No one is condemned to being human in the world of Marie NDiaye. People become birds, skulk home as canine omens, as vapors, or transmogrify into logs. What a relief such transformations can be, since consciousness, for NDiaye, is a fraught and painful thing. Even when writing in the third person, she has an extraordinary ability to trap readers in the heads of her characters, leaving us to rattle around in their skulls, crouch in the dark confines, and peek out to witness their humiliation. In the face of a painful reckoning with the world, the mind often gives way. Perhaps the cruelest element of her work is not that her characters suffer but that they are so often left unable to perceive it. That Time of Year, first published in 1994 and elegantly rendered in English by her veteran translator, Jordan Stump, will appear this September from Two Lines Press. Herman, a Parisian, extends the family holiday past August, the end of tourist season. It is abruptly fall—a deluge begins, and his wife and son have vanished. The inhabitants of the village have no interest in the case. Herman, too, finds himself unwilling to break social codes, to plead for help or for their return. He lingers, coming to note certain details: the web of surveillance (run fast); everyone’s exceedingly blonde hair (run far). Roots peek out beneath the dye and give away the newcomers; Herman learns he is not the first to have lost his family. The only way to find them, he is told, is to stay and become one with the village. “You can’t very well change your skin in two days, can you?” There is no distinction between assimilation and dissolution: to find your family, “you have to lose every last bit of yourself.” Rain, brain, go away; the downpour continues, and Herman’s memory and body seem to dissolve. In this self-annihilation, he finds “a timid sort of pleasure.” There is a strange pleasure, too, in this remarkable tale. It feels true even as it is utterly unreal; it seizes the brain like a very bad dream. —Chris Littlewood Read More
If you’ve ever been to Orlando, friend, you’ve been to International Drive. It is the 14.5-mile strip of hotels, restaurants, hotels, time-shares, souvenir shops, lesser theme parks, laser tag emporiums, curio museums, outlet stores, and hotels that’s “as well-known in Boston, England, as it is in Boston, Mass.,” as the line goes. And this is an important point to make. For so very many of the millions of tourists who come to Orlando, this—Disney, Universal Studios, I-Drive, all of it—stands in for America itself. “No matter where you travel in the world, you run into a startling number of people for whom Orlando is America,” John Jeremiah Sullivan has written. “If you could draw one of those New Yorker cartoon maps in your head, of the way the world sees North America, the turrets of the Magic Kingdom would be a full order of scale bigger than anything else.”
International Drive is not Orlando’s main thoroughfare—that’d be Interstate 4, which runs parallel to I-Drive—but as International Drive comprises five hundred plus businesses selling everything from digital cameras to golf clubs, weeklong stays to Argentinian steaks, it is far and away the most vital artery when it comes to Orlando’s economic health. This despite the fact that until very recently, I-Drive was nothing but sand, pines, and palmettos. What happened was an attorney turned developer named Finley Hamilton, who went looking for ways to profit from Walt Disney’s 1965 announcement that he would build a huge new theme park southwest of downtown. On April Fools’ Day 1968, Hamilton paid $90,000 for ten acres of scrubland. This patch of nothing was accessible only by dirt road—but Hamilton figured that Disney-bound tourists would spot his new Hilton Inn from the interstate, take the nearest exit, and drive north on the paved road he would build.
He bought and flipped more acreage along his road in the months preceding Disney World’s opening. “I came up with International Drive,” he later recalled, “because it sounded big and important.” Within a few years, I-Drive included a dozen hotels, two dozen restaurants, and four gas stations, most of which were clustered at the road’s two major intersections. Then the nation’s first water park, Wet ’n Wild, opened in 1977. Just like that, I-Drive went from a place to sleep and eat to a destination in its own right. Arriving not long after were your Ripley’s Believe It or Not!s, your Skull Kingdoms, and the like.
