Month: August 2020

Something to Cool You Off

by Dean Smith

Saturday afternoon, summer of ’44, heat rising
from the Durham tar, Private Booker T. Spicely
boarded a bus, cradling a watermelon for a mother and her son,
strode proudly in uniform into the second to last row.

The driver, Lee Council, watched him from the mirror,
never said a word until two white soldiers got on, then pointed
to the State Law sign requiring negroes to “sit from the rear,”
and told the black soldier to move all the way back.

Spicely stood up, smiled, and said, “If I can take a bullet
and die for democracy, I can sit anywhere I damn well please.”
The white soldiers nodded, in solidarity, and boldly landed
in the negro section, defying the law. Spicely joined the white soldiers

and Council cursed them all for crossing the line and Booker shot back,
“If you weren’t a goddamn 4-F”—meaning unfit to serve—
“you wouldn’t be driving this bus.” The driver glared
at the black soldier and said, “I’ve got something to cool you off.”

Spicely apologized, “I’m sorry, driver, if something I said
may have offended you. I beg your pardon, I didn’t mean any harm.”
Then he sat on the farthest-back bench for the duration
of his ride, exiting at Fourth and Club Boulevard.

Council watched him disembark and snatched a .38 from
underneath his seat, headed down the steps, waiting for Spicely
to approach the front of the bus and shot the soldier in the chest, piercing
his dog tags, and then shot him again, leaving him there to bleed to death.

Military police drove him to Watts Hospital but it was for whites only
and yet they still tested him for alcohol, and the result was negative.
Born in Blackstone, Virginia, son of Lazarus and Alberta, tall and strong
as if cut from timber, stationed at Camp Butner on a weekend pass—

Booker T. Spicely died upon arrival at Duke Hospital, gunpowder
burns on his uniform, one on the chest and one near the liver,
thirty-four years old, and in a crooked scrawl his death certificate
stated “homicide” from a “pistol shot wound through heart.”

Council finished his route, then turned himself in, bailed out
that night by Duke Power which operated the city bus concession,
and he appeared cool and collected as he lied on the witness stand,
saying his life was in danger: that the black soldier had reached

into his pocket for an imaginary gun; that the black
soldier had threatened to cut his throat on previous rides.
An all-white jury took twenty-eight minutes to set
the driver free and he went back to work the next week.

Saturday afternoon, summer of ’24, heat rising
from the Durham tar, Booker will be eighty years gone—
how much longer will these killings go on? There is no marker
or monument for the fallen black soldier, just the voices of witnesses

who said he was “shot down like a dog and left on the ground,”
and “if a black man had killed a bus driver, he would’ve been lynched
by sundown,” in a city once hailed for the taste of its tobacco—Private Spicely
served our country against the Nazis only to be murdered by Jim Crow.


Dean Smith is a poet, author, and freelance journalist whose poems have appeared in Open CityPoetry East, Gulf Stream, and upstreet, among others. His new book of poems, Baltimore Sons, will be published in 2021 by Stillhouse Press. His first book of poems, American Boy, was published in 2000 by Washington Writer’s Publishing House and is available here on the Internet Archive. He published a nonfiction work,  Never Easy, Never Pretty (Temple University Press, 2013) about the Baltimore Ravens. He is the director of Duke University Press.

Book Review: Ornamental

by Kit Maude

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” James Joyce’s protagonist famously says in Ulysses. Reading Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas, a rising star on the Colombian literary scene, one begins to suspect that he took Stephen Dedalus’s statement about history quite literally. Goodness knows that Colombian history has its fair share of nightmares (what country’s doesn’t?), and many find their way into this sparkling novella, explicitly or otherwise.

The novel begins with the personal notes of a pharmaceutical scientist as he tests out a new drug on four female subjects. The opening scene is nightmarish, even before one begins to consider the personality of the scientist or the setting: a converted hacienda, both functional and idyllic, evoking The Island of Doctor Moreau or Gregory Peck’s colonial headquarters in The Boys from Brazil. The book quickly assumes an episodic format, alternating the observations of the callous, misogynistic doctor with the vivid hallucinations/memories of subject “number 4” while on the drug (which, apparently nullified by testosterone, only works on women). As the relationship between the pair develops, Cárdenas begins to introduce other characters and themes: the scientist’s wife, a conceptual sculptor who eventually plays a willing part in a ménage à trois, the owners of the laboratory, bald twins who at one point turn up with spider monkeys to act as security guards at the facility, and descriptions of the architecture in the unnamed but recognizably Colombian city, against a foreboding backdrop full of surreal tableaux and imagery. In spite of the scientist’s calm demeanor and smug satisfaction with his lot in life (like an artist, he reflects, he can invent new drugs at his leisure), violence and disaster never seem far away, although when they hit, it turns out that we’ve been misdirected all along; the real horror, in this story at least, is both graphic and right under our noses.

