The Nightstand


Last week, we were eating fish kebabs on a deck with a view and, like you, looking forward to the fireworks but also wondering vaguely if the spectacle would turn exceedingly more spectacular and mushroom shaped. Mary McCarthy said, "The happy ending is our national belief." And so it was also our national experience. Don't misunderstand: Mary McCarthy was not on the deck with us (she couldn't make it, as she's been occupied with being dead for more than a decade). But after the fireworks, the Nightstand went home and relished the gift of not-nuclear-death by spending the evening with Ms. M.M.—specifically, with a new book of her critical essays called A Bolt From the Blue, edited and introduced by A.O. Scott. In which McCarthy flatly obliterates Eugene O'Neill: "To audiences accustomed to the oily virtuosity of George Kaufman, George Abbott, [and] Lillian Hellman . . . the return of a playwright who—to be frank—cannot write is a solemn and sentimental occasion." In which she deflates J.D. Salinger's books by noticing that "a great deal of attention is paid to the rituals of cigarette lighting and of drinking from a glass." And in which she convicts Tennessee Williams for the crime of self-aggrandizement: "His work reeks of literary ambition as the apartment [in Streetcar] reeks of cheap perfume; it is impossible to witness one of Mr. Williams' plays without being aware of the pervading smell of careerism." McCarthy is brilliant and, by turns, beyond us. About William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, she says: "The book is alive, like a basketful of crabs," which makes beautiful sense, but then she goes on to say that, in Naked Lunch, "sex, while magnified . . . is a kind of mechanical man-trap baited with fresh meat. The sexual climax, the jet of sperm, accompanied by a whistling scream, is often a death spasm, and the 'perfect' orgasm would seem to be the posthumous orgasm of the hanged man, shooting his jism into pure space."

Sufficient space to explore this does not exist here, nor perhaps anywhere. Of note: Mary McCarthy was born in Seattle 90 years ago and went to high school in, weirdly, Tacoma.

Also last week: Led into a Richard Hugo House man-trap baited with the promise of free cake, some unfortunate locals gathered at a reading for a new literary magazine that is called Bird Dog but is full of bird shit. To get your frosted slice, you had to sit through one poet's discussion of "the aeration of milk" in a cappuccino, a ponytailed man who whispered his entire poem, and a poem that consisted wholly and only of numbers ("15, 53, 418 . . . "). The first piece in the debut issue of Bird Dog is called "Fog Drip," which approximately describes the effect this kind of poetry has on our brain. And the cake was terrible.

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