In short, International Drive has developed into a tacky gauntlet whereby families are stripped of armloads of cash on their way to and from Disney parks. It, like Greater Orlando, is premised upon one thing: Uncle Walt’s sloppy seconds. Read More
In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The Haight-Ashbury poet and activist Steve Abbott (1943–1992) has had an unusual and charmed second act as a domestic icon, though he was not known for his cooking. Abbott was married in his midtwenties while he was a student at Emory University, and he had a daughter in 1970. After his wife was killed in a car accident in 1973, he became a single parent to two-year-old Alysia Abbott and moved to San Francisco with her in what we would now consider to be astoundingly bohemian circumstances. Among other legends is the time when Alysia was eight weeks old and Abbott “took some LSD and went into the bedroom to play with her,” tripping out on the baby’s rolling eyes and flailing legs. Abbott saw “a monstrous id” and explained that “I had to leave her presence because I was too psychically vulnerable.” He also relays that when Alysia was small, he survived by catnapping between work and childcare, and hitting the gay bars only between midnight and three in the morning (and presumably leaving her unattended). It worked out. As Abbott’s daughter grew, she became a sidekick and confidante. Photos from the time show Alysia posed in costume for the cover of one of Abbott’s poetry books or curled up with him on extraordinary seventies furniture, with obvious affection beaming from every frame.
In 2013, the grown-up Alysia published Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, which details their experiences as a family. In part because of that book’s ongoing success, Steve Abbott’s work is back in print as of December 2019, in the collection Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader, published by Nightboat Books and edited by Jamie Townsend. Alysia has been a tireless promoter of her father’s legacy and explains in public appearances that she chose to tell their story the way she did because while gay parents have become more visible and accepted in America, the heritage of groundbreaking families like hers is less known. And so many gay parents of her father’s generation—including her father himself—died of AIDS that it has fallen on their children to tell their stories. Read More
In her column “Detroit Archives,” Aisha Sabatini Sloan explores her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit.
For a period of time in 2014, I couldn’t stop watching the surveillance video of a person setting fire to the Heidelberg Project, a world-renowned art installation by Tyree Guyton in a residential area of Detroit. The recorded arson struck me as a performance piece in itself. In what appears to be the very early hours of the morning, a figure approaches the threshold of a structure called “Taxi House,” a home adorned by boards of wood that have been painted with yellow, pink, green, and white vehicles labeled “taxi.” There is a painted clock, real tires, and toy cars. A meandering, peach-colored line has been painted along a sagging corner of the roof, then it comes down onto the siding, where it moves geometrically, like Pac-Man.
The installation as a whole is like a painting brought to life, imbued with the spirits of Kea Tawana, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Robert Rauschenberg. In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Guyton describes how he began the installation with his grandfather, an act of reinvention rooted in nostalgia. M. H. Miller describes the collection of carefully planned assemblages as “an act of Proustian reclamation, as if Guyton were creating a new neighborhood out of the one he’d lost, embellishing his and Grandpa Mackey’s memories out of the wreckage that surrounded them.” In the video of the fire that destroys “Taxi House,” the figure holds something that resembles a gallon of milk; after a short time, a fireball blooms, and the figure runs away.
The Heidelberg installation has the vibe of Plato’s lost city of Atlantis, the mythic civilization that sank into the ocean overnight after its people lost their sense of virtue. It also brings to mind Jason deCaires Taylor’s undersea sculptures, human figures engaged in activities like typing, playing the cello, or watching TV; cement bodies surrounded by schools of fish. What’s so remarkable about Guyton’s effort is that he’s constructed a frame around the present moment. The collapse he draws our eye to is not a myth or a dream of the future, it’s now.
Though Guyton had originally hoped for the installation to be a solution of sorts, the traffic it brings (around two hundred thousand people a year) also serves as a reminder of the tension inherent to a city undergoing gentrification. In a book written about the project, Connecting the Dots, one neighbor explains, “Every summer night we’ve got people riding up and down looking at what we’re doing. It’s an invasion of privacy. They look at us like we’re animals on display.”
From what I can tell, no motive ever emerged for the arson, and no arrests were made. The one person who checked into an emergency room for severe burns on the day of the fire had been trying to deep-fry a turkey. More fires have been set at the installation in years since.
Guyton exhibits widely, and has a special fan base overseas. Recently, he has decided to take the Heidelberg Project down. According to M. H. Miller, Guyton and his wife plan to “transform the buildings that still stand into a series of cultural and educational centers dedicated to the arts, and then build housing and work spaces marketed for artists out of this central core.”
As buildings around the country were set on fire in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I thought about the Heidelberg arsonist. Widely dispersed memes featuring the Martin Luther King Jr. quote “The riot is the language of the unheard” have encouraged more and more people to see fire in the context of social upheaval not merely as an act of destruction but as an act of ritualized desecration. What language looks like at wit’s end. A kind of screaming. Read More
The wasp’s quick, menacing, unpredictable stab. I am crouched beside the tire of a pickup truck in Tennessee, my fists balled around my already burning ears. It’s a Saturday in the summer. On the tailgate, my grandfather, my uncle, and their crew of posthole diggers and concrete pourers have knocked off working for long enough to eat lunch: leftover biscuits, sliced tomatoes, boiled eggs.
