone to the New York Times, John Prine’s life and career has been extensively documented, piece-by-piece, since his recorded debut in 1971.
And it seems Huffman digested every bit of it — liner notes, television appearances, magazine interviews and album reviews included — in a deep-research dive.
The term we use in the journalism business is “clip job,” but to label this work as such does it a disservice.
Prine’s place in the tree of rock split off from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan — like contemporaries Bruce Springsteen, Loudon Wainwright and Warren Zevon, he was labeled as one of the successors to Dylan’s legacy as early as 1972, when Dylan’s creative arc had just begun to establish itself. And Prine’s catalog, which is also heavy with influences from country, rockabilly and blues, was Americana before there was such an appellation.
Prine’s been at it for nearly 50 years, largely unsung — he’s been called the “songwriter’s songwriter” and been described as “literary” in much of the writing about him, and it’s telling that some of the most noteworthy performances of his songs have been by other artists. “Angel of Montgomery” has become a standard in Bonnie Raitt’s live set, and he co-wrote “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” a song intended as a satirical dig at country music but which has become a beloved standard, with friend and collaborator Steve Goodman in 1975, though he declined to take a credit.
Huffman’s professional analysis of the music — rich with studio anecdotes, encyclopedic references to sidemen and production notes — and its place in history fleshes out the text.
Prine himself lends gravelly texture in pieces of interviews Huffman incorporates into the narrative. Prine, the former mailman with a taste for pretty words, is a veritable quote machine. It’s safe to say that the book doesn’t quite suffer from the lack of Prine’s cooperation because over the years he’s been quoted on nearly every aspect of his life and career, material that lives in the public domain. But it could have benefited from a contemporary interview with the artist, perhaps reflecting on the life so far and what it all has meant.
As it stands, the hero of this book — for the journalism community, anyway — is Huffman himself, who over a single year culled references on his subject ranging from old “Austin City Limits” YouTube videos to the pages of Penthouse magazine in pursuit of the story.
Like Prine himself, who made musical poetry from ordinary lives, Huffman has elevated the workingman’s clip job into something greater.
Review: A Black Urbanist — Essays, Vol. 1 by Kristen E. Jeffers, self-published, 2014
With developer Roy Carroll emulating the exclusive enclaves of Manhattan with a new development next to Greensboro’s ballpark and Winston-Salem wrestling with how to keep its downtown from becoming a gated community as it turns into a flourishing cultural playground, the questions raised by this book couldn’t be more vital.
Every member of city council and employee of the planning department and city manager’s office in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, though not High Point (more on that later) needs to read this elegant and stimulating collection of essays, which clocks in at a mere 44 pages. That these pieces, revised from the author’s blog, arise from a perspective of passionate citizenship rather than professional expertise gives them an authenticity and organic intelligence that is missing from much of the literature of urban design and planning.
The book’s title comes from Jeffers’ definition of herself: “a young woman of African-American descent who likes all things built environment, especially when it comes to cities.” As the wealthy move back into cities and urban features like walkable streets, open-air markets, restaurants and art galleries gain prestige, what Jeffers calls “the democracy of placemaking” becomes increasingly urgent. Greensboro and Winston-Salem, though not High Point — an anomaly as a city still dominated by a single industry — are following a national trend of urban revitalization, which happens to coincide with widening wealth inequality.
That dynamic creates the conundrum on which these essays pivot. In her introduction, Jeffers reveals that part of the reason she chose to live in downtown Greensboro was that she believed her credibility depended on creating a marketplace for her preferences. Yet she has to acknowledge that living outside the city center is less expensive.
“While I truly don’t want the center city to yield to the gilded class, I don’t want us to give up on making good places to live because we don’t or can’t afford to do so,” Jeffers writes. “I also don’t want those of us with massive privilege to forget that it doesn’t take much for anyone to fall on hard times, and not all dealing with hard times are lazy and uncommitted.” (Here is the appropriate place to disclose that an article by this author about the relative affordability of suburban housing is cited by Jeffers.
