"You tried to imagine it while you sat at the bar-the writer, not yet a writer, putting his too-hot pen (set glowing by the gods) to paper and penning the first lines of his masterpiece. To hold in your hand the power of a perfect sentence-even then, sitting at the bar, dreaming of one day becoming a writer, you could think of no more glorious thing to happen in a life." FIFTY ONE, Ninety-Nine Bottles
Is there nothing more glorious than that? The perfect sentence. Becoming a writer. Writing a masterpiece. I could tell you I thought of all this as I read the yes, glorious Ninety-Nine Bottles, as well as its glorious sister joints, Adult Teeth and Jenny in Corona, and that would be true, because it is always true. Writing any sentence, much less the perfect one is glorious. And yes, that is a lot of glorious and I'll do my best to shift to a new descriptor soon. But, we dream of writing when all we wish is to one day get started and then we never stop dreaming about it, not when we start writing certainly, and not I suspect even when we stop. A switch is flipped and that is that. And I don't doubt that Joseph G. Peterson, Jeremy T. Wilson and Stuart Ross would agree. The question then is why these books, why now and why have I been reading them in one fell swoop? Also, what meaning do they have to me beyond seeking out the glory that is the written sentence? They are all from Tortoise Books and I'm endlessly fascinated with whether books emerging from the same home hang together in terms of theme or objectives. But it is also true, that I've been around these authors a lot lately as I've begun venturing out to readings again and so I imagine the answer lays somewhere between these two things. What does Tortoise Books care about, what do these authors care about, and selfishly in the overlap of the venn diagram that are these questions, how do the speak to me and my desire to craft my own masterpiece(s)?
To begin then is Ninety-Nine Bottles, and if I am in no way unbiased on these pages, that is indubitably the case with the work of Joseph G. Peterson. And yet despite his many fine books, all of which deal with making sense of loss, be that work, life, relationships, pride or place; violence, be that literal, gun and otherwise, or the more metaphorical tearing of one from the very fabric of society; abuse, especially of substances; creating art, or aspiring to doing so; and profound isolation at all turns, Ninety-Nine Bottles, is still a special book. Special as compared to other books I've read as of late, and all three of these books are terrific, but special even among the Peterson oeuvre. It's not a culmination by any means, there are no doubt many Peterson books to come. But it does gather all of which he does so well and distills it down to a beer soaked song, or more accurately a dirge, and an ongoing loss of life, slow and lyrical and lovingly constructed.
Adult Teeth is something else entirely, short stories for one, with the occasional blasts of magical realism, and all less violent and abusive than Peterson's book, yet not so different that one can't see what Tortoise Books is looking to do. Wilson's characters are searching for something that continues to allude them. For some its happiness, maybe love, connection, or hope of some kind. Many just seem to want things to make better sense though. To feel stable and clear. But it just isn't going to happen for them. I might add that Peterson's characters, when sober or lucid, which isn't often, might want some of this too, but there's no real effort to seek it out. Not that Wilson's characters necessarily seem to seek it out either. If anything they just seem so profoundly, beautifully sad (see "Nesting," "Everything is Going to Be Okay," "Chopsticks" and the title piece particularly) in their inability to do so.
And then there is Jenny in Corona, an especially crafty, and awesomely weird, coming-of-age debut that seems to find a kind of equal joy in word play, pop culture (and culture in general) and sex, and reminds me more of Philip Roth than any book or author I can recently remember reading. In a way, very little happens here, but of course, everything happens here, because is there a time in one's life more explosively new and full of possibilities than one's early 20's? And this isn't to say one doesn't have responsibilities then, but free of school, with money in one's pocket, and caught somewhere between child- and adulthood, anything does seem possible, and anyone can be slept with, and not that your life's path is set, but it can certainly feel like it. And Ross provides us with all of this in his uniquely slanty and propulsive voice and gorgeously drawn meathead protagnosts, who are all the while searching and probing and yes, trying to make sense of why things are the way they are what any of us has to do with any of that.
Might I add here, that if these books hang together then in any way for me, it's about the desire to make sense of the world as we know it and find it and build it for ourselves. Should I also say something about their influence on my own sentence writing? That to write great sentences, one has to read great sentences? And might I also write, that these (Tortoise Books) books will change your life? Or is that abundantly clear by now?