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Going Dark: Selected Stories Paperback – August 1, 2016
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Hush Now, Don't Explain: Steeped in the strains of postwar jazz and the lonely sound of train whistles in the night, this is a gritty, evocative novel of identity, race, and a particularly American kind of yearning. The Library Journal"
About the Author
Dennis Must is the author of two other short story collections: Oh, Don’t Ask Why, Red Hen Press (2007), and Banjo Grease, Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA (2000). His first novel, The World’s Smallest Bible, was published by Red Hen Press in March of 2014. His second novel, Hush Now, Don't Explain, was published by Coffeetown Press in October of 2014. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway, and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. Dennis and his wife Aviva live in Massachusetts. Visit him online at www.dennismust.com.
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Top Customer Reviews
There is much pain and sorrow in these stories but the writer glides over it as if to say—That’s right, but let’s move on. But oh, what moving on.
The way I see it, these stories, despite their foundation in a concrete world, twist away from the real. The work isn't naturalistic, neither is it realistic nor completely surrealistic. It has, instead, this element of the beyond, which the French poet Stephane Mallarmé called the "au dela" and others called the ephemeral. In Going Dark the drudgery of realism is loosened and the imagination, which is the wellspring of the surreal, then combines unexpected images to produce a state of mental reality of its own. This is Lyrical Surrealism.
There is of course little lyrical about French surrealism so Must has come up with something that bends genres while staying faithful to a time and place of loss and yearning. That in itself evokes the surreal which is always yearning for something which reality cannot give.
These stories tell tales of a lost time. The way Must handles the quest for the "I" or the "self" is intriguing and has given him, in the long run, a style which is at once timeless and bound with the time of a lost world.
There are elements in the stories that appear in Must’s novel The World’s Smallest Bible (Red Hen Press), elements which remind me of the way the Spanish playwright, Fernando Arrabal and the American mystery novelist Raymond Chandler used their work as foundation for more complex and challenging pieces. This technique lends to Must’s writing a sense of self-referentialism--one of my favorite techniques. For example a truck load of trucks, a car towing a car. The self-referential suggests a closed system while our minds are working on and yearning for something beyond--hence our Martian and Saturnian journeys.
The social substrate of Nazism and the SS infuses Must’s work to produce a terror of the mind and a fear of death that combines with suicides to leave the reader with a feeling of complete horror at being alive. The number of suicides in these stories made me think, and as someone once write about Samuel Beckett, his is a work that makes you think, so Must joins some big-league writers in toying with our mind while giving us stories with anchors. No mean feat that.
These lines struck me for their suggestive and haunting emotional bases:
So in truth I was an adult, looking twelve and having to relive the torment that I would commit suicide if I was honest with myself.
Apparently a year before I met her, she’d been jilted by her football star squeeze for a best girlfriend, causing her periodic spells of crying, loss of appetite, and suicide flirtation.
It wasn’t the tranquil suicide but metaphor of the joining rivers that haunted me.
The poetics of prose run strong and deep in Must’s stories. His is a lyrical prose that at times enters pure poetry—which I think of as images, compressed, condensed, and evocative rather than descriptive. Take a look at this:
“I watched him trot like a mustang through [that] meadow, the fire leaping out of his pant legs and dripping off his hands like water into [the] dry stubble; it snaked across the meadow, that flame keeping right up to him, never getting ahead of him, trailing him as if it was how he ordained it.”
If you work that a bit, you get metered lines with strong images: (I hope the author will forgive me for changing two words—changes in brackets after consultation with the author.)
“I watched him trot--a mustang through [a] meadow,
fire leaping out of his pant legs and dripping
off his hands like water into dry stubble;
it snaked across the meadow, that flame keeping
right up to him, never getting ahead of him,
trailing him as if it was how he ordained it.”
There are places where I stopped reading for story just to enjoy Must’s words. In the words, in the vocabulary, Must speaks to us living in an age that does not enjoy lexical prowess, but seems to seek out the lowest elements in the lexicon. In Going Dark, Must refuses to admit that the dumbing down of America is in full swing, and I like that, although I despair as well.
In his novel The World’s Smallest Bible, Must entered the lost world of the illustrated novel. I think of Gustav Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy, and I also look at my 1933 Bibliophilist Society copy of Roxana, DeFoe's masterpiece, and I see a book that treats the eye as well as the ear. Going Dark does just that. It is not a comic book but an integrated work of words with scattered drawings—in short, it is what Must’s publisher calls the hybrid novel. The author must feel happy also that he found an artist who shares his vision. He is to be congratulated for taking this risk—writing smart in a time of great stupidity. Going Dark, Selected Stories is a joy to read and you must read it on several levels. Highly recommended for readers who do not believe that literary fiction is a thing of the past.
I mention all of this just to explain the impact upon me of Dennis Must's "Comin' For To Carry Me Home," which is finally included in this latest collection of his work in the short form, and which I regard as the flagship of his entire fleet, as well as a novel-in-itself and a précis of his entire oeuvre. It is the Aleph, shining like tears in the near-dark, of Must's fictional universe -- a dazzling mystical shorthand of verbal lightning flashes that covers his entire psychic landscape.