Taking his lead from contemporary Latin American greats such as César Aira or Mario Bellatin, in Ornamental, Cárdenas presents the reader with a dense but vivid series of reflections about art and its relationship with society and politics, as well as the damage that patriarchal society habitually wreaks upon women. When the scientist’s wife says that graffiti they see from their car window should be erased, is she expressing an aesthetic opinion or yearning for an act of cultural violence? What are the tangible effects of the enormous pressure placed on the female form throughout the history of art? How does capitalist greed distort the simple desire to pursue happiness? In keeping with this approach, Cárdenas has no qualms about asking readers to disregard their expectations of a conventional narrative in favor of an appreciation of the series of vivid visual and intellectual set pieces that flow throughout the book, vignettes that combine beauty with the grotesque, tenderness with violence, absurdity with suffering. As he does so, the allusions and references proliferate—it’s an ambitious burden to place on a hundred pages or so of prose, and there are times when it feels heavy-handed or just doesn’t work. The plot line involving gangs of women roaming the streets in search of the wonder drug reads like an afterthought, and there are some issues with the male gaze that could do with further wrestling.

But at its best, Ornamental is exhilarating in its audacity and absorbing in its intellectual vigor, for instance during subject number 4’s extraordinary revelatory monologue toward the end. This is when the translation by Lizzie Davis really comes into its own. Through Davis’s skilled translation, the clear-eyed albeit bizarre stream of consciousness is conveyed with a flow and lightness of touch that could have easily been lost. Davis also provides a useful postscript outlining some of the themes of the novel and exploring the ways Cárdenas uses language to reflect the contrasts in perspective, background, and character of the different protagonists, just as the evolving architecture of the city, with its growing slums and abandoned office towers, tells a story of its own.

The theme of surface transformation, painting over indigenous carvings with religious imagery, or quite literally changing one’s skin with plastic surgery, recurs throughout the text. It is summed up by the colonial refrain, “Tear down the idols and raise the icons,” which is repeated by subject number 4 several times. In Cárdenas’s Ornamental, however superficial such transformations might appear, their consequences run nightmarishly deep.


Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and in addition to The Coachella Review writes book reviews for ÑOtra Parte, the Times Literary Supplement, and World Literature Today.

Oyster Virgin

by Tom Z. Spencer

The oyster is the world’s ugliest treat. It’s a chipped up and dirty seashell shaped like a human ear. Inside the shell lies a phlegm-yellow lump.

I’m gigging as a fixer (a driver and local guide) for an effervescent editor of Physiocrat magazine named Rosie. Oysters can clean and filter two gallons of seawater in an hour, she tells me. I love slurping down a heavily-used Brita filter, I answer.

I’m a journalism major, and Rosie is incredible at my least favorite part of the job: pulling strangers aside to talk to them. We’ve been rustling up man-on-the-street interviews all day, and now it’s dinner time.

She loops the bartender into easy banter, and he refills our Riesling with the heavy hand of a happy host. Rosie is dressed in gray jeans and black, roughout, high-heeled boots. She’s wearing an angular black leather jacket with buckles on the shoulders that received more than a few compliments from interviewees throughout the day. It’s a sleek, urban style—it looks like New York City to me.

The wine sounds its upward ripple as it floods her beaded glass. Then mine is refilled—I don’t even have to ask. This is how a pleasant evening is supposed to roll along. We’re in a symphony of chatty laughter and the cling-clang of forks and knives on plates.

Rosie tells me how lucky I am to have grown up eating fresh oysters, being raised on the New England coast.

I answer with a shrug. I’ve never eaten an oyster in my life, but the advice “act like you’ve been there before” keeps looping in my head. Listening to Rosie’s Australian accent, I wonder how she ended up here, on the other side of the globe, when I haven’t even seen my own backyard yet. Yes, it would be good to leave here after graduation.

“Do you like oysters, then?” Rosie asks.

I’m not getting away with acting like this isn’t my first oyster rodeo.

“Never had ‘em,” I admit.

She claps her hands together. “An oyster virgin!” she says.

This catches the ear of the buzzed bartender (also our host and chef)—he raises a sly eyebrow at the two of us and purrs, “Shall I play soft jazz, first?”

“Let me set the mood,” he says, and sticks a Bic lighter in the mouth of a frosted glass with a candle inside. He sets the candle on the bar top and slowly slides it over to us with a wink. He peers over black rectangular eyeglass frames and grins. His cheeks are flushed red with the weighty task of ensuring that each and every wine, liquor, beer, and spirit in stock is up to scratch.

Everything this bartender does is staged and precise—the way he pours white wine without spilling a drop, cutting off the stream with a twist of his wrist. A capital ham, he fans the oyster menu out like it’s a big picnic blanket, though it’s just a small yellow card, then curtsies and steps back to let us look it over.

“It is a texture thing as much as a taste,” Rosie says, maybe scanning for my level of enthusiasm.

Rosie mentions her friend in New York who hates oysters and calls them “seawater loogies.”

Oh, perfect. Just the thing after a long and frigid day. Now wages this inner war: I don’t want ‘em. But I wanna seem worldly.

I must have given a bug-eyed reaction to this boogery comparison, because mid-sip of white wine Rosie purses her lips to trap a laugh. Her brown-blonde shoulder-length hair pitches forward, her shoulders shake with laughter.

I take my own wine glass, circle it under my nose, cock an eyebrow, and say, “Hmm, yes, pairs perfectly with seawater loogie.”

This elicits another laugh from her. “Oh, you’re too silly,” she says.

She dabs her lips with a napkin and tells me about the clean, mineral taste of the Riesling she’s picked, how it’s just the thing before and after an oyster.

The conversation’s been easy all day.

