Staff Picks: Mediums, Midtown Hotels, McGoorty


This Week’s Reading

Still from Mediums.


After our Spring Revel this week, I woke up feeling like garbage’s garbage. To ease the pain, I reached for Robert Byrne’s McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler, a biography as greasy as a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich and just as good for my hangover. First published in 1972, this profane picaresque does a nice little cradle-to-grave number on Danny McGoorty, a real live Chicago pool shark, earthy and sly and often in extremis. In the twenties, he went from billiard room to billiard room, conning and swindling his way to a small fortune; in the thirties, he was a boxcar hobo; in the forties, he went pro and sobered up long enough to win a pool championship. What else do you need to know? Luc Sante reissued McGoorty some years back as part of his Library of Larceny series, but it seems to have fallen out of print again. Won’t someone please rescue McGoorty? He is unrepentantly ripe. As early as page three, he begins his prurient boasting about “broads”: “I was seventeen years old before I was able to get my finger damp enough to turn a page. Once I got started, though, I became quite the little cocksman.” No doubt, McGoorty. No doubt. —Dan Piepenbring

I’ve been reading Sarah Gerard’s new collection, Sunshine State, and trying to figure out why I’m so intrigued by the way she writes about the confident naïveté of youth. There’s little to admire in, say, a blissed-out appreciation of a dubious guy in parachute pants, but Gerard, writing in the essay “Records” about her senior year of high school, sets sections about pursuing vocal performance at her arts magnet school, with an eye toward a professional singing career, against drugged-out nights doing next to nothing. The contrast feels both irreconcilable and credible. Gerard’s prose is unlabored, flatly observational, and the interwoven mini stories are at once tender and cold, exhilarating and regrettable—each undermining the one that precedes it. In the best of these sections, almost a stand-alone story, Gerard travels to New York, from Florida, with her parents to visit colleges. She sneaks out of their midtown hotel at night and falls immediately prey to a pair of questionable older men. Seeing her camera, they tell her they shoot for National Geographic. It’s clear to the reader they do not; Gerard, at seventeen, is wide-eyed. They coerce her into taking a photograph of a couple arguing outside a bar. When she develops the photo home, she feels “afraid and ashamed looking at it, knowing this is not a picture I wanted to take; that I took it only because I was told to.” —Nicole Rudick 

From the cover of Sunshine States.

I recently caught James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s Mediums as part of the Whitney Biennial and found myself wishing I could watch it again and again. It’s a short, rather conceptual film, no more than forty-five minutes long, but what’s at play is remarkable: on the surface, it’s about voir dire, jury selection. Wilkins blends scripted dialogue with long passages of text lifted verbatim from automotive manuals, jury pamphlets, franchise contracts, copyright laws, et cetera—documents brimming with facts. The effect is utterly bizarre and comical. The monologues—delivered with gumption by actors I’d never heard of—feel absurdist, propagandist, a bit like public-service announcements. The film’s title speaks to other restraints Wilkins has embraced: he films strictly in medium shots, and he used the mean of the actors’ heights to determine his camera placement. After the screening, Wilkins told the audience he’d probably never make enough money to use “better” equipment. I hope that’s true; the effect his work has is far more interesting than any big-budget film I’ve seen this year. —Caitlin Youngquist

In 1870, a group of Mormon women were among the most outspoken groups demanding women’s suffrage—and they were granted the vote, in part, as an extension of their campaign for plural marriage. In her latest book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich goes back to the religion’s beginning to show her readers why. In 1842, the wives of Mormon elders formed the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, intending to aid the poor. Men were suspicious of the group, whose members were known to “lay on hands”—a spiritual practice thought to belong to men. But they found an advocate in Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, who reminded his followers that spiritual gifts were given to all believers, male or female. Thus the Relief Society expanded the role of women in Mormonism, creating a proto-feminist space that culminated in 1870’s “indignation meeting,” when thousands of women gathered in Salt Lake City to defend their right to plural marriage. With the nation watching, the Utah legislature moved quickly, granting women the right to vote some fifty years before Congress passed the nineteenth amendment. The intimate portraits in A House Full of Females remind us that empowered communities arise in unlikely contexts. —Jeffery Gleaves



Percival Everett’s story “The Appropriation of Cultures,” from his 2004 collection Damned If I Do, is about a young man who’s inherited enough money to spend his days reading and playing guitar. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina, where, playing music one night at a bar, he faces a surly request from drunk frat bros, who demand to hear “Dixie”; he plays it so artfully that they storm away in shame. Soon after, he buys an old truck with a Confederate flag decal on it; he drives it around town, angering swarthy white men and having a wry exchange with a BMW-driving lawyer. Confederate flags begin to proliferate: they’re in the yards of black families, pinned on lapels, and flown at colleges. The culmination of this, in Everett’s telling, is that the flag quietly disappears from the South Carolina State House. More than ten years after its publication, “The Appropriation of Culture” is eerily timely, and, in its plainness, both radical and not. It’s a story about normalization and perspective, omission and inclusion, that remains very much worth reading. —Noah Dow