The four informative essays that comprise A Black Urbanist respectively tackle the emotional bonds of place, consumerism and community development, neighborhood governance and transportation.
The book’s provocative conclusion raises more questions than it answers, suggesting that the suburban concept has become “a survival mechanism for African Americans of varying means.” The piece also discusses how “streetcar suburbs” built on a grid retain an enriching network of services. But to cast a cloud on that silver lining, “Urban renewal also throws a wrench into the old streetcar suburb concept. Many proper, predominantly African-American streetcar suburbs were demolished or reconfigured to be car-dependent development. Gentrification is taking a lot of dense, service-rich neighborhoods away from those with lesser means, many of whom happen to be African American.”
The paradoxes explored in this book should serve as a tonic note for those of us who find ourselves swept up in the euphoria of urban revival in Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
To order a print copy of A Black Urbanist, visit blurb.com/b/5870644-a-black-urbanist. To order a digital copy of the book, visit gumroad.com/blackurbanist.
Review: Motor City Burning by Bill Morris, Pegasus Books, 2014
Since Motor City Burning was published in July 2014, Michael Brown and numerous other unarmed young black men have been killed by police officers; the streets of Ferguson, Mo. have erupted in rioting in response to heavy-handed, militarized law enforcement; two police officers in New York City have been murdered; and — circling back to Ferguson — officers have been shot by protesters.
It would be hard to imagine a time in the past 40 years, with the exception perhaps of 1992, when American life has been more polarized around questions of race and policing.
Bill Morris’ second novel, set in 1968 post-riot Detroit, seems utterly prescient.
In this novel, richly textured with the cadences of black folks and whites, the urban Midwest and the northern migration, the city is recovering from the previous year’s riots, and the Detroit Tigers’ 1968 pennant-winning season plays as a reprieve as the rest of the world seems to explode in rage. Morris, a Detroit native and former News & Record columnist, skillfully captures a sense of mounting unease coupled with the casual confidence of a city blithely unaware that an economy built on the auto industry is on the verge of unraveling due to the looming tug of global competition.
Told through the perspectives of Willie Bledsoe, a black civil rights worker, and Frank Doyle, a white homicide detective, Motor City Burning illuminates the contradictions of the racial divide in America.
A foot soldier of the civil rights movement, Willie Bledsoe is undergoing a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling to come to terms with his disillusionment with the movement, a parallel to his brother, Wes’ more chaotic unwinding from combat in Vietnam. Wes is a kind of ghost in the story, having fled Detroit, but the brothers’ role in a murder as the riots descended into a spiral of rage and vengeance hovers ominously. Willie Bledsoe is gingerly treading through a minefield trying to get free, both literally and psychologically.
As a cop intent on maintaining law and order, Frank Doyle is on a parallel track with Willie Bledsoe, vacillating between obsession and ambivalence, and their respective destinies put the two on a collision course with one another. Morris renders both characters with humanity and complexity. Like Bledsoe, Doyle is not sure he’s all the way down with the cause: While Bledsoe contemptuously dismisses the Rev. Martin Luther King as de Lawd, Doyle feels some sympathy for black rage and wonders if the explosion of violence is not on some level justified.
Morris, like his two protagonists, is a man of impeccable tastes, and he infuses Bledsoe and Doyle with enthusiasms for baseball, jazz and cars, evoking the kaleidoscope of cultural and musical eruptions — the uptight-outtasight mod posture of a young Stevie Wonder, the psychedelic soul of the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and, elliptically, the hippie freakout of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.” It’s fun to imagine where he might have mined the details to flesh out the world contained in Motor City Burning. Did the surname for the civil rights worker transplanted from Alabama come from Morris’ fellow News & Record columnist Jerry Bledsoe? The fictitious Detroit jazz bandleader Benny Anflick who says, “How ya doin, babe?” is easier to source: The real-life Sammy Anflick who trademarked the greeting was a jazz bandleader in Greensboro. Just ask another former News & Record columnist, Jeri Rowe.