We had spent the day interviewing people out in the cold. We are both still warming up—hunched shoulders and curled red fingertips tucked under our arms. I want hot and hearty food, something in the neighborhood of shepherd’s pie, not a so-called sea loogie over ice, but refusing food from new people in new places and new situations is not the way of a poet warrior.

I sip the wine, and heat radiates out from my stomach and cheeks into my limbs. My stomach’s been empty all day, and after a drive to Boston and back, the first hour of which was in rush hour traffic, bumper-to-bumper with Mad Max Massholes, it’s nice to have a drink.

I feel good. This is fun. She’s fun. Fun and engaged to be married and only here for a couple of days. A tragi-comic combination.

A black-and-white photo hangs on the restaurant wall of two men in front of a mountain of gutted oyster shells. One has been caught scooping an oyster into his mouth, and his dirty, chipped fingernail seems, itself, like a tiny oyster shell. The black moon sliver of dirt under his nail is the same composite of grays and blacks that make up the outer texture of an oyster shell. Maybe it was taken in the thirties or forties, based on the flat caps and vests the guys are wearing.

This takes a quarter-second to see, and then …

“What’s the etiquette for eating these?” I ask. “I don’t want to make a faux pas.”

She laughs again. “A faux pas,” she repeats. “Nonsense.” She dismisses the thought, claiming to be the world’s messiest eater. I’m having fun again.

Sly bartender is back. He offers his own, less snot-oriented description of the food we are about to eat. “An oyster is like a kiss from the sea,” he says.

Rosie agrees, saying the oysters she had in London were the closest thing to the feeling of surfing the coast of Australia when she was young. That is better imagery. The comparisons are getting more appealing.

“You’ll think you just French-kissed Poseidon’s daughter,” sly bartender says. There, that works. I focus on that comparison as Rosie and I review the yellow card of oyster options.

There are large oysters with shells as big as the palm of my hand, medium-sized oysters, and fun-sized bites called Virgin Oysters.

“The symmetry is too good,” Rosie says, underscoring the last name with a light pink polished fingernail. “We’ve got to have them.”

She orders a half-dozen oysters, two small, two medium, and two large. I stomp down some inner hunger crankiness and remind myself it’s good to try new things.

We spend the wait for our food recapping our day. Isn’t talking to strangers difficult? Yes, we’re all taught not to do it, but anything comes with practice.

Rosie is in New Hampshire to find, as she describes it, “interviews of the great and the good.” This isn’t her typical role at Physiocrat, but there are special circumstances. She asks the interviewees to offer a prediction about the future. These predictions could be as personal as a projection about their business or as big as a guess about global affairs.

(Where’s our food? My hunger outweighs my oyster nerves. How am I going to look cool in front of her if I’m choking down something vile?)

I ask her what the final project will look like.

She tells me the final project will be a collection of videos of people who experience politics the way most of us do—not across the table from a foreign diplomat, or in a committee meeting in Washington, but as spectators.

I think about what she’s saying. It seems true. We regular folk have a sort of distant powerlessness, or we vanish down a wormhole of some boutique ism, complete with its own in-crowd, out-crowd jargon and heresy.

Realistically speaking, even civic-minded people have little influence over global-scale matters. We manage or mismanage our little lives, scream at the TV or at strangers online, or tune out completely. Or, like an oyster, we sit and sponge up the junk of the environment, almost unconsciously.

(Are those our oysters? No, they’re going somewhere else. Boy, they really do look like the mussels at Lake Massabesic that I used to pluck up and “ewwww” at.)

Then Rosie and I move on to chatting about who offered the best interview, who offered the biggest surprise, or the most insight, and that kind of thing.

I dig back through my memories of the day. Who did we speak to? We’d started with a list of suggestions Rosie emailed me ahead of time.

She’d wanted to speak to an oyster man, a beautician, a businessman, and a politician.

I had to admit I didn’t know anybody who fished (or farmed?) for oysters. I’d called a friend who is a farmer for recommendations, but he didn’t know anybody who did that either.

After some digging around, we’d found ourselves at a pier joining a leathery, wiry oyster man in orange rubber overalls for his morning routine. He was happy enough to have us around, he just didn’t want to be slowed down too much as he clumped along in water-proof boots, squeaking and creaking in his overalls, slipping the Kevlar straps over the shoulders of his Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

I think about the algae-bearded shells I saw him pluck from under brown water and put into his bucket that morning as we sit and wait for a serving of that same animal. This is all being expensed, naturally, an exciting prospect.

“Wait ‘til you’ve landed an expense budget,” Rosie says. “It’s a grand time.” I’m bleak about the resources publications offer writers now, and she reassures me it looked even worse when she was hunting around for opportunities, yet here she is. I find that comforting.

I think about our day again. After the oyster man, we’d driven around in the rain for hours, stopping when someone caught Rosie’s eye.

There were two gentlemen Rosie had found perched at the smooth, metal bar of the Gaslight Bar & Grill, which was decorated in dark, polished woods washed in warm, yellow lighting. There were mermaids and lobsters and other carvings on the walls—they looked as if they’d been hacked out of driftwood.

The two men could have been convincingly cast to perform My Dinner with Andre. One was balding and had crinkles around his blue eyes, and the other wore a mustache and had thin, combed hair. When Rosie asked them about being interviewed, they immediately went into an Abbot and Costello style routine with each other.

