Staff Picks: Milk-guzzling Sheriffs, Metallic Fiber, @MythologyBot


This Week’s Reading

A still from Flamingo Road.

In 1955, Stith Thompson, a folklorist at Indiana University, published the first volume of his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Betraying every bit of the gumptious optimism of the midcentury milieu in which it was conceived, the work was intended as “a systematic arrangement of the whole body of traditional literature.” Eventually it grew to six volumes, but lately it has found a new life on a microscale. Every three hours, @MythologyBot raids Thompson’s index and drops a new motif, a sort of freeze-dried folktale, into the feeds of its thousand-plus followers on Twitter: “Fetish betrays fugitive,” “Ghost laid by prayer,” “Rainbow as loincloth.” Given the primary-election season that we’ve all just cowered through, it’s hard to insist that any of us needs more bewilderment in our lives. But @MythologyBot’s little gusts of absurdity are often just the thing, I’ve found, to disperse the mental drear. —Robert P. Baird

I’ve been going to the movies a lot since I moved to New York, particularly to Metrograph, an art-house theater on Ludlow Street that grandly claims to be “the ultimate place for movie enthusiasts.” Last week, my boyfriend and I saw Flamingo Road (1949), a work of high Hollywood melodrama starring Joan Crawford as Lane Bellamy, who begins the film as an impoverished carnival dancer stranded in a small town in the South. Glowing and assured, Bellamy gets a job at a local diner; her goal is to live on the town’s most prosperous street, the eponymous Flamingo Road. But when a flirtation develops between Bellamy and the town’s deputy sheriff, her ruin becomes the obsession of Sheriff Semple, a milk-drinking political wire-puller who’s grooming the deputy for the governor’s seat. It’s luminous to see a woman in early Hollywood assume a role so empowering. In her own life, Crawford had recently reemerged as a star—Flamingo Road mirrors all the energy of her comeback and is blighted only by knowing of Crawford’s self-destructive final years, when she became a recluse after seeing an unflattering photograph of herself. “If that’s how I look,” she said, “then they won’t see me anymore.” —Caitlin Love 

If you skipped the fiction in the April 18 issue of The New Yorker, go rescue it from the recycling. Colin Barrett’s “Anhedonia, Here I Come” is the funniest story I’ve read about a poet since Natasha Wimmer translated The Savage Detectives. Barrett is an adjectives-and-adverbs man (“Bobby’s head swam, tritely”) and one of the most exciting writers to have emerged in these last few years from that small Dublin powerhouse Stinging Fly Press. (You can read our 2015 interview with Barrett here.) —Lorin Stein


You may have read Benjamin Hale’s “Don’t Worry Baby” in our Spring issue. It’s my favorite from his new collection, The Fat Artist, because it’s the most hallucinatory and unhinged display of his prose: “Kaleidoscopes projected onto everything. Like a net of lace woven out of semitranslucent metallic fiber, a spiderweb mapped onto everything.” The other story that stands out as something truly special is “If I Had Possession over Judgment Day,” which centers on a poorly executed murder and an ill-advised nude photo shoot that occur simultaneously in a Colorado lakeside park at midnight. Above this earthly mess, errant Iridium Communications satellites flare at precise times every evening. While Hale’s characters are quick to attribute the chaos that ensues to forces cosmic, the orbiting satellites are the only vestiges of order that remain after the bloodbath; in all three points of view, this passage appears at least once: “The tiny prick of light traveled in a smooth, shallow arc, gradually gathering in brightness until it became a bright white flash … ” He’s saying something here about our impulse to blame our most entropic mistakes on the actually quite regimented universe. —Daniel Johnson

When Joanna Walsh published a very limited edition of a story called “Shklovsky’s Zoo” last year, I wanted a copy but put off tracking one down. I’d likely have been out of luck anyway, since most were given away at the booklet’s launch event in London. I hunted around online for the text, but to no avail. It existed only in print and out of my reach. Not long ago, I wrote to Walsh and pleaded my case; she generously emailed me a PDF of the story. The first line, appropriately enough, is “There are some things you still can’t get on the internet.” Walsh’s story is about not being able to get her hands on a copy of Shklovsky’s Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, which is a book that I own. Because she can’t read it, she ends up reading about it and discovers, among other things, Shklovsky’s sentence “I’m not going to write about love, I’m going to write about the weather.” So Walsh is writing about not being able to read a book in which the author writes about not being able to write about love. Her story is wonderful. I loved reading it, but I can’t offer you a link to read it yourself; I can only write about what it’s like to read it. —Nicole Rudick

The cast of Eclipsed.

A friend took me to see the Broadway play Eclipsed the day after it had been nominated for six Tonys. A Mother Courage throwback, the plays is about five women fighting to survive during the end of the 2003 Liberian Civil War. It stars Lupita Nyong’o (of 12 Years a Slave fame), was written by The Walking Dead actress Danai Gurira, and is the very first Broadway show to have an entirely black and female cast and creative team. Given all that, I was surprised to find myself sitting in a half-empty theater. But maybe I shouldn’t have been: after all, it’s a play about erasure, the erasure of black women, and the empty seats reminded me how interdependent art, consumerism, and culture really are—to tourists, the spotlessly groomed Book of Mormon cast must look better on a poster than a black woman playing a refuge. It’s their loss. The cast of Eclipsed dedicates every performance to young women from war-torn regions who have been abducted and are still missing. Another reason to go see it. —Jeffery Gleaves

Bob Rosenthal published Cleaning Up New York in 1976, when he was twenty-six, living in the East Village and cleaning apartments to make the rent. The book, reissued last month, is a stoner picaresque proceeding from two basic truths: to clean someone’s home is to become his intimate and to clean any home, anywhere, is to embark on a weird journey of self-discovery. Rosenthal, a poet, tells his stories with a deceptive, rakish casualness, and he throws in a few legitimately handy cleaning tips along the way. By the end of his career, he’s befriended a wide array of eccentrics, stolen countless drugs (“I am an artist and I need this pill just because I am an artist”), and tricked himself into fucking a vacuum cleaner. (Spoiler: neither man nor Hoover reach completion.) Most of all, he’s written convincingly about cleaning as a philosophy, one in which being and seeming are sometimes indistinct: “I always try to wear the same clothes when I clean. It makes me less visible and more like a machine and it adds psychic energy to my work. If my uniform walks through a dirty room, it seems cleaner.” —Dan Piepenbring