Author Archives: John Calvin Hughes

The Way It Has To Be

You can’t copyright a title. That’s why we have so many books called The Chosen. I counted eight or more on the first three pages at Amazon. That’s why we have two movies called Bad Boys, two called Gladiator, three called Fatal Attraction. Titles are hard on me. I have several pages of them in my daybook. They’re all terrible.

So I borrow them. From writers famous and obscure. Literary borrowing. Gosh, that sounds so much better than outright thievery. The first title I stole was from a story by Breece D’J Pancake: “The Way It Has to Be.” I mean, borrowed. I saw the story in Rolling Stone, alongside that haunting picture from the back of the hardcover edition of his stories. This was the first I’d heard of Breece Pancake. His book had been published by Atlantic-Little, Brown only a couple of months before, February 1983. What was this wonderful story doing in Rolling Stone? Hunter Thompson, yes. But this little gem of compression and pain and broken dreams should have been in some literary magazine surely. I had a bookstore order me a copy of The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, and I was never the same.

At the time, I was writing poetry in the master’s program at the University of Southern Mississippi. The Creative Writing Program was being run then by Frederick Barthelme, whose stories had been appearing in The New Yorker, along with work by Ann Beattie, Bobby Ann Mason, and Mary Robison, all tagged as minimalists. Of course, none of them embraced that term: it sounded dismissive, it didn’t represent what they felt they were doing. Critics jumped on them, using the term as a cudgel. I remember one article called “Throwing Dirt on the Grave of Minimalism.” Ouch.
I, on the other hand, really liked the minimalists. I was especially affected by Barthelme’s stories “Shopgirls” and “Moon Deluxe,” by Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and by the ur-text of minimalism, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Breece Pancake seemed to be working the same vein of neo-realism, what some were calling “K-Mart Realism” or “Dirty Realism.”

“Dirty” because the stories sometimes focused on poor or lower middle class characters, Carver’s drunken husbands, Ford’s misanthropic wanderers, Mason’s struggling West Virginians. The term “Dirty Realism” seemed to leave out several neo-realist writers like Beattie and Salter and Frederick Barthelme whose characters were often middle-class, college-educated, if nevertheless rootless. But the term did seem appropriate for Breece.

The characters in his stories are all economically marginal, small town West Virginians. They are caught between the past and the future. They want to move away, but can’t seem to break free. Their farms are being sold out from under them, and while they can imagine life elsewhere, they are stuck in ways they cannot fully fathom. There is a fatalistic determinism in Pancake’s writing, exemplified by the title “The Way It Has to Be,” the story of Alena, the story that first caught my attention. She has found a way out of West Virginia with her lover, Harvey, who has taken her to Texas in order to seek revenge for some unnamed wrong:

“She sat on a lip of step by the porcelain drinking fountain and watched Harvey’s head lolling against the car window, his holster straps arching slack above his shoulder. She felt her stomach twitch, and tried to rub her eyes without smearing. She didn’t want it this way, but knew Harvey would never change. She laughed a little; she had only come from West Virginia to see the cowboys, but all this range was farmed and fenced. The openness freed and frightened her.”

Harvey does, in fact, kill the man he was after, funneling the pair into a dead end that closes off the future for them. She tells him she will not go to Mexico with him, so he leaves and says he’s not coming back. She decides to stay in Texas and get a job, but he does come back, and she says again that she will not go with him:

“‘Nothin’s changed’ she said. ‘I’m stayin’ here.’
‘That’s it?’
She nodded. ‘I got a job, so I called home. Everything’s okay.’
‘Can we talk upstairs?’
‘Sure,’ she said.
‘Then let’s talk,’ and his hand brushed against the revolver as he reached for another cigarette.”

And so the story ends. And surely it’s Alena’s end as well. There is no escape in a Breece Pancake story.