“I can’t imagine,” said the mustached one, who turned out to be a Portsmouth city attorney, “why anyone would want to interview a little old city attorney. Surely he’s much more interesting than I am,” he said, lifting a glass to his friend.

His bald friend told him to hop off his nonsense and do the damn interview.

“It seems,” the attorney said when asked for a prediction about 2016 (the coming year at the time), “that nothing has gotten better for decades.” He was concerned about the escalation with Russia and saw no reason the situation would improve. As he brooded about the dark future that awaited us all, he suddenly became aware of his surroundings, the excellent restaurant on a wonderful evening. His face broke into a smile.

“Thank God for drinks and bars,” he joked. On that note, Rosie wrapped up the interview, and we left the two men to enjoy their evening.

Not every prediction was about the sad state of the world. Rosie found a hairstylist next. The hairstylist pled apolitical, but predicted that next year, the simple, linear, angular fashion of New York chic would remain popular, and that burgundy, maroon, and other dark colors would remain popular for hair and nails. Such details of life that often pass unnoticed are being carefully considered by large organizations who need to plan their next clothing line, photo shoot, or magazine. Whatever they decide filters down to become what people end up wearing on the streets.

Our last interview comes from none other than the sly bartender who is playing host for us.

“I think you’ll see people continue to eat a lot of oysters,” he says. “They’re healthy, delicious, local, and I think even vegetarians should be eating them. You’re going to see a push towards eating local food. Vegetarians should keep eating mushrooms, and carnivores should keep eating pigs.” He predicts the oyster will bound in popularity and expresses his hope that “ISIS will go bye-bye,” but adds that it seems unlikely.

He closes with something more aspirational, something I didn’t anticipate. He says there will be some form of life, something small, maybe even microbial, found on Mars.

His role as a chef may not be world-changing, but then again, we all eat, and he is an expert with food recommendations as someone who cooks for people all day, every day.

Our food arrives.

The oyster is a difficult food to present in an appetizing manner. The butterflied mollusks lie bare and naked to the world, shells pried open for all to see on a bed of ice. There are metal pins sticking up from the oysters with the names from the menu on them. The best part is the ice bed, which is lit from beneath with an alien blue glow that flatters the mollusks’ greenish skin, inasmuch as a mollusk can be flattered at all. It looks like a dish the Klingons would serve Captain Kirk.

The best-looking part of an oyster is the inside of the shell, which is waxed with mother-of-pearl streaks, cut off in life before mustering enough fury to snowball its irritant into a precious jewel, a reverse gobstopper growing with time.

The metal circular tray, bedded with more ice and lined with oysters fanned out like flower petals from a center of sauce dishes, looks good. I am hungry. There are two sauces, a light vinegar with chalets and something tomato-based, like marinara but smoother.

Rosie clinks my wine glass and takes one of the smallest oysters. I take the other. She plucks the quivering tissue from its shell using a petite, three-pronged fork. I do the same. Then, like a shot, she lets the little animal slide down all at once.

I try to think of fresh sea breezes and Poseidon’s daughter. Under close scrutiny, I take the shot from the shell. (Act like you’ve been there before.)

Slurp. Glug.

A loogie is a fair comparison. The oyster is a congealed slip of goo that gives way under tongue pressure. Chewing with my teeth feels like overkill. There is no meaty texture, just globs of dense and soft slime.

But the taste is of fresh, clean, brisk, and bracing saltwater.

I remember my audience.

“Well, you didn’t visibly gag, so good for you,” Rosie quips. “And good for you for going raw and not drowning it in sauces!”

I feel a warm rush of pride. I didn’t know that eating a raw or naked oyster is like drinking coffee black or taking a straight shot of whiskey.

The oyster is gone so fast that it leaves me wanting more.

There are four oysters remaining. And there are two sauces to try, and wine to drink after. Tastes and experiences to examine and notes to compare with her. I’ve made it through this mini-gauntlet. I hadn’t needed to tightrope walk and second guess myself the way I had. We’re just having fun. I feel like saying what the city attorney said—thank God for drinks and bars.

The next day, there are more interviews. After, I drive her to the airport. We’re so comfortable and chatty at that point that the trip to Boston goes by too quickly. It is the fastest drive to Logan I’ve ever experienced. She’s on with her life, and I’m on with mine. As she walks away from my car with her gear bag, I watch her go and think a rare thought for me: things aren’t so bad, things aren’t so bad.


Tom Z. Spencer is an author, filmmaker, and award-winning playwright. He has been published in Offscreen, and his short film The Bamboo Raft is available on YouTube.

Book Review: Blacktop Wasteland

By Laurie Rockenbeck

S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is a fast-paced story that throws us against the seat and makes us grab for the “oh-shit-bar” from start to finish. It would be easy to dismiss this as a summer read, a fun heist story with exciting chase scenes that compels the reader to keep turning those pages with one satisfying twist after another. That would be a mistake. While Blacktop Wasteland is all of that, it is also an indictment against classism and racism written with a subtlety that eschews preachiness. Instead, Cosby gives us poverty-stricken Virginia with its closed strip malls, trailer parks, and white supremacists drawn with a voice so southern you can hear the twang as you read.