In the gripping resolution of Motor City Burning, both Bledsoe and Doyle absorb an unsatisfying lesson when the battle lines are drawn hard: Justice is never complete. It might turn out to be wise counsel for the next six to 18 months in America’s current racial impasse.
Review: Hotel Worthy by Valerie Nieman, Press 53, 2015
Hotels host guests from all strata of society, from eccentric residents to families of four dropping in for the weekend. Like a true hotel, former News & Record reporter Valerie Nieman’s newest compilation, Hotel Worthy, contains poems of differing themes, forms and levels of sophistication. They all intermingle like guests coming down from their rooms for a complimentary continental breakfast.
Level of sophistication, of course, has nothing to do with the quality of the poems. which vary markedly in content and form from the clipped, seven-line free verse of “Release,” which kicks off the collection, and the rambling, unpunctuated prose of “Hotel Worthy” to the rigorous sestina of “Notorious” and the experiment in rhyme of “The Bride Comes Home to a House Planted in a Field.”
Forms and themes shift wildly even within some of the multi-part works. “A Blessing on the Tongue” — one of the highlights of the collection — starts off with a scene at the farmer’s market. Its focus on the sensory world heightens to the point of appreciating a King Lust apple nearly to the point of sensual love: “Sweet and rich,/ the juice coats my hand, an apple in full,/ an apple in spate.”
Then, seemingly overwhelmed by the apple itself, the poem breaks from reality in the next four sections, ranging from TS Eliot-esque allusion about royal eroticism to a versified breakdown of a Merriam-Webster entry on LUSH, a programming language. The speaker seems so obsessed by this apple that her brain overloads in free associations. “A Blessing on the Tongue” is a blessing to the reader — an intriguing exploration of both poetic form and the concepts of imagination and memory.
Memory and imagination arise as themes in other pieces of Hotel Worthy as well. “The Guide: Cave Paintings at Font de Gaume” looks at a sort of creative cultural memory. The speaker marvels at the primitive sophistication of the prehistoric art while seemingly annoyed at the other tourists’ fascination with graffiti etched into them: “Ignore those childish scratchings,/ please. See the mammoth, here,/ the aurochs’ curving horns./ So long ago, yet those artists understood/ perspective; this leg is clearly behind that one./ How long until we learned that again?/ Centuries.”
Nieman’s poems often use natural imagery. “Father Showed Us the Aurora Borealis” employs artful juxtaposition when evoking the colors of the northern lights: “Colors of a hummingbird gorget,/ parrot fish, shallow seas,/ mandevilla, bougainvillea,/ flametree,/ tropicalities weaving/ in the airless/ ineffable between earth and moon.” These vibrant, tropical images placed alongside the arctic scene show off Nieman’s talent for playing with the reader’s expectations.
She toys with juxtaposing nature in two other fine poems, “Apocrypha” and “Catechism.” Both titles bring to mind religious themes, but they’re largely concerned with nature. Nieman even recognizes her tool explicitly; “Catechism” begins, “Quickly!/ Before your memory fades—/ what did you see?” Some may think of the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed, but not Nieman’s speaker: “Grass moving in the wind, birds, young pines/ like bottlebrushes, squirrels.” But Nieman realizes the power of suggestion, using it to craft an entertaining poetic narrative. In poems like “Catechism,” Nieman’s church seems to be the outdoors, flora and fauna, the corporeal.
Hotel Worthy contains suite after suite of poems as good as these. There’s a vacancy for any fan of poetry.
Review: Shrimp by Jay Pierce, University of North Carolina Press, 2015
It’s not every day you find a cookbook that reads like a novel.
Shrimp by Jay Pierce, former executive chef at Lucky 32 in Greensboro and Cary, is the most recent addition to the Savor the South cookbook series, which highlights single dishes or ingredients in each of its books. The food connoisseur — who now bears the title of executive chef at Rocksalt in Charlotte — introduces readers to the small yet beloved crustacean and highlights his many experiences with the decapod.
