Friday, May 21, 2010

"We're talking about how people communicate."

My brother John would have turned 50 today. He is on my mind of late for reasons I'll keep to myself, but I want to celebrate him nonetheless.

The following is an excerpt from John's last novel The Assault on Tony's, which features five men--wealthy drunks--who barricade themselves in a posh bar as riots rage outside. There is one woman in the book, Jill the barmaid.

Tony's is mostly an emotional landmine for me, but not in this passage. Herein I find only glee. When I read it, I can believe that some things never die. Then of course, it comes to an end. The last shot sluices from the bottle and all I'm left with is an empty glass, a papery grave and my fading memories. Yeah, yeah.

Until then, enjoy this: my favorite pour from John's final effort.

* * *


“I’m talking about those moments when it becomes clear that a certain new aspect—bad or good—of our life has been accepted by the world at large.” Rudd waxed philosophical over his brandy, his eyes full of arousal, thoughts of his life and what made him good. “I’m talking about the moment of cultural assimilation.”

Jill, seated across from him in the booth, watched as he topped off their glasses. Though she’d hardly touched hers, she was trying to keep a pace of sorts. She wanted to be interested in what he was saying, if for no other reason than to fill the oppressive voids spent watching them all passed out. “I think I know what you’re saying,” she said.

He nodded, anxious to be in receipt of this, her volley. “Let me give you two examples,” he said, mellow yet almost out of breath.

Langston dozed on the benches near the front, a fixture now. He dreamed of small girls, men's daughters.

Osmond, Fenton, and Miles were engaged in conversation at the bar. The latter two kept glancing at Jill and Rudd.

Rudd wore that look on his face, like: bear with me, you’ll get it. “I needed a bandanna—I know, I know: it was for a party, I was going to a Sixties party—so I went into one of those kid’s stores—skates and records, stuff like that—and they had them. The woman asked me what color I wanted, and she held out a red one. She looked at me, presumably waiting to see if I wanted red.” He paused to make sure this had all sunk in, that the significance of a red bandanna was not lost on Jill.

“I don’t think I could see you in a red bandanna,” said Jill. No help.

“Well obviously,” Rudd continued, straightforward, best plan, “that’s why I said to her ‘Jeeze, not red! I wear that and I’ll get shot.’ ‘Does that still happen,’ she said, laughing. And that was it. It was significant because it was such a casual joke. The idea of being shot for wearing the wrong color scarf had become nothing more than a joke. No more: oh yeah, isn’t that awful, or: oh, I know what you mean. It had fulfilled its destiny. It had to become a joke because there was simply no other way to deal with it, no other way to challenge its power.”

Jill was nodding, she was close. “I’m with you,” she said. She was tipsy, thank God.

“Right, right,” said Rudd. He choked down a gulp of brandy. “Nother example, this time a good one. Walking down the street on a sunny Sunday afternoon, just me out for a walk. Semi-residential neighborhood, a few liquor stores and banks, maybe a grocery store...” He paused, momentarily lost. Too much detail, he thought. But that’s the best way, right? Rudd sipped his brandy. “I’m walking, and this car pulled up—a BMW I think, one of those kids’ ones, 320 something. In fact it was full of kids, young women, I should say. The driver, about twenty-five, attractive blonde, leaned over her friend and said to me, ‘Do you know if there’s a Plus machine nearby?’. Not an ATM, she didn’t ask for an ATM. She asked for a Plus machine! She asked a total stranger for a Plus machine, and the best part is: I knew exactly what she meant and where one was. I told her, and she thanked me and drove off. Beautiful, I thought. ATMs are now assimilated, so much so that we need to be more specific when discussing them—”

He was interrupted by Miles, who brazenly wedged his way into their conversation, into the booth and next to Jill. “What are we talking about?” he wanted to know.

Ignoring him, or at least resolved to attempt so, Rudd concluded directly to Jill, “Like the colored bandannas, the Plus machines are now a piece of history. We don’t have to ask about them anymore, it’s not a question. It’s a—”

“What’s a plus machine?” asked Miles of Jill.

She looked to Rudd. She had been nodding too vigorously and now she needed him to answer quick.

“Do you mind, Miles?” challenged Rudd, turning on the man.

She felt she had to jump in with something. “We were talking about how people communicate,” she said.

“Thank you, Jill,” said Rudd, looking at Miles as if declared the victor by the ranking authority. He turned to Jill. “—fact,” he said. “Knowledge. It’s knowledge.”

“Eggheads,” said Miles dismissively, before passing out on the table.