Beauregard “Bug” Montage is short on rent, and he turns to the one thing he knows will grow the thousand bucks in his pocket into two—drag racing. The old Duster he’s driving is a lot like Bug; what’s under the hood is much more complex than the exterior. The Duster isn’t just any car; it’s a proxy for Bug’s father, a man who disappeared years ago and whom he continues to idolize, worship, and revere with the pain of a child who’s never dealt with the grief. That he’s seen death early and often permeates the story and Bug’s interior thoughts:

The Grim Reaper sneaks up behind you and squeezes you until shit fills your adult diaper and an artery bursts in your chest. He works his bony fingers in your guts and makes your own cells eat you alive from the inside. He skull fucks you until your brain retreats inside itself and you forget how to even breathe. He guides the hands of a man you’ve wronged and aims his gun at your face. There is no dignity in death. Beauregard had seen enough people die to realize that. There’s only fear and confusion and pain.

Without Bug’s deep connection to the Duster, it would be difficult to suspend our disbelief as Bug makes one awful decision after another. Fortunately, Cosby gives us plenty with which to empathize with Bug’s plight. Nothing goes as Bug plans, and his financial burdens mount to the point where he is absolutely desperate. When Kia, his wife, reminds Bug he could sell the Duster for twenty-five grand and solve much of their financial woes, we are poised to buy into Bug’s unwillingness to sell this stand-in for his father.

Instead of selling the Duster (or doing any of the other reasonable things most people would do in real life), Bug chooses to return to his criminal past. He’s the best wheel-man in Virginia, and he has old connections he can draw upon to find his way back in for one last job to pay off his debts.

Bug goes against his gut feelings and agrees to do one big job with people he knows he shouldn’t trust, Ronnie and Reggie Sessions. The brothers describe themselves as ‘white trash,’ but Cosby brings complexity to these characters by reminding us even the nastiest people have emotions and people they love. The brothers will do anything for each other. Ronnie spent three years in jail for something Reggie did because he knew Reggie is too soft to handle jail time. This bond proves disastrous for Bug who refuses to acknowledge a myriad of warning signals flashing in bright neon off these men. The Sessions are only interested in blow and booty, a hungry greed with little regard for anything beyond their own interests. Bug is driven by the need to provide security for himself and his family in a world that keeps pushing him down. The unifying force behind all of them is abject poverty brought on by decades of systemic classism.

We read with hands over our faces and peeking out through our fingers at disastrous turn after disastrous turn wondering if Bug is going to survive, let alone how. Blacktop Wasteland is Southern Noir in every best way possible.


Laurie Rockenbeck was raised a Navy brat and moved around a lot as a kid. She lives near Seattle with her family, two cats, and a dwindling number of chickens. She graduated with a degree in journalism and quickly learned that writing fiction was a lot more fun. With a grandmother who started every story with: this is a true lie…, there is no doubt that story-telling and exaggeration are part of her genetic make-up. Rockenbeck has her private investigation license but prefers writing about made up cases over investigating real ones. Her mystery series features Seattle Police Department’s only trans male homicide detective and a pro dominatrix turned PI. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus. Visit Laurie at LaurieRockenbeck.com.

TCR Talks with Deb Olin Unferth

by Matt Ellis

Deb Olin Unferth is the multifaceted and award-winning author of six books, including her memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, and the acclaimed graphic novel, I, Parrot. She is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, the winner of three Pushcart Prizes, and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her work has appeared in GrantaHarper’sMcSweeney’s, and The Paris Review. Unferth’s most recent novel, Barn 8, follows two egg industry auditors and a legion of unbalanced activists as they attempt to pull off the greatest hen heist in history. Back in late March, she took a break from interviews about the Coronavirus outbreak to FaceTime with me about her latest book, her relationship with revolution, writing in a variety of forms and media, and releasing a book just ahead of a pandemic.

The Coachella Review: How did you come up with the idea for Barn 8?

Deb Olin Unferth: I got this image in my mind of chickens leaving a farm and it just sort of arrived to me in whole. Nobody really likes factory farms, not even the people who own them and run them. Nobody wants to put millions of animals into little tiny farms. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the egg industry, so I decided to do some research. Farmers or people in the egg industry wouldn’t talk to me as a layperson. But suddenly, when I became a journalist, when I approached Harper’s Magazine and asked them if I could write about the egg industry, they were willing to talk to me. I learned a ton researching that piece.

TCR: In Barn 8, like in Revolution, you were able to present complicated and polarizing social and environmental issues without coming off as heavy-handed or dogmatic. How did you strike that balance?

DOU: It wasn’t easy at all. I’m a vegan, so I already have an opinion about it. At first, I put so little in because my goal was art and not to preach at anybody. I thought it would be fun to try to write something where people who usually say that chickens are kind of stupid, and “who cares about chickens,” would suddenly, by the end of the book, find themselves rooting for the chickens and caring about them and being horrified when certain things happened. I thought that would be a really fun challenge. At first, I had nothing in there about how chickens are treated, or almost nothing. Then my editor, as we were working on later drafts, urged me [to] put in a little. I did and found that a little went a long way. Even if I just added a few sentences or, sometimes, just a word here and there, [it] created a whole image. But now that I’m out in the world talking about the book, people keep asking me questions about it and now I sound like a raving lunatic vegan activist militant. What can I do?