Guiding readers through the strenuous process of catching then freezing and finally cooking shrimp, Pierce unravels an intricate world revolving around not only eating the delicacy but really understanding its position in the culinary world.
Before sharing his own takes on classic and contemporary shrimp recipes, Pierce takes readers from the salty decks off coastal waters in the Carolinas and Louisiana, illuminating his family’s personal connection to the food, to white tablecloths of fine restaurants and greasy fast-food joints that serve the seafood in a fried popcorn variety. He outlines the history of the crustacean and how its popularity came to be, answering in great detail the most efficient way to prepare shrimp, setting up the scene for both cooks and food enthusiasts alike.
By detailing his personal experiences shrimping off the coast of Louisiana and recounting memories of hosting shrimp boils and buying stocks of them from vendors in crowded parking lots, Pierce creates a colorful experience that reads like a biographical novella while offering the best (and easiest) recipes for both beginning and seasoned cooks.
Extending from his passionate introduction, Pierce’s love and respect for shrimp can easily be detected in each of his 50 recipes, from his small plates consisting of bacon-wrapped shrimp to his salads and soups, as well as dishes with noodles and rice and finally entrees exhibiting shrimp as the main event. Each of the recipes opens with a paragraph explaining Pierce’s connection to the dish and the history behind its making. With shout-outs to restaurants and chefs from all over North Carolina, Pierce’s Shrimp is not only an homage to the scrumptious shellfish itself but also a culinary love letter to the state and its finest establishments and restaurateurs.
Lot Boy by Greg Shemkovitz, Sunnyoutside, 2015
It’s been a long time since I’ve cherished a work of fiction this thoroughly.
Sometime around 1996, I switched allegiances from fiction to nonfiction, and books like Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation became the vessels of light that I carried with me like burning truths.
But fiction can be its own kind of truth when it conjures up a compelling world inhabited by fully formed characters reflecting a reality, actual for some but unseen by many. Lot Boy, Greg Shemkovitz’s debut novel, is that kind of book.
Shemkovitz is a skillful writer who draws on his own experience to sketch the socioeconomic and cultural details of his native Buffalo in western New York, and fills in the rest — the callous and antisocial behavior of his protagonist Eddie Lanning — through his keen empathy and imagination. In so doing, the author pulls off a difficult trick by leaning on personality traits that his protagonist sorely lacks to render a compelling and believable character.
As someone with an admittedly limited exposure to Greensboro’s literary canon, I’m excited to discover a genuine budding talent, to know that a work of this caliber was produced here and to gain an appreciation that this city nurtures such ability.
Clocking in at a brisk 265 pages, Lot Boy is the kind of novel that you don’t want to end. And when it does, if you’re like me, you’ll reread the last couple pages two or three times searching for nuances that might have initially eluded you, wondering if you missed something important and if you understand where things are headed.
Written in direct, economical prose, Lot Boy packs layers of meaning and complexity into a narrative that at first appears to be simple and straightforward. In many ways the narrative is propelled by the contradiction of its protagonist, who is both the son of a Ford dealership owner with all the privilege and arrogance that entails, and at the same time the lot boy, who performs the most unskilled and menial labor at the bottom of the operation’s hierarchy. Eddie Lanning’s self-hatred is appropriately projected onto his fellows, simmering with his general loathing for his hometown.
Even if you’ve never visited Buffalo, you can feel the city radiating off the pages of this novel through vivid descriptions of the frozen, industrial landscape; observations of the characters’ personality tics; detailed representations of the rudiments of various jobs; and dialogue richly laced with profanity and local dialect. Those elements would add up to a perfectly fine novel, even if nothing happened at the dealership except the exchange of casual insults among the service writers, sales reps and mechanics. Yet there’s plenty of story here, with most of the action generated from the protagonist’s emotionally stunted antics.