Yet I remember being unsure, at first, of what I was reading, because the first two paragraphs are so almost completely prosaic:
"Last evening I watched two aging African-American musicians give a concert. The piano player, once heavily recorded, required assistance to the piano bench. *He's blind,* I thought. Then I watched him play. His right hand frozen in a strange configuration -- the fingers arced back toward his wrist. The key intervals it struck were fixed. Yet the left hand drove the melody."
"A tenor saxophone accompanist intermittently sang with a deep timbre that crescendoed to a brassy wail. Within the first minutes of the opening number, there was hardly one audience member who didn't believe he was in for a sermon this night."
So far, so good. I appreciated the mythic touches. A blind, lame old pianist with one hand frozen into a claw, who sits down and starts banging out a powerful melody -- is this not already the territory of dreams? Add the "brassy wail" and the feeling begins to build. As for the narrator, we know nothing yet but that he is an aficionado of jazz. That much is clear from his offhand knowledge of musical terms, old recordings, and legendary musicians. At the same time, the story has hardly departed from the station of Realism, which is not my favorite stop on the line.
Yet the next one sentence paragraph: "One I'd never expected." This gave me a jolt. Here the narrator has come to listen respectfully to jazz and he is getting something more.
The 4th paragraph is on the face of it nothing but an italicized quotation of the well known opening lyrics of "Swing low, sweet chariot," yet it is as if the narrator has grabbed your collar and is whispering to you urgently of some dark meaning you should hear in them; this is not just a jazz concert, this is suddenly a revival. The lyric is all sweetness but the sudden feeling is one of danger, of dog-howl blues on an icy road at night.
The pianist begins to sing, his tone "muted and sweet." The saxophonist blows "earthly rumbles and breathy sibilants," then screeches startlingly: "*Yes, God almighty, comin for to carry me home.*" And we are in for a metamorphosis.This innocent jazz concert brings the narrator face to face with a panic he has been evading for years of his life. "I've listened to hundreds of jazz concerts over the years, but this night I didn't *hear* the music. The pianist played with the quiet conviction that the chariot would any hour arrive outside the club. His hand had already begun to assume the shape of a bird's talon."
It's at about this point in Must's story that, one might say, the bottom drops out of the pail, and the reader sits up straight and breathless. For in an intricate play of italicized and non-italicized passages, calls and responses, shouts and laments, the narrator joins his own voice with the lyrics and his own music with the melody, which becomes abrupt and dissonant.
The narrator sees his father seated on a bar stool, among the strangers, and begins to address him directly, roiled by visions of the past involving the old man and his lost older brother Jeremiah:
"Father, is there no damn home?"
"Will you always be over there and me over here? You always forty. Me twenty. And Jeremiah dying somewhere between Hebron and Youngstown -- between the bells and the women."
"*Oh, God.* The pianist's hand metamorphoses further each bar. The fingers arching backwards, the tip of a black man's wing."
"A neon pilsner halos your smoky reflection in the mirror. I recall your warm embrace about my boy shoulders, bullying me out of the land of tintinnabulation. The hollow saxophone wail of eternity that sucks marrow out of my drumstick bones.'
I shall not quote more, though I want to. I leave it to the curious reader to discover just how far a writer can take you with jolts and cuts of language. It is a writing that stutters and stammers, leaving you bewildered but oddly elevated. When I spoke to Dennis Must about wanting to publish this piece -- yes, absolutely yes -- I think I told him that it shatters the mirror of realism, or something like that. I still believe this. In such a short space, the story *gets* then *leaps over* religion, thunders into the past like "a saffron convertible, top down, all the Dorseys of the earth *waawaaaing* out of its chromium dashboard," takes you to a church with no name or location, fusing heaven, earth, and hell into an impregnable mass of beauty.
It's really one of the most beautiful, and personal, things I've ever read.
Do the other stories collected in the volume live up to it? Some approach dangerously close. It is difficult to sustain this blinding intensity and raw freedom of feeling. "Comin' For To Carry Me Home" provides a kind of skeleton key for unlocking some of the more cryptic wonders of Must's fiction. There is on the one hand the drawing-room realism of his Hebron boyhood, depicted in loving and at the same time suffocating detail -- for his childhood, one senses, was at once a loving and a suffocating one. Then there is the wild elation of the road, driving to nowhere with the rag-top down and radio blaring. It's always interested me to see how Dennis Must will contain these antinomies in his writing, which swings between genres as quickly it swings between extremes of feeling. One of my other favorite stories here is "Dry Bread and Turnip Soup," which in its plainspoken way shapes up as a Borges- or Kafka- like fable.
classmates as if the dead soldier's breath was coming back to life. As if playing for his own memorial. For me each story reads as if it is unfolding on the other side of a thin veil. It makes me want to read it again, and the gift is in each successive reading. Each time, with clearer vision.