TCR: In Barn 8 and Revolution, the central social issues always hold importance, but you take a humorous approach to both sides.

DOU: I feel if you can get people to laugh, they’ll follow you almost anywhere. So, if I could get people laughing about these farmers or about these activists, then they’d be willing to follow me into this weird idea of them stealing all those chickens.

TCR: I also sense some parallels between who you are in your memoir Revolution and the Barn 8 newbie activists, Jamie and Cleveland. Are you reflected in any of the characters?

DOU: It’s hard to write without putting a little of yourself in there. I didn’t do it purposefully, but probably there is some. There are similarities between Jamie’s storyline and the storyline in Revolution. You leave home and strike out into the unknown. Then these two young people come up with some weird cause they want to follow for reasons that might be a little bit suspect but become a little bit clearer as you go on. You just kind of watch the changes in the people. There’s probably a little bit of Jamie in me. She’s a little more badass than I am.

TCR: You spent time in Central America during three different wars. Did any of that influence the way you approached Barn 8?

DOU: Before I wrote Revolution, I tried to figure out how to write about that experience. I didn’t want to write a memoir about being in Central America because I’m not from Central America. I felt like it was their story to tell, so I resisted it for a long time. I wrote a different novel about being in Central America that never got published. I might have sent it out to a couple of places, but I never really tried to get it published. Then I wrote a bunch of nonfiction essays about Latin America, especially about these revolutionary priests from the eighties, but none of it was very good. It was all pretty bad. It all felt a little bit phony. It wasn’t until I switched to writing the memoir that I felt like—this is my voice. I want to write about this. That’s the book I want[ed] to write and I was happy with how it turned out. But then I had this novel that was written about running around Central America during a revolution. It was a spy novel called These Priests. I wound up taking some of the chapters from that book and adapting them for Barn 8. For instance, there’s a security guard who was left on an abandoned farm at the end of the book. That was originally supposed to be the last CIA agent left in Nicaragua or El Salvador. It was now the year 2000 and everybody had left, the war was over, but they forgot to call him home. So, he was still there reporting and nobody was paying any attention. That was from the original story. I thought it was sort of funny and I lifted it and put it in [Barn 8].

TCR: Your voice and tone reminded me a lot of the gallows humor in anti-war books written by veterans like Catch 22 by Joseph Keller and Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut. Was that a style you always had?

DOU: I love that book, Catch 22. I love Kurt Vonnegut. I think the last time I seriously read Kurt Vonnegut was when I was a freshman in college. I think that was the end of me and Kurt Vonnegut. All through high school, I read Vonnegut. I’m sure his voice was internalized. Catch 22 is a classic. It’s one of the best books about war ever written. I love that book so much. So, yeah. Absolutely. It also has a number in the title.

TCR: You have a huge cast of characters and a nonlinear narrative that ranges from prehistoric times to millennia beyond humans. At one point, you were able to drive a mob point of view of more than 100 activists. How did you establish a structure and pacing with a storyline that was so complicated and often chaotic?

DOU: It was not easy. I had all of these different things I wanted to do, but I also wanted it to be easy to follow for the reader. I didn’t want it to be one of these avant-garde, difficult slogs to get through. I wanted it to be like, if you were just reading it, you could just be flipping through the pages quickly and be like—Oh god, I can’t believe she just did that. And you flip through a few more pages and—No, she’s not doing that. I wanted there to be one central event. They’re going to steal all these hens and empty this barn. I wanted the whole book to be circling around that one twelve-hour period. So, you’re leading up to it and then you’re leading away from it and you’re going into all these different minds: all different people and animals and even the air at one point. You’re seeing the air and what it’s doing. It’s all circling around like a cubist portrait. You could go way far in the past from when chickens were just evolving or you could go way far in the future, you know, twenty thousand years from now. But ultimately, it’s all just about that one little twelve-hour period.

TCR: You were able to provide a great deal of important information about Big Ag and chickens as a species, but it never felt like a data dump. What was your approach to blending that into the story?

DOU: My rule about putting research into a book, or anything just about, is it always needs to have more than one purpose. You can’t just put in a sentence of research just to give information to the reader. It also has to be there to develop characters or to show something about the setting that’s emotional, not just—this is the setting. If someone is seeing the setting through their eyes, then it’s supposed to be telling me something about the character—how they view the setting. Information is a tool, like research is a tool in a text, and it can’t be used only to convey specific facts. I wanted people to learn information, but first and foremost, I wanted to tell a rocking story.

TCR: One of the most astonishing points in the story and in “Cage Wars” was how the undercover investigators had to become adept at tasks they sought to abolish. To be above reproach and suspicion, they had to be model employees, and after their careers were over, they weren’t really qualified to do anything other than farm work. How did you discover that?

DOU: I did a huge amount of research and met all of these undercover investigators. I spent months interviewing them and watching their footage. I got fifty hours of footage of what they did. There were a couple I really got close to. One lived closed to me and so we hung out. Another I texted with for months, like fifty times a day. He was a cross-country driver for Amazon. He was in the truck all day and I was watching this footage. I really tried to get to know him and he explained a ton to me. I also got to know a couple of directors of undercover investigators. I did a huge amount of one-on-one conversations. Before it was published, I showed it to someone who was an activist and knows a lot of the people. She said, “You got it, that’s exactly what they’re like.” So, I feel really good about that. It’s rough. They’re kind of a mess.