It might seem like a stretch to care about a self-involved jerk like Eddie Lanning, but the skillfully rendered substrata of the novel ultimately makes it impossible not to. It’s the tension between alienation and yearning in the relationship between Eddie and his father. It’s his gradual realization that the flawed but fundamentally decent employees of Lanning Ford are his family. And it’s his burning desire to get the hell out of Buffalo while remaining utterly ignorant of anything beyond his tightly circumscribed world.
There are hilarious bits of dialogue and observation in this book, most of them too foul to print in these pages.
There’s workplace ethnography that will change the way you think about the automotive service sector: “Everybody wants to get their brakes checked or their oil changed before that big drive to grandma’s house. These are easy, low-paying jobs, which is why the mechanics hate them. And they’re short jobs so each customer is willing to wait for their car. That’s why Jack and Porter hate them even more. It means that the waiting room is full and people are wandering around the service area, trying to make small talk like it’s a social mixer.”
There’s keen insight into the particularities of place: “The only establishments that survive are those that can withstand inflated property taxes while supplying what Jack once explained to me as the five Bs of Buffalo. He said, ‘Buffalo starts with five Bs. Beer, bellies, bitching, blizzards, and the Bills.’ If a company can somehow cater to, provide an answer for, encourage, or otherwise feed one of these Bs, then that business stands a chance.”
You wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of Eddie Lanning, the novel’s inchoate antihero, or any of the other characters hovering around the dealership for that matter, but you if you’re willing to go along for the ride you can bet it will be worth it.
Review: Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South by Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford, AK Press, 2015
One of the great things about Dixie Be Damned, my former college advisor told me over our shrimp pho lunch last week, is that the authors set up each new section with very helpful historical context before diving into the minutia of each insurrectionary struggle. The authors’ ability to illuminate primarily forgotten rebellions while framing each within a broader narrative makes Dixie Be Damned an important and digestible read, she said. She may even incorporate the text into one of her classes.
Rather than take the comprehensive Howard Zinn-style approach of A People’s History of the United States, the authors — Saralee Stafford and Neil Shirley — selected seven moments of insurrection across the Southeast that have been largely erased by other accounts of US, Southern or even radical history.
Beginning with a chapter about outlaw communities in the Great Dismal Swamp in northeastern North Carolina, Dixie Be Damned weaves across hundreds of years and several states to illustrate a much stronger tradition of resistance than is generally attributed to the South, one created by teenage girls working in Tennessee mills and marginalized black communities rising up against police oppression in Atlanta, among others. Of the seven pockets of history chronicled in this book, three are in North Carolina, including a chapter on the Lowry Wars in Robeson County during Reconstruction and the concluding insurrection in the book, a 1975 revolt at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women.
It’s not surprising that the anarchists at AK Press would be interested in examining and distributing these histories that had been brushed to the side, but the majority of those who came to listen to the authors at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books last week didn’t necessarily harbor the same feelings about the state and capital as the presenters.
While a few questions touched on the process of examining contemporary newspaper reports and searching for scant historical documents, the most vocal members of the audience wanted to talk about anarchism or pontificate about what would make a successful social upheaval. People — many of them long since gone gray — packed the back of the bookstore for the reading, the authors’ first since the book’s release.
The audience quickly drew connections between a passage Shirley read about a series of riots in Atlanta after heavy-handed policing in the 1960s and modern street fights after police killings of unarmed, black men in the last year. But Shirley pushed attendees deeper, drawing out the ways that wealthy blacks attempted to speak for disenfranchised urban communities or how authorities used civil services to try and placate the public while fueling their own agenda of gentrification and displacement.
At the outset of their research, Stafford expected to find a history dominated by men, but said she was shocked to discover resistance led by women and teenage girls, stories that shook stereotypes about ideas of Southern womanhood. But all of the moments of insurrection challenge existing notions of the region, and counteract the notion that to be proficient in radical history, one must heavily rely on European examples, Stafford said.
“As a radical Southerner, I’ve always had to look to other people’s histories as an example of resistance,” she said at the event, adding that even accounts of historical resistance in the American South usually follow a narrow scope, documenting only certain components such as nonviolent civil rights struggles.
But now, an alternative narrative exists.
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