Something Dark to Shine In

By Henry CherryJune 4, 2012

Something Dark to Shine In

Glory Goes and Gets Some by Emily Carter

NEAR THE END OF Glory Goes and Gets Some, a collection of intertwined short stories by Emily Carter, the narrator admonishes the reader, "never assume the painful part is over."

For most of the preceding pages, Glory B. spends her time diverting neighbor kids from her AZT bottles, coercing herself not to blow her newfound and hard fought sobriety, and pondering the right way to word a personal ad in a magazine for people with AIDS.

Never assume the painful part is over.

Glory, like Nelson Algren's Frankie Machine, lives in the shadow of her name. The similarities don't end there: Each clings to the frigid but bosomy Midwest where addiction doubles as metaphoric descriptor, and hardboiled actuality. Both writers play jazz songs with language, and then dance on reportorial passages drunk on implications they pound into your head. Or as Algren writes in the graffiti on a jail cell wall in his The Man with the Golden Arm, "Everybody shut up. If you were any good, you wouldn't be in here."

While Glory is not born of the same industrial cast as Frankie Machine, she searches him out the way her drugged-out contemporaries track Lou Reed, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Glory is a lifer; even if she makes it out, she wears Frankie's toe tag like it were her own. She's carrying a lethal passenger, and one day that passenger will eat her whole. While Frankie will find no kind ending, Glory struggles to free herself from herself. Her America is smaller, older, devoid of the manufactured façade of Algren's. Gone is the Federal Medical Center, where recidivistic junkies were sent, to live out there lives, or to finally catch the "cure." Instead, Glory witnesses an entire economy built upon the foundations of twelve-step group therapy — housing complexes, treatment center jobs, personal identities that clung to the shadows of every day conversation in Algren's time. Like Carter writes, "Here is where it gets brilliant: for the cure of addiction to any chemical you can name, Minneapolis is the place to go."

This book revolves around Glory, and Carter delivers her to us unerringly. From the story Parachute Silk: "Here was Glory, beloved baby girl of professional parents, going into neighborhoods her great-grandfather had worked all his life to get his family out of, sniffing around for heroin, the opiate of the people. Marie Antoinette in her little peasant dress, Glory in her leather jacket."

Whereas Algren's Division Street served as a Petri dish to dissect the underbelly of American imperialism, a place where universal truths congregated with black market depravity, Glory seizes in a smaller world. She lets some common light of universality in the room, but for the most part she draws the shades closed so individual truths can run roughshod over her, and her descent. Malaise carries with Glory as she stumbles from the Lower East Side to the Pacific Northwest, until she lands, negligibly repentant, in Minneapolis.

In Algren's hands:

The great secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. Guilt that lay crouched behind every billboard which gave each man his commandments; for each man here had failed the billboards all down the line. ...All had gone stale for these disinherited. Their very lives gave off a certain jailhouse odor: it trailed down the streets of Skid Row behind them till the city itself seemed some sort of open roofed jail with walls for all men and laughter for very few. On Skid Row even the native-born no longer felt they had been born in America. They felt they had merely emerged from the wrong side of its billboards.

In Carter's:

The noise in downtown Minneapolis spins like pinwheel sparklers in your ears on Saturday night — televisions blaring out of sports bars, street hassles, rich-kid revelers lurching from club to club, radio-station songs of dance & romance, bright and twinkling like aluminum foil, the endless thudding of trucks over the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. But listen closely for only a second and you will hear the calm electric buzz of the happy dead who just couldn't bear to leave the city, death unlike life sending down nothing that a soul can't bear.