Last weekend I decided to read the Pancake book again. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m stuck in the past too. I have three copies: the hardcover I’ve had since ’83, the paperback I taught out of for three semesters, and another paperback I had put on reserve in the library. I picked up the one I had taught out of, started the first story, “Trilobites,” and found myself wondering at my marginalia, some interesting and insightful, some illegible, some downright obtuse. I got caught up reading my comments and that interfered with my reading the story straight through. So I started over.
And I had recently read a fiction writer encouraging other fiction writers to read more poetry. She said that she had read some Donne sonnet every morning for a week. Read the same poem every morning for a week, and I thought that was a great idea, so I decided to read “Trilobites” every day this week. And I did. It’s a damn good story.
The narrator, Colly, is stuck. His mama is going to sell the farm. His girl, Ginny, left for Florida. His father fell dead in the yard some years before. The ghost of the ancient river Teays flows under the town, a constant reminder of the permanence and transience of all things:

“I lean back, try to forget these fields and flanking hills. A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl. All the water from the old mountains flowed west. But the land lifted. I have only the bottoms and stone animals I collect. I blink and breathe. My father is a khaki cloud in the canebrakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge.”

In the course of the story it becomes clear that Colly is still haunted by his father: the image of the dry, dead eyes Colly saw when he turned the body over recurs. His father seems to look over his shoulder as he admits his failure at farming: there is blight in the cane. “I’m just no good at it,” he tells himself. “It just don’t do to work your ass off at something you’re not no good at.” And so he doesn’t fight his mother over the sale of the farm. Though he does tell her he will not accompany her to Akron where she plans to live after the sale.

But neither can he see any way out. Ginny comes for a visit, but she tells him she has a man in Florida. When they make love for old time’s sake, he breaks down and asks her to take him with her when she returns. They are in an abandoned train depot (Wow. Good one, Breece). “Colly, please,” she says and leaves him there.
Alone at the depot, rotted and falling down around him, he sees a train coming. One might think, There’s a way out, but “my skin is heavy with her noise. Her light cuts a wide slice in the fog. No stiff in his right mind could try this one on the fly. She’s hell-bent for election.”

What will happen with Colly we’re not told. “I’ve got eyes to shut in Michigan—maybe even Germany or China, I don’t know yet.” These are places his father had mentioned. Colly still carries some great inexpressible debt to the man. Personally, I think he’s stuck. I think he’s staying right there. But I’ve been wrong before: the story ends with himsaying, “I feel my fear moving away in rings through time for a million years.” That’s hopeful.


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What is Indispensable?

There was a time (and maybe even still today) when well-meaning facilitators would ask a group to imagine themselves in a life boat, now required to throw some somebodys overboard to save the rest. The game was supposed to be an exercise in applied ethics, the outcome of which was apparently to teach that ethics are relative, though to what end I don’t know. I played a few times, but never heard the facilitators say exactly what the point was. Maybe they didn’t know. I, on the other hand, never saw it as anything but a way to reveal our prejudices: babies are more valuable than old folks, sick whites are less disposable than healthy blacks, uniformed cops chaff compared to movie stars. Once those hard choices were made, the facilitators would declare even more people had to go, until you were left just trying to save the passengers most like yourselves.

Faulkner said it: “…that point where man looks about at his companions in disaster and thinks When will I stop trying to save them and save only myself?”


Luckily, we will never find ourselves in such a situation. It’s not even fun to think about. But here’s one I do think about a lot, even though it also will never happen: if I were banished to a desert island and could take only five books, what would they be?

It’s so unreasonable. How about five novels, five poetry collections, and five books of plays? That would be easier.
Not for everybody, of course. I can already hear the calls for books of history and biography and criticism. Criticism? Somebody wants to take Surprised by Sin? Sure, okay. But I know how the game works. I pick my five novels, etc. and then I’m asked to sacrifice a number of them. My list will be reduced to just five books eventually. So why not start there?

I think I began this game when I got my first copy of Gravity’s Rainbow. I found it on the giveaway rack in the U.S. Army library on Coleman Kaserne in Mannheim, Germany. It was that gold-colored Bantam paperback. On the first page of reviews, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing about it in The New York Times, declares, “If I were banished to the moon tomorrow and could take only five books along, this would have to be one of them.”

I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree. Gravity’s Rainbow is definitely the desert island book of books. I’ve read it four times. One time through, I read every entry in the Weisenburger Companion as I went. I don’t think I’ve yet exhausted my enjoyment of that book. It makes the list.

