Bluffing

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Bluff was the location of the wildest and most consistent parties and, also, there was the tradition of “bluffing” to shove one of your buddies off the “bluff” at the most unforeseen moment. The irony is terrible that neither definition of “bluff” actually applied. It was a cliff. Period. A one hundred foot plummet off an upward-tilted lip of earth adorned with clover and dandelions at the far end of a county park, out of earshot of the parking lot even without the roar of sea winds that muscled up the ragged, rocky face of the cliff and stirred drunken teenagers’ hair in interesting ways. And, therefore, faking a shove off it was a lot more like a threat.

 

Bluff had been played on the girl once. She went out there as a freshman, which even among freshmen, was considered a pretty foolish thing to do. The crowd she rode with was peppered with other first year students clutching warm cans of Hamm’s like they were talismans, but mainly it was sophomores and juniors and even some seniors. Because she was appropriately wary of this crowd—getting good and cracked on an early Friday afternoon—she instinctively moved to the highest part of the bluff so she could observe everyone present, but of course this put her back to the open air at the edge of the cliff. When one upperclassman girl distracted her by inquiring after her peculiar ethnicity in that innocent and moronic blonde suburban way (“Ohmygod yoursooocute whatareyou?”), a redhead rocker chick with a hatchet face and leather jacket that would go on to die with a needle stuck into her arm at the ripe old age of 17, grabbed the girl and shoved her hard toward the edge. The redhead had good purchase on the girl’s backpack strap, so she probably wasn’t in any real danger, but nonetheless she shrieked, a spurt of piss got away from her, and she both vomited and began to cry when the redhead released her, disgusted.

 

The girl had come a long way since that freshman afternoon. She was a legal adult, however burdened with a handful of AP English essays before she could kick high school and the awful postcard town full of phony white people goodbye. She had lost her mother to a man named Ramon from Florida and her older brother to an IED in Fallujah. She still had her taciturn father that turned the engines of the town’s luxury SUVs inside out seventy hours per week, and her best friend, a wickedly smart film buff named Arthur, and a string of ex boyfriends that got more embarrassing the more she reflected. And so she tried not to. She tried to be mindful and in the moment and breathe, like her Buddhist auntie Celine had taught her once. That’s what she was doing the night of the last high school party she ever planned to attend, fittingly back on the bluff in the deep black of a late April night.

 

She had been there enough times with boyfriends or Arthur or on her own that she knew just where it was safe to place her feet without danger of the winds whirl-whipping her away into an ugly swan dive. She stared out at the obsidian ocean, seagulls like small triangles of cotton jagging about, using the force of the winds for swoops and ascents. She tipped a sip of German pilsner into her mouth and didn’t spit it out when the hand slid like a boa over her hip because she’d known it was coming.

 

His plot for dealing with her after having raped her in the bathroom at his parents’ Christmas party—she would always smell potpourri and asparagus piss at the most unwelcome moments—was to treat her as often as possible like his girlfriend. Of course she didn’t take to it and, for months, would slap him away, shout him down, spit at his giggles, but she’d found with time that all of that only made it worse. People quickly believed that no guy so adorably smitten and devoted despite her rejection could be guilty of choking her out and having his way with her over a toilet. And when she did stop protesting, when she let him put his arm around her in public, he thought it was victory. And he cooed cruel triumphs in her ear about what he would do next. And she could feel that this was the night that he would actually try.

 

His forearm was around her waist and his hand palmed her thigh through her jeans and she could smell the animal in him. She sighed, as if in resignation and ducked beneath his arm, coming face to face with him, albeit three inches below where he now stood on the lip of the bluff, his back to the sea and desolate song of the gulls. Behind her she could hear the inane squeals of drunken girls and false bravado of drunk boys boom and shatter in the loose thicket of Evergreens where the keg was planted. The sickle moon lit the white of his narrowed eyes and one canine tooth as he half-grinned. She shook her head, as if at herself, and slid one hand demurely onto his crotch, which responded with instant heated expansion. Before he did it, she knew it because she’d seen it happen, against designer wallpaper a year earlier: his head tip back in pleasure. She pushed hard, but didn’t have to. His eyes snapped back in time to catch hers and she’d be lying to this day if she denied the burst of pleasure in her brain, the flood of dopamine that followed the image of his going, his cry erased by the wind. She stayed and finished her beer, but didn’t peer over. She knew she couldn’t see anything at all, way down there on the dark violence of those rocky, sea-smacked shores.