This is fiction as loose autobiography — Carter shares with Glory the dual diagnosis of addiction and AIDS, for instance — but it represents something much more than Carter, alone. These aren't the daring addictive memes of Stahl and Yablonsky. This is the emotional methodology of the slide. Junkie, or clean, Glory is never languorous. Visceral from the very beginning, Glory narrowly dodges the violence implied by a strange man's abusively rough jive:

...that guy who was always there with his broken instrument: Excuse me Miss, but I'm a jazz, excuse me, Miss, but I used to play with Parker, Miss, excuse me, but I'm a jazz musician, and I'm talking to you... I heard them say it their voices twining around through the pointed scrawny leaves of the plane trees, around the twigs and paper cups at my feet: Excuse me miss, but my mother was knife sharp, slender blue dragon, she spat white hot fire from her eyes, like lasers, and her teeth were shaped like needles, twelve feet long, her scales like sapphires; when she flew overhead she cast a shadow across the face of the sun, her talons were made of black steel, and she would have called you a bitch because you won't talk to me Miss." He is New York, he is addiction. But also, he's the guy she has to walk by every fucking day, and she can't make him disappear, no matter how high she gets.

When she hits a rung so low on her ladder it shakes her from the chemical bonds, she can't escape the warped demonstrative memories of her past. She outruns reality in bar rooms where her money runs out, in car rides with men who want only to waste into nothing, and in bathrooms where nothing good is going to happen. A redemptive refrain is offered only when Glory, out of her mind in full blown addiction, lands in the Parthenon of drug rehabilitation. She is a witch's brew of infirmity. "Anyone looking at me can tell I don't know how to do even the simplest things," Glory explains in WLUV. " I don't know how to drive, what to say, how to get in a checkout line at a convenience store." Then the demon arrives. "And besides, I'm ugly."

Carter's characters balance on a fulcrum of despair and abeyance. I say characters, but most of all, there is Glory. We know her only as Glory B. (a rickety allusion to a weakened rosary prayer) until an architect in the midst of a bender "that goes beyond inebriation into a state of almost genteel lucidity" asks Glory her last name.

Carter's prose brims with both revelatory expanse and simple prudence, often in the same sentence, like when she lifts the cover from Glory's walking corpse with sharply punctual sentences that diagnose, dissect, and suture in one fell swoop.

We walked outside and he went into the fruit store on the corner of Second Street. Apples, green pears, lemons, and purple grapes tumbled out of the bins like jewels, hosed down and shining, tended by the owner's son who worked with his kick-ass cash-register mother and father all night, and was up and on his way to law school in Queens every morning at six. When I saw those no-bullshit Korean faces and caught a glimpse of all that fruit spilling over abundantly almost out into the street, I was ashamed for myself, of my indolence, my bone-crushing indolence, until he came out with a bag of strawberries. He moved under the fake white moon of the streetlight and popped one into my mouth. You can have it all, he said.

This is the lie she's been looking for, and finding, as the habitual lowliness of her life becomes an oozing abscess she can't stop, like a telegraph from her murky future.

When tracked down for an interview, Carter responded warily. "That book is eleven or twelve years old, why on earth are you writing about it now?" Carter's caginess likely resulted from previous reviews that made more mention of her mother, feminist Anne Roiphe, and sister, the writer Kate Roiphe, than her. One review jilted all nuance whatsoever, labeling Carter a hybrid of William S. Burroughs and Fran Lebowitz. The book stalled. A terrible photo of Carter ran with the second Times piece, making the attractive woman appear like a haggish speedfreak. Carter didn't make it onto Oprah. Today, Amazon lists Glory Goes and Gets Some for a thin penny above the cost of shipping.

It wouldn't be such a gratifying ride were it not for Glory's entropic sparring match, with herself, with the world around her. What a world it is. Men smash women in the faces with tire irons, an alcoholic nun steals the baby Jesus from a manger scene, urban gangsters mistakenly murder a man's beloved cat. This is the wild tingle of nerve endings remembering their purpose:

The voice of that person you loved and left singing in small chanting words a child's song, you remember that, and the conspicuous absence of laughter after that misplaced joke you tried to tell at your uncle's wake, your uncle whom nobody liked but didn't really want to hear jokes about; we are replaying that two seconds of silence in the mix forever and ever; and the sound of the counselor at the resort your parents took you to announcing your win in the swimming race, the win you had cheated for by pushing off with your feet, more running than swimming; your fake panting, the sound of your desire to win, and your fake panting sounds when you were doing the ding-dong with that boy you met or that girl you met at the bar or that AA meeting who you didn't know well enough to talk about your genitals and so you just pretended to be swept up in the moment, that cry of faux pleasure will echo like a dial tone all night.

