January saw the release of Truth Poker, the sixth book by Carve alumnus Mark Brazaitis. Incidentally, the title comes from a story in the collection that first appeared in Carve back in 2011. I can't in good conscience recommend clicking the link reading it right now, because it ends up being such an exquisite denouement to the batch of stories to which it lends its name.
Mark was recently gracious enough to answer a few questions we had about his new book, Latin America, and the American definition of "magic."
I was hoping you could say a little bit about the arrangement of Truth Poker and about what compelled you to split it into three parts. In your mind, how do each of the three sections relate to the others?
I had 15 stories for the collection. It seemed like a good idea to divide them into three sections—like three-of-a-kind in poker!
"The Blind Wrestler" seemed like a good story to start with because it sounds a number of themes in the book, including a desire to be someone else or some better version of oneself.
I also wanted the stories set in Latin America in the middle of the book, so readers go from the U.S. to Latin America to the U.S. again.
Finally, I wanted to save a few lighter stories, such as "What to Expect When You Say You're Expecting," about a woman who, in a spontaneous moment, declares she's pregnant, and "Pistachio," which is about a character who claims to be an actor but is really an untalented theater aficionado, for near the end—but not the very end. The title story, with its devastating secrets, seemed a fitting note with which to conclude the book.
At times, Truth Poker takes us back to Sherman, Ohio, the setting of The Incurables. Did these stories begin as Incurables B-sides, or were they written after its publication? Did you find yourself approaching Sherman and its people any differently during your return visit?
I like the idea of Truth Poker being The Incurables' B-sides. But ever since I wrote The Incurables, Sherman has been my de facto U.S. setting. Maybe I'm lazy and appreciate a convenient landscape upon which to send my characters off on their adventures and misadventures. But I also think it's a representative stage—representative, that is, of non-coastal USA. It's America with all its contradictions, dark corners, and occasional fields of brilliant light.
The tenor of the Latin American stories in Part Two is much different from the stories set in Sherman (or elsewhere in the United States). Generally speaking, the Sherman stories feature characters coping with a familiar, persistent sense of dissatisfaction and unease about work, life, and the world (to borrow your phrasing), while the characters visiting Guatemala and Argentina largely find themselves in stories about miracles, about beauty and forgiveness. To what extent do you think this change in location is responsible for the change in tone?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said the term magical realism is a misnomer. His writing, he said, was realistic; magic simply happens in Latin America. Having lived in Latin America (over staggered periods) for four years, I believe him. Example: I had been living in Guatemala for two years, and I had never seen a garbage truck. (My neighbors and, reluctantly, I burned our trash.) But one early morning, with the trash bags in my house overflowing, I heard a familiar rumble outside my door. Instinctively, I grabbed the bags and raced outside. Sure enough, there was a garbage truck, manned by two gentlemen in white. I extended my trash bags and they accepted them with smiles, tossed them into the rear of their truck, and drove away. I never saw a garbage truck in Guatemala again. Magic!
"Blackheart," which high-school students across the country are now reading in a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt anthology, is based on my younger daughter's relationship with a guard dog in the vineyard we lived in in Argentina. "The Eye Man," which is about a blind boy who thinks doctors can give him real eyes, is based on an incident I witnessed.
At the risk of over-generalizing, why do you suppose American realism tends towards dysphoria and isolation instead of magic?
As a culture, we're suspicious—and afraid—of magic. Magic is unconventional, odd, out of the ordinary. It's an Italian-Peruvian-Hungarian restaurant—some brave reordering of the usual—when, at heart, we just want the safety and security of Wendy's and Burger King. We hide from the dangers and delights of spontaneity and unpredictability. We don't shy from willful ignorance, however—the stupid disappearing acts we perform on our own intelligence. We're willing to deny the existence of climate change—to say "Presto" and pretend climate change is an illusion created by conniving scientists. Likewise, we're willing to allow the chasm between our country's rich and poor to grow as wide as an ocean but, meanwhile, we convince ourselves—"Presto"—that this is somehow okay for our democracy. But we know we're lying to ourselves, and we're scared to death of our delusions, and this explains the popularity of dystopia fiction—worlds in which we've paid the price for rejecting magic in favor of self-delusion.
The stories set in Sherman aren't entirely devoid of inexplicable events or moments of sublimity (those occasional fields of brilliant light, as you say). If there's anything like magic haunting the American landscape, how would you characterize it?
In my fiction, magic often comes from within characters—from characters' willingness to see the world in ways other characters cannot. For example, in "What to Expect When You Say You're Expecting," Sasha lies about being pregnant but eventually her lie becomes so convincing, especially to herself, that it—magically—enables her to see what she couldn't see before, including her father's hidden tenderness and the delight and value of teaching music to elementary-school children. In "Pistachio," the protagonist, Felix Kapoodle, decides to revise classic tragedies so the endings are the opposite of tragic. There is something ridiculous and foolhardy in his venture (or adventure). But there's also something magical about it. Here's a character who risks the absurd in order to suggest to audiences the possibility of happiness. Even in "The Meet," the crazed parents who spontaneously join their sons' cross-country race are striving to pierce ordinariness and create something more satisfying. Magic or insanity? In Truth Poker, and perhaps in other contemporary works of American fiction, the line is difficult to define.
I can't help noticing that the cheerier stories of Part Two tend to feature young people, while the more sober stories of Part One and Part Three are about people in their mid-age. As a recent inductee to the thirty-something club, should I be reading Truth Poker as a warning of what's to come?
I wrote and published "The Eye Man" and "The Bribe," two of the stories in the second section of Truth Poker, when I was in my twenties. Yes, it has taken them two decades to find their way into one of my collections. "Blackheart" features a young protagonist. Otherwise—yes—my attention has turned to what it's like to be in mid-life-crisis mode, although "mid-life crisis" conjures images of sports cars, Botox, and bad dye jobs. My characters are confronting their vanishing youth as they're struggling with parenthood ("The Blind Wrestler" and "Cuts") or its absence ("The Girl on the Subtle" and "What to Expect When You Say You're Expecting"). They are also paying the price for living, as young people, a life full of conflict, confusion, and trauma, as in the title story.
The piece in the collection that hit me the hardest was the jet-black "The Ghosts of Girls." Can you tell me about what went into writing it?
"The Ghosts of Girls" is about an otherwise good person who is behind the wheel in a hit-and-run accident. I was inspired to write it as I was driving home one night and a doe—blazing white—dashed in front of my car and disappeared into the woods on the side of the road. I thought, "What if the doe had been a person—a child? What if I had struck the child?" It was a terrifying thought. Fortunately, I didn't have to live the reality. But Joan, my protagonist, does.