SOUR GRAPES (& a good point or two)

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I’m so powerfully tempted to write this in the third person and distance myself from it in order to keep from sounding bitter.  There are few sounds more distasteful than sour grapes being chewed—I’m aware of this.  For better or for worse, it would also be disingenuous and wildly irrational for me to try to pretend like this was about some “other” independent-press published author. 

 

I’m not going to attempt to give a full sketch of the state of the publishing world.  That would be tedious and complex and too long.  Most people recognize that the foundations are shaking.  Self-publishing through electronic means and the zeal and dexterity with which many small and midsized presses have snapped up the leverage and power offered by e-publishing has cast the mainstream industry into frightened disarray.  Much like CDs, physical books are stacked on a precipitous downward slope that tips toward relative irrelevance (unlike music, I will always prefer a physical book to a file). 

 

Part of me—and I suspect part of many indie authors—cheers this transcendence.  After enough years of disrespect and betrayal and dishonesty at the hands of literary agents and mainstream presses, I can’t help but cheer the rapid entropy.  I can’t help but smirk when they bring lawsuits against Amazon and Apple and whatnot, trying to get their manicured fingertips in the dike.  I almost kissed the self-published author who recently told me that not only had she made the NYT bestseller list, but was enjoying turning down mainstream editors when they called her to buy her book out from under her. 

 

Another part of me, of course, is nostalgic for the days that ended long before I ever published anything—when it was the author’s job to write and the agent’s to sell and the editor’s to edit and the publicist’s to publicize.  And that was that.  The emotionally complex, right-brained artistes could rest easy in the cool shadow, wait to be trotted out après martini or two for a well-attended reading now and then.  Or perhaps it was never that way and it’s just a bittersweet dream some of us share. 

 

But we can’t have it both ways, I realize.  So I swallow my panic at the mandate to “self-promote,” my discomfort at “marketing” an elegy/memoir/love story that is so intimate and meaningful to me.  I swallow the daunting, unhelpful knowledge that I have no idea how to do this and…well, I just start doing it, because the book and what I hope it transmits means that much to me.

 

And I can’t even begin to claim the same duress of solitude that a self-published author can.  I have a mid-sized Canadian press putting my book out, and a team of PR Angels from the Neocom Group that have taken on my plight with tremendous heart because they, too, believe in my work.  But still, it’s a grind through a very dark wood with many moments of temptation to lie down in the snow and go to fucking sleep. 

 

One such moment is what I intended this essay to address.  Let’s say that there’s a certain bookstore in a certain city in Oregon that has gained a great deal of traction as a sort of indie lit clearinghouse and has earned a reputation as ground zero for independent literature in the city and the region.  This store is proudly northwestern in addition to being proudly indie. 

 

My good friend, an affable, well-spoken law student approached this store for me regarding Clearly Now, the Rain, and after following up once or twice, received this response:

 

“I looked into Eli’s book and our buyers elected not to carry that title in stores.  We don’t bring inventory into stores through events, so we would decline a request to host Eli….We just can’t carry every title that gets published each season.” 

 

So, an independent-press published regional author with excellent blurbs (quotes), a kick-ass Kirkus review, and a memoir that takes places majorly in the northwest who’s grinding hard to get some traction isn’t suitable for this store.  (This is the point where I am concerned about the sound of the grapes, but fuck it.)  This does cause one to wonder what is suitable for this store, does it not?  A quick visit to this store’s website evidences no shortage of mainstream press-published, bestselling author, front-list type of titles spotlighted. 

 

If a giant independent bookstore features these titles and turns down…Christ, let’s just say it: turns me down…what precisely does “independent” mean anymore?  And more to the point, how do brick and mortar bookstores expect to survive if they don’t demonstrate any particular interest in, solidarity with or affinity for independent authors?

 

In case I’ve been too harsh on the anonymous J bookstore described above, I should probably add that myself or people working on publicity on my behalf have been simply ignored by all of the bookstores in New Orleans, the University Bookstore in Seattle, and others.  I suppose the question I’m arriving at is: why do bookstores matter anymore if they don’t persist in being locales for literary life and allies in the struggle against corporate domination of art? 

 

And, of course, every single vendor online can indeed “carry every title that’s published each season” if they wish. 

 

(Of course this same Oregon bookstore is selling my book online)