Carter owns Glory's instincts the way great jockeys intuit the powerful needs of the horses beneath them. She's walked this walk, and instead of edging her audience around the wild fucked up interactions of her life, she brings you with her to the life-changing phone call that almost was the spot where all time should have stopped, but somehow didn't because she wasn't listening: "The phone rang ..."

"It's Amelio. Listen, sweetheart, I have to tell you something."

"Amelio," I said, with one eye on my boyfriend who was pointing to the door he wanted me to walk out of with $1.15 in my pocket and a January sleet-storm spattering the street,

"I told you not to call me."

"Okay," he said, with perfect equanimity, and hung up.... There's no doubt in my mind what news Amelio had to share. What he was trying to do was the decent thing.

There is a transom over each of Glory's stories through which an explosive exposition of place occurs. Crawl through it, and there is New York, fluidly hallucinogenic — "the night on Houston (street) like a black tropical shipwreck ocean, fathoms deep and full of trinkets for a young girl like yours-ever-true." Crawl back, now it is Coney Island — "its own set of fragile ruins." Another time it offers Minneapolis — "Listen the traffic will tell you, this is a town that isn't going to be a town much longer, soon it will be a theme park." Here again comes the Algren connection. Carter superbly adapts a magically vivid prose descended from Algren's typewriter, so yeah, sometimes it feels like her debt to him transmits locales effortlessly to a character — you are where you are, wherever you are, whoever you wish you could be.

Glory issues matter-of-fact bruises to her sense of self, her freedom, like in the story "New in North Town" — "I am so far from home, here in Minneapolis, that I might in fact be an entirely different person. No. That's just wishful loneliness speaking." She chastises her whimsical side for having the nerve to dream of anything but pain. Every failure is examined under the blistering magnification of self-loathing, delivered with an abundance of sins. In "Glory B. and the Angels" it is greed, in "Glory B. and the Iceman" it is lust, in "Glory B. and the Gentle Art" it is jealousy. The whole deadly batch is gathered here inside her mind — wrath, pride, gluttony and sloth — functionally allegorical, each and every one. You ride along in the front seat with Glory, viewing the carnage she attempts to revivify. But it is with a calloused and withering heart she makes these attempts, creating poetry in the midst of the storm, like the Frank Stanford line, "I'll just bleed so the stars can have something dark to shine in."

For her first book, her only book, a collection written across a decades, Glory Goes and Gets Some is a dramatic etude written in a fecund key. As each story progresses, the characterizations become crisper, lost details emerge from halo vision. And while it feels like a miracle that a PWA (person with AIDS) can get with the program, it is quite obviously a tarnished miracle. With each forward step, Glory accepts little, and expects doom: "So much for a cold pristine vision of eternity. I should have known — having always hated any kind of coolness — that any attempt on my part to merge in to oceanic oneness with the eternal would end in what young children generally call a 'noser.'"

On the rare occasion when Carter is on rocky footing, she moves less forcefully; like when Glory directly addresses the reader. From the first line of the first story, she takes a decidedly familiar tone. That familiarity establishes our trust in her, which then sets the pace car rolling. At the end of "Glory B. and the Ice Man," Carter forces us to acknowledge that the wall between us is missing. It ruins the effect. Still Glory, in her own inwardly scornful way, is very funny. "Some nights the idea of an old man playing with himself just didn't seem like much of a threat next to an evening without human chit chat." And, "who wouldn't love a woman that believed in Sigmund Freud the way a Catholic laundress believes in the Holy Mother?" These jocular chords make up for the losses.