Rudd assessed the situation. “You’re trapped,” he said.

* * *


Bill said...

Those writing genes from your Mom or Dad were predominant. Talent. It's talent.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks Bill. This is sort of like John's bday gift to me.

I reread this and think: Stop bellyaching. Stop playing with yourself. Start writing something as good as this. He's dead you're alive. Do something for chrissakes.

Bill said...

I'm guessing that it would be futile to tell you not to be so tough on yourself.

dean said...

1. I was 8 days old when John was born.
2. I think parts of Harvey and Eck are as good as this. You don't get the same sense from it, because it is structured in a completely different way, but it's easily as good, in that it flows as naturally and compellingly as this does.
3. This is good.
4. I'm really glad you're alive. You make the world a better place.

LimesNow said...

Oh, boy. You've got that communicating with other people thing down really well, Erin. John would say so, too. Go. Write. It's what you were put here to do.

Matt Conlon said...

He brings up an interesting point. Travesty, such as gang colors and related murders, like all other things eventually become objects of humor or joke.

We look back on horror, and it's not uncommon to make jokes if for no other reason than to take the horrific power away from the cause, to help us feel safe. Through happiness do we protect ourselves.

Just as we look back at our loved ones gone, and we smile and laugh, as they'd want us to. Through happiness do we remember.

From happiness we came, in happiness we wish to be, into happiness we should go.

May we all live well enough to one day inspire somebody's jokes.

Mrs. C said...

With all due respect to your dear brother on this his birthday, you are as readable a writer as any I have ever read. That is not always true of John for me. I'm betting you are fiercely loyal to his talent, as only a sister can be (Hell, my brother who passed untimely a year ago next week could belch the alphabet--entire, and I will remain fiercely loyal to THAT talent 'til my own end!), but, girlfriend, YOU. CAN. WRITE. And I mean that in the sense of "to beat the band." Harvey and Eck still feeds my soul.

My WV is "cisanis"--sound it out: are our brothers talking to us?!

Kirk Jusko said...

Without having read the entire novel, I can't say for sure whether your brother is speaking through Rudd or not, but I have to say, Rudd is spot on. Everything he says is true, in my humble opinion.

I've been waiting awhile for you to do another post on your brother, because there's a question I've been wanting to ask. You've written a lot about how he was influenced by Bob Dylan, but seeing as your brother wrote prose and not songs, I'm wondering if he had a favorite author or novel.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments. Today is difficult for a many reasons and it is a comfort to also find it filled with kind words.

Kirk, my brain is fried today, but John loved Gore Vidal and William Faulkner. There's others of course. I'll jump back in as I think of them.

Kirk Jusko said...

Don't jump in if you don't want to. Those two names are fine. Good choices.

Anonymous said...

"Death ends a life, not a relationship."
Morrie Schwartz, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

I'm sorry for your loss and your pain. And John's too.


Gillian said...

a brilliant writer.

al The Retired Army Guy said...


You are a powerful writer. And I'm proud to include you as my friend.

John is looking down, and smiling.


philbilly said...

Erin, I want you to stand on the bathroom sink and repeat to yourself, "I can do anything good."

swine said...

in my belief system there is no heaven no hell no religion nothing. there is just art. and John lives through his. as we all do through ours.

philbilly said...

I think, from the outside looking in, that great writing, not unlike like great music, is distinguishable from good writing by the density and intensity of the arrangement. It appears as if the author has poured their soul and energy into each word, none come along for the grammatical ride as they do when proles like myself scribble.

And so each succession of letters takes the reader somewhere further inside the plot, the author's vision.

In this passage, as Rudd endeavors to illustrate his thoughts on cultural assimilation, he unwittingly, although I believe by no coincendence on John's part, refers to "a BMW I think, one of those kids’ ones, 320 something."

This small fragment is a brilliant cultural reference to an era,80's, a demographic, the young upwardly mobile professionals and the inculcation of BMW's 320i among that tribe of consumers. It subtly parses for the reader, who is unlikely to know as I do via EOB that John was steeped in American Automobilia,the very essence of cultural assimilation that Rudd is laying out.

I need to read more authentic literature. I can quote Steinbeck and Melville, but methinks I'll take " The Assault on Tony's" into the woods with me later this summer.

Thanks again EOB.

Erin O'Brien said...

I am on a tough stretch of road right now and these comments mean the world to me. Thank you with all my heart.

Mrs. C said...

Sweet, just ease your foot up off the peddle before each pothole. The road smooths ahead.