Photo: Asaf Geffen.
J. D. Daniels studied at the University of Louisville and Boston University. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, AGNI, n+1, Oxford American, The Best American Essays, and elsewhere. Daniels is the recipient of The Paris Review’s 2013 Terry Southern Prize. His collection, The Correspondence, will be published in 2017.
J. D. Daniels’s essays reveal a sharp, ironic intelligence and a keen sense of rhythm. His work has an exhilarating nimbleness, the ability to pivot or shift within a sentence and open up new territory. His essays often explore the way in which you can go in search of one story and find another one unfolding. These often end up being stories about masculinity, too, with a deliberately macho tone that he both reinforces and undercuts. Daniels is fluid and funny, and while for the most part he keeps his fists flying, occasionally he holds up his hands and lets himself get punched in the gut, a disarming vulnerability that completes and complicates his self-portrait.
From “Letter from Kentucky”
We sang about the blood Wednesday nights at church suppers, Thursday nights at choir practices, mornings and evenings on Sundays, and every summer at a peacock-ridden revival camp in Alabama.
The old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine. There is a fountain filled with blood. I must needs go on the blood-sprinkled way. He bled, He died to save me. How I love to proclaim it, redeemed by the blood.
They vainly purify themselves, said Heraclitus, by defiling themselves with blood, just as if one who had stepped into the mud were to wash his feet in mud. Any man who marked him doing thus would deem him mad.
Our pastor had a method. After his sermon, we sang “Just As I Am” over and over again—without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and so on. We would sing until someone gave in. We sang all day.
It was the same unrelenting method of the middle school phys-ed coach who, perceiving that Weak Henry was weak, hit on the technique of making the whole class do extra push-ups until Henry finished his allotted twenty. Henry couldn’t make it happen. We did twenty more, thirty more, forty; and after class, Demetrius and Alonzo beat Henry in the locker room until he peed.
One morning, after an hour of “Just As I Am,” my mother shrieked and fell into the aisle. My father helped her stand. His face was strange. The two of them knelt and prayed at the altar. A nice old lady wearing a white gauze eye patch smiled. I waited to see what the people who told me what to do were going to tell me to do next.
It was this child grown into a man, then, if anyone ever grows up, who now drove past Lynn Camp Baptist Church, who drove past Hazel Fork Holiness Church and Living Waters Pentecostal Church, who drove past Faith Tabernacle Pentecostal Church and Turkey Creek Baptist Church short of breath, sweating like a sinner, drowning in blood.
I played Jesus one year and Judas the next in the passion play. I taught Vacation Bible School, and visited and sang hymns to the homebound, and, all that rigamarole having been accomplished, I chased the preacher’s daughter through the cornfield after Sunday evening services until I caught her.
And my father mowed the field out back of our church. He helped Deacon Jack repaint the sanctuary and he helped Deacon Willy reshingle the roof. He cooked and served at the Wednesday night church suppers and was happy to do it. But he didn’t have much time for what he called churchified people.
“I find it difficult to believe that the Creator of the universe gives a fuck if I drink a cold beer on a sunny day,” my father said. “These people can’t say sugar, they just got to say sucrose. Meanwhile they don’t have no more idea what God wants from me than the man in the moon. It’s my own dick I’m talking about, and I can jump up and down on it like a pogo stick if I want to.”
Read more work from the 2016 Whiting Award winners here.
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