So what else?

Well, Absalom, Absalom. I love Faulkner. I’m trying to think of a book of his I don’t love (Soldier’s Pay?). Once I read Sartoris and Flags in the Dust simultaneously to see what his editors thought needed excising. What kind of a nut does that? There are no words for my love of Light in August. But Absalom is something else. I think it encompasses everything wonderful about Faulkner: the voice, God, the voice. The shifting points of view and loci of truth, refusing to privilege one version over the others. The South, the war, the cultural collapse. The omnipresence of the past. Yes, Absalom is coming along too.

I’m taking Yeats. Volume One of the Collected Works: The Poems. I can’t defend this choice. Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

I’m taking the Harrison edition of the Shakespeare Complete Works. That counts, right? It’s just one book.

And, what? Fifth book. What’s it going to be?

The Dream Songs? The Maximus Poems? It needs to be a hefty one. Forever is a long time on a desert island. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor? How can I not take that? Blood Meridian? Maybe an anthology? Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry? That’s a really good book. Could I rubberband together Updike’s Bech: A Book and Bech is Back? They really do tell just one story over the course of two books. Can’t that count as one? Please.

I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it some more. If time runs out, I’ll take Light in August. Can’t go wrong with that.

And when my internal facilitator says, Okay, now. You can take only one book? What then?

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We Shall Not Cease From Exploration

So here I sit, Saturday afternoon, crushingly blue sky in slices though the palm fronds hanging just outside my office window. The culmination of a long week of grading, calculating grades, inputting grades. So much work by so many for those puny letters in the Final Grade column. And, of course, so little work by so many others. Twenty seven years of this: 14, 16, 18 classes a year. Twenty five students in each, later 26. Now sometimes 27 (“You don’t mind, do you?”). It’s not 10,000 students all together, but it’s close. It’ll be over that by the time I retire. Who’d have thought I would ever meet so many people?

Not me.

After all the rigmarole of the approach and arrival and departure of final exams, I will have a little time to do some serious writing. Serious. What could that possibly mean? Serious writing, as in “littachur” and not just filling pages? As in, Terence, this is serious stuff? Stupid stuff. As in I’m writing the Big Topics: love, sex, death? Or maybe I’m just serious about the writing itself, the act of writing. As in, I’m going to seriously get after it now. Like when you say to a child, “I’m serious. Put that down. You hear me? I’m serious now.”

When I reread my published writing, I’m usually surprised that I was able to turn out (what seems to me) such good work. How did I do that? I can’t remember how I did that. Now I’m working on (yet) another novel, and I am tortured, riddled with doubts: is this ever going to become interesting? How about readable? Having been a writer all my adult life, I still find getting started to be one of the hardest things in the world. Having written doesn’t make writing any easier for me. I always approach the blank page with angst, with torment. With radical doubt.

Like Olsen’s Maximus, I have had to learn the simplest things last. And I have come to the Four Quartets late. In my end is my beginning. They are doing a lot of things to me. That couldn’t be more vague. Let me try again: the poems (the poem?) are acting on me in a number of ways: poetically, philosophically, theologically. No answers, of course. Just interesting questions in beautiful language.

But there is this for the writer approaching the page:


So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate—but there is no competition—

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again….


That’s from “East Coker.” Boy, I get it. Eliot’s Complete Poems and Plays is fairly scant, under four hundred pages, most of that plays. Leave out the plays and the 20 pages of cats and it’s under 150. How much he must have found the courage to throw out. And there you are: start a new book, a new story, poem whatever, and you’re face to face with any action/Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat/Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

It’s hard. Lord, it’s hard: how many times will I have to remind myself to stop trying to get some character across the room and get him rather into some other character’s business, stop trying to “write” it and just write it, stop listening to your voice and listen to theirs, stop getting it right and get it written? You can get it right later. Get it written now.

In a week, classes start again. Long, hot summer. There will be more and more reasons every day not to get serious about writing. Then again, a week is long time.


John Calvin Hughes is the author of Killing Rush, available from Second Wind Publishing. More of his writing can be seen at


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