TCR: During your research what surprised you most?

DOU: The farmers surprised me the most because I’d been vegan for a long time. I’d had this image of farmers as these evil people who just want to hurt animals. I first started getting to know them when I went to an egg conference because I couldn’t figure out how to get in contact with them. It’s not like you can just look them up online. It’s really behind a wall. So, I was doing all of this research online, just trying to figure out how to get in touch with one of them. I guess I’d looked at so many egg sites that I ended up on some kind of list. This window popped up and it said, “Do you want to go to an egg conference?” But you had to be in food service or something like that. So, I just presented myself as a faculty representative from food service at Wesleyan University, where I was a professor at the time. I didn’t really lie. Not too much. I went and I met all these farmers. They were really nice people. We had a ball. We had so much fun. Once they found out that I was writing this book and I was writing an article for Harper’s, they changed their tune and were not nice to me. But before then, they were really nice people and they don’t hate chickens. They like their chickens. This is just what farming has turned into within our culture for all kinds of bad reasons. They’ve followed it and are trying to make a living.

TCR: You’ve done everything from investigative reporting, essays, short stories, fiction, memoir. You have an acclaimed graphic novel—I, Parrot. How does your approach change with the styles and genres?

DOU: I try to have my voice in everything that I do. I tried to have my voice even in that investigative reporting piece, to the extent that I could. That’s the unifying feature. I like form. I like trying all different kinds of things. I feel a little old now, but I wish I could try movies or podcasts or something. I feel I’m really missing that element. Everything I do is writing. But I like trying different forms. It’s fun. It’s an experiment. It’s a challenge. I like learning a lot about each form and then seeing how I can disrupt it. When I wrote Revolution, I read a huge pile of memoirs. I thought so much about how I would like to add to the form. I didn’t just want to write any old memoir. It was the same thing with both of my novels. I wanted to approach them with daring and a disregard for the norm in some way.

TCR: Barn 8 was released only a few weeks before the COVID-19 crisis hit North America. How have you and your publisher had to adjust to this unprecedented situation since the release?

DOU: It was pretty intense because I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. There was a lot of build-up to it. I had this big tour planned that I’m supposed to be on right now. That was nineteen events in different cities all over the country. The whole thing fell apart. I did my first event here in Austin, but already it was hitting, and then every single event was either canceled for us or I just decided to cancel it. So, I’ve been sitting in my house and doing a lot in the backyard. I had two days that I felt really grief-stricken because I did work so hard on the book and there was a lot of build-up to it. We got great pre-publication reviews. The first couple of days after the book was released were really good, and it went into reprint in two days, then everything collapsed once this hit. Everything fell apart. I had two days of just darkness and grief. Then I watched John Oliver on HBO. He was saying that everyone lost something right now. Everyone is losing something big. Let’s all just sit and just have a moment of grief for the thing that we’re losing right now. I thought, here is my moment of grief and I’m having it now. Then he said, “Get back to work. Now we have a world to take care of.” I’m trying to have that attitude now.


Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.

Related Post: Matt Ellis’s Book Review: Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

Book Review: Out of the Pantry

by Linda Romano

In her memoir, Out of the Pantry[1], Ronni Robinson confronts how a childhood eating pleasure turned into a full out “compulsive eating disorder.”  As a latch-key child, Robinson found solace in biking home hurriedly from school to indulge in whatever variety of cookies her mother had tucked away in the kitchen drawer with a tall glass of cold milk. With an older brother at home, who mostly ignored her, she sat alone at the table, dipping cookie after cookie, “like a robot, losing all sense of what was going on around me … the shimmer of happiness seemed to float down.” Robinson’s willingness to share her journey from bingeing to recovery is inspirational and shows it is possible.

Different from anorexia or bulimia, compulsive overeating is similar to binge eating or emotional eating. Robinson writes, “It includes eating faster than usual, eating past the point of fullness, eating alone or in secret, and feeling guilty or upset after overeating, and/or feeling ‘taken over’ or ‘driven’ in respect to eating.” Robinson resonated with all of these traits when she heard it discussed on television, a few months shy of turning forty and with two young children. By then sneaking food, mostly sweets like cookies and pastries, had become an engrained, lifelong habit. But with a loving husband, Efrem, in her life, the habit was becoming exhausting to maintain without being caught or questioned.

She tried to avoid her husband at a work Christmas party, but he found her, for the second time, hovering around the cookie trays:

My compulsion was unmanageable. I can’t explain why, despite being full, I still wanted more. I was stuffed, and they didn’t taste as good, but I was driven to find that perfect bite, that perfect taste again. That perfect combination of chocolate and dough that tasted as good as those first few bites eluded me, but I kept trying. These cookies were like oxygen for anyone else. I literally didn’t think I could live without them.

While eating one, I heard Efrem’s voice from behind. ‘What are you doing?’ He’d caught me. Again. Startled me.

‘I was just having one more,’ I lied.