I am nine years old, soon to be ten. When people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I say “country singer,” I say “Braves center fielder,” but what I think I want to be is one of these men. I want to be tough like them, steady-handed. The truth is I’m not sure I could be even if I tried. What I am is in thrall to them, which is to say afraid of making a fool of myself in front of them. At the moment, though, I am more afraid of the wasp.
What kind of meanness is a wasp? Even for flying bugs with stingers, of which there are legions in the hills north of Nashville, wasps seem severe. Sure, a bee can sting you, make you swell, but bees make honey, and besides, a bee will sting you just the once. Their lives tied to their weapon, they strike as a last stand, then leave their weapons behind as if offering concessions. Wasps show no such restraint. They are indiscriminate. They don’t carry a weapon, they are the weapon, knives gone airborne, anger on wings. Read More
Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
When investigators smashed through the concrete slab, they found his body six feet deep, laid out on a bloodstained towel. In a black jacket, shoeless, his hair in a stocking cap, he was partially mummified, embedded in lime. The detectives knew they were looking at the remains of Abraham Shakespeare.
It was January 28, 2010, and Shakespeare had been missing for nine months. Rumors had swirled all through the Lakeland area, in central Florida. Some said he’d split town, tired of the constant requests for money, others that he was hiding from the woman who was his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child. But after months of no one hearing from him, it was clear that something was terribly wrong.
Now, the detectives discovered he’d been shot and buried in a yard on State Road 60. What exactly had happened remained a mystery, but everyone knew it began with these numbers: 6, 12, 13, 34, 42, 52.
On the night of November 15, 2006, Abraham Shakespeare was happy to be working. He had five bucks to his name, no bank account, no credit card. He didn’t have a driver’s license, either, so he couldn’t operate the truck in which the MBM Corporation had sent him and a coworker, Michael Ford, to deliver meat to fast food restaurants from Lakeland to Miami. But every hour on the road meant another eight dollars. It was a meager living, but it was a living.
In Frostproof, Ford pulled into a Town Star convenience store and asked if Shakespeare wanted anything.
“Get me two quick picks,” he said.
With his very last dollars, he’d play the Florida Lottery. The jackpot that night was $31 million.
What possesses someone to play the lottery, when he’s never caught a lucky break? Many might say ignorance, but a 2008 study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making shows how mistaken that would be. Participants of an experiment were asked to consider whether rich, middle class, or poor people have better odds of attaining various outcomes, such as being elected mayor, becoming a superstar singer, or receiving a promotion. Then they were given an opportunity to purchase lottery tickets. Compared to a control group, those who’d been asked to consider the relative advantages of different classes were more likely to play the lottery. The authors concluded that low-income individuals “are likely to perceive the lottery as a rare opportunity to compete on equal footing with people who are more affluent.” In a culture that showers benefits upon the already advantaged, a game of chance seems like the only thing that doesn’t discriminate.
Just as lottery play tracks along class lines, so does it have a racial skew. A study of the Virginia lottery showed that 61 percent of its sales are made to just 8 percent of the total population, and more than one in three of that very small slice are Black. It remains an open question whether lotteries intensify marketing campaigns in Black communities—and how effective such campaigns would be—but it’s indisputable that the business would crumble without players like Abraham Shakespeare.
It could never be said that he was among the advantaged. Born in Sebring, Florida, in 1966, Shakespeare dropped out of school after seventh grade, and was incarcerated in a state-run juvenile detention facility from the age of thirteen to eighteen. He was never taught to read or write. Afterward, like many formerly incarcerated people, he couldn’t regain his footing. For much of his life, he struggled to stay afloat.
But everything changed for Shakespeare with the bounce of a numerized ball. His quick-pick ticket hit the jackpot. All at once, he was rich.
Lottery winners are advised to remain anonymous and secure the services of a lawyer before presenting themselves, but Shakespeare casually appeared on TV from Tallahassee, holding an oversized check in a Florida Lottery T-shirt. This unlikely millionaire couldn’t have been a better advertisement for the lottery: a day laborer down to his last dollar, suddenly rocketing to exorbitant wealth. No matter how bad things get, Shakespeare’s face seemed to say, don’t despair. Today could be your lucky day.