Her counselor, a smart aleck-y ex-biker named Haakon, comes up with two lists. What she feels bad about, and what she feels good about. You immediately love and hate Haakon, he's that believable, stocked full of things you wish the real counselors on Celebrity Rehab would say because they're conceptually sound, offer actual change, and are not weighed down by the reality show's resounding phoniness. Glory, ever the addict, overcomplicates Haakon's lists, conflating them into things she will never do, and things she would never do. "The things I will never do preserve my sense of sorrow," she allows, "the things I would never do preserve my sense of dignity." The book can't suppress its heartache. Maybe that's another fault. Beyond those aching hearts lays a future free of Glory's erstwhile, but still conscious, incompetence. "I refuse to lose perspective," she says of a dream in which all of her friends fall to their deaths, "it could be so much worse. They could have just stopped calling."

It is this same intangible dream Eugene O'Neill referenced in Long Day's Journey into Night, as consumptive Edmund longingly recalls life at sea, "it was a great mistake my being born a man, I would have been more successful as a seagull, or a fish." Glory's lineage attaches not to the reformed church of dangerously addicted celebrity set and their biographical mediations on rehabilitation and recovery, but directly to O'Neill, and Algren, who arduously exhibited the outer realms of humanity. Carter exorcises the truly damnable portions of her own life, like O'Neill, after cleaning up. She clutches Algren close to her breast, "he wrote about uncomfortable subjects without either bowdlerizing, or romanticizing them. You did not see the noble, suffering poor, you saw real human beings who were greedy venal and feral just like we all are, and you understood what they were responding to wasn't anything noble or enduring it was merely economics and poverty." But where Algren and O'Neill sought to populate their fiction with a wide variety of credible voices, Carter's voice is Glory, and Glory bubbles with that small-world-after-all sensibility. Sometimes, the stories fail, usually if Glory B. is left out entirely. I can't help but wonder if "Bad Boy Walking"'s narrator would have found a place in the book had addiction not been its theme. This weakness is also a strength. You forgive her for it, because the language is prickly, and vivid, her characters woolly, but upright.

"The Bride" is probably the most complex story — it does the most work biographically and emotionally. At one point Glory and a gaggle of causeless rebels smoke pot at school. Paranoia invades her every thought, and she retreats to the bathroom reminding her reflection in the mirror, "You won't forget how to breathe." Like that, the sequence becomes a memory of your own. A few pages later, writing about heroin, any care for self or others dries up and withers. "Imagine a sensation so powerful it provided freedom from other humans...I envisioned nothing more than its embrace for my future." But she refuses to stay in that besotted nod for long. And Carter doesn't dandy up Glory's reconstruction, either. Nothing Glory relates comes unfettered from the future, day in and day out, her hardest lesson comes in accepting the here and now for what they are. Change, for Glory, comes only at the hands of the steamroller. Here, that is the diagnosis that she has AIDS.

Psychologists determine cognitive success and construct validity with psychological systems — the Johari Window, the Myers-Briggs indicator, the Gordon method. Each of those systems tests, in their own way, how blind dysfunction can melt away in favor of functional bliss. Carter slyly introduces the same scale — unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and, at last, unconscious competence. She does it story by story, with what can only be called soul-stunning nonchalance, until at last she shows us her best note: "Laughter is how you'll know the merciful end of time has made its first stop, that and the people running outside to tell everyone. All the customers in City Coin scatter down the block, shouting and tumbling, and the street will be left in silence. The store windows will catch the blue evening light and shine like eyes filled with religion."

Glory doesn't win it all in the end, the absence of her pain does. And we who have followed after her are left wishing more people had done so because Carter was standing on the verge of getting it on. She is deeply imbued with the same "strange midnight dignity" Carl Sandburg tagged Algren with. We need more writers willing to invest such driven insight with this kind of free form muscularity.

LARB Contributor

Henry Cherry is a Los Angeles–based journalist and documentary filmmaker. His work has appeared in Southwestern American Literature, LA Weekly, Scalawag Magazine, Offbeat Magazine, PBS’s, and We Dropped a Bomb on You, the Best of Slake Magazine on Rare Bird Books.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!