Robinson’s obsession with cookies began when she was a child. One day, when Robinson was in the seventh grade, she came home from school and the cookies were no longer in the drawer even though she knew her mother had bought them. Robinson alludes to the emotional distance that was building up between her and her mother; she envied her best friend Jen who lived down the street with a stay-at-home mom. “I could picture Jen and her mom making dinner together, standing shoulder to shoulder, wearing matching aprons.” Robinson does this well throughout the memoir—recalling glimpses of childhood scenes to connect the emotions that led to her eating disorder, how she longed for a happier family life. With the cookies subversively taken away, Robinson recognized her mother’s silent disapproval, not the overt anger, she observed, of her mother scolding her father when, just like her, he sat at the table and devoured “a whole bunch” of cookies. To avoid further conflict with her mother, Robinson used babysitting money to buy her own cookies and developed tactics to avoid being discovered. “I had to figure out how to hide the empty carton, I crumpled it up and back into the grocery bag … crumpled that up too … and buried it deep into the kitchen trash can.” Characteristics of her parents could have been further developed throughout these scenes since they are clearly the impetus to Robinson’s food addiction. They are almost as invisible to us in the writing as they were to Robinson in her life.

Robinson provides involved and detailed descriptions of her cookie fantasies and the elaborate strategies she uses to keep them hidden but hesitates to elaborate on her emotions. The only focus was “not to get caught.” We can all relate to the childhood pleasure of a Chips Ahoy, like Robinson describes, “I carefully ate the little chips out” and dipped them into milk “until the cookie got soggy and dissolved in my mouth.” And the Oreos, “fun because there was so much you could do with them … twisting one open and licking out the sweet white filling.” And who hasn’t snuck a cookie or two before dinner without their parents knowing? For Robinson though, it never stopped. Because her weight stayed relatively stable after college, bingeing privately could be compensated for by taking long runs and exercise. For her, eating was a pleasure and keeping it hidden was no different than possibly any other woman trying to maintain the public image of a perfect body. We develop compassion for Robinson from our own experiences, but it is difficult to connect with the shame or loneliness she felt. She acknowledges later, once she accepted the addiction, how she missed out on developing deeper friendships while being so “laser-focused on food.”

Robinson suggests the distant relationship with her mother led to her food addiction, although she admits, she never realized it at the time. “I was trained to just let things happen to me, to accept situations with little or no challenge.” She refers to the tension in her parents’ marriage, the arguments at dinner, and how her mother embodied a “don’t make waves behavior.” In her first marriage, before meeting Efrem, she realized the emotional abuse of her ex-husband was similar to her parents’ behavior. Many of her feelings are expressed through her food habits. After a fight with her first husband, she omits details about her anger and, instead, describes the trip to the market and the spoonsful of chocolate marshmallow ice cream in the parking lot. We can only imagine her loneliness.

With individual therapy and supportive groups like Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Robinson discovered that overeating created a sense of fullness in order to “numb out” uncomfortable feelings. Like other addiction programs, like the Twelve Steps used in Alcoholics Anonymous , the important first step is to “admit the powerlessness over food and that life has become unmanageable.” It is important to get past “the pink cloud of abstinence,” Robinson warns. This is the vague term used in the OA community of having the mental willpower to no longer food binge, but without confronting the root cause of the behavior. For some people, mental willpower is enough to quit, but for most, it is easy to slip back into temptation. Robinson stresses the importance of being honest about past behaviors and sharing the truth with others. Her memoir is personal and provides a guide to resist the physical and mental control of an overeating disorder without obsessive calorie counting.

Robinson currently speaks publicly about eating disorders and emotionally abusive relationships and serves as an administrator on the Facebook page Overcoming Food Nonsense.


Linda Romano grew up on the south side of Chicago and currently lives in California’s Silicon Valley working as an engineer. She received a PhD in Materials Science at the University of Illinois and is presently pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction at the UC Riverside Palm Desert Program. She is working on a memoir about her upbringing and life as an engineer while raising two children. Her favorite pastime is enjoying the outdoors, especially on a bicycle.

The Search for Happiness

By Cliff Saunders

Want to be happier?
Welcome birds to your
vast coral bed of remembrance.

You are assured of getting
your compass of moles,
your weekly copy of available space.

Give your heart a little bit
of soul, a pivotal spin
on the altar of your mountain porch.

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Sweet Nothings

By Cliff Saunders

There is no brotherhood of smiling wizards,
no mantra against the bells of teen spirit.

No mystery here—stones celebrate with song
how they shape the world into mountains

and waterfalls, their voices full of gracefulness
and elegance. We ought to let them dream

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Into the Afterlife

By Cliff Saunders

What happens when you die?
I think you’ll open at last
into the pain of oceans,
into memory and its horizon,

into music, music, music.
I can’t tell you when the lilies
will be glorious, when red flags
will be singing over the edge

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Book Review: Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light is a collection of twenty-five essays, edited by Steffie Nelson, exploring the myriad ways in which Joan Didion has influenced and shaped contemporary writers. What is most fascinating about this anthology is that each writer’s story is so distinctive. “Each author finds a unique entry point,” Nelson writes in her introduction. That is to be expected to some extent, of course, but I found the breadth and depth of these differences are what give the anthology its heart. Didion is famously inscrutable, yet she seems to have given each of these writers whatever they needed and were ready to receive. Nelson writes in her introduction that Didion “held California up like a diamond, revealing each facet (and flaw) ….” This anthology does the same for Didion, functioning as a pentacosagon prism through which we are invited to see Didion in all her colors.

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