“The Yanks have colonized our subconscious!” declares Wim Wender’s depressed researcher near the end of Kings of the Road (1976). He and his driving companion are spending the night at an abandoned border patrol station on the East-West boundary, surrounded by American graffiti. Months after watching the film, the line still haunts me; I find myself shuffling around the house like a doddering old man, repeating the phrase like a mantra. The larger scene it’s from has something to do with it, a fifteen-minute whirlwind where the two travelers discuss everything from early childhood linguistics to sex’s relationship with loneliness to Volger’s description of a fight with his girlfriend where all he could recall were the English lyrics of “Mean Woman Blues.” It’s pure Wenders, an encapsulation of his tics. More than that, however, the scene (and line itself) carries in it a micro-history of modern Germany, and indeed all of Europe, a continent of colonial powers that have suddenly found themselves in the same situation they once subjected others to, defined by a system of representation that is not theirs, living an existence formatted by outsiders. Perhaps because they grew up under American occupation, the directors of Young German Cinema (also called New German Cinema) seemed to grasp America’s dominance in a way the French New Wave, particularly Godard, did not. This is not to say the latter did not take from American cinema; Truffaut and Godard and the rest took liberally from Hollywood, and certainly recognized their debt to the industry. But you can’t imagine a Godard character admitting that the Americans have infiltrated their every thought (well, perhaps in his later period, with which I’m less familiar). Instead, Godard holds a Brechtian belief that the American aspect of film—what in his Maoist period he’d call the ‘ideological’ dimension—can be negated, and this negation allows redeployment of what was previous ideological in service of the new. Alphaville may take from Hollywood, but it does so to create a new film language, one freed from American cinema’s narrative limitations.

            The phrase “film language” is a loaded one, of course, and I use it here with both naïveté and purpose.[1] I don’t really want to get bogged down in question of “reading” a film, which in turn forces open questions about film as a symbol and an index. I do enough of that in my academic life. For my purposes here, ‘film language’ is nothing more than the way film communicates information, whether through narrative, mis-en-scene, camera movement, or something else.

            Tout Va Bien, Godard’s 1972 return to ‘big’ filmmaking, tells the story of a husband and wife covering a factory strike. The factory is presented as a compilation of sets, with the camera tracking between them, ghosting through walls. It’s an ingenious move, denaturalizing mis-en-scene, revealing it to be an artificial, manipulated mode of communication. Furthermore, the attention to set calls forth recognition of the relationship between bourgeois drama and class struggle and how capitalism relied on surveillance even in its fordist manifestations. But above all else, it frees Godard to use the very things he negates; mis-en-scene once again gains importance, even as the audience recognizes it as created. And the narrative “stuff” of the film—the story of a dissolving marriage happening at the same time as the dissolving détente between labor and management—would not be out of place in one of Hollywood’s more progressive “psychological dramas.” But now instead of the economic dimension being in the background, supporting the bourgeois personal drama, the opposite is happening, inverting the liberal belief that conflict lies in the personal and not the material. Godard breaks down and falsifies Hollywood film language in order to say something, creating a new, better language. This is the point, of course.

            Though also influenced by Brecht, Young German Cinema was not particularly interested in creating a ‘better’ version of film language, one stripped of American colonialism (The exception here might be early Fassbinder, particularly Katzelmacher). Instead, there was an acceptance that film audiences had already been conditioned, already spoke this language. Now matter how much you alienate it from its origins, the echo of Hollywood will reverberate when you use its techniques. This is what Alexander Kluge meant when he spoke about the difference between the film on the screen and the film in the spectator’s head, at least partially. With the exception of Kluge and Schamoni, the famous directors of New German Cinema were born at the tail end of the war, and so could not imagine a world where America did not loom over them. And so though they struggle with film language, they lack the idealism of Godard. This produces a clear break: instead of using film to offer meta-commentary film language, the Germans turn their focus on other modes of communication, on other languages, particularly German ones. This produces a double mediation between whatever is supposed to be communicated and the viewer. Kluge and Schamoni’s Brutality in Stone (1961) examines the language of Nazi architecture, which is now conveyed through film, a second language lying on top of the first. No matter what the two do with the camera, something is lost—the scale and horror of the rally grounds. Schamoni and Kluge have to then replace what is lost through mechanisms particular to film, the ability to sample from both aural and visual archives.

Herzog’s oeuvre does the same, albeit the starting language is what the German Romanticists called the “Hieroglyphics of Nature,” a primordial language we can no longer understand. The romanticists believed this language was translatable, but only in art—where we create things that evoke but do not describe nature—and science, which does the opposite. They were wrong, or at least now are (perhaps then it was different); these techniques add another mediation to the experience of nature, filtering it through human systems and hence stripping the environment of its inimicality. But we are so estranged now that art cannot positively convey nature’s foreignness; it can only imitate our alienation.[2] To counter this, Herzog employs film language not communicate nature nor imitate it, but to let it speak. Yet translated through the camera, whatever nature is saying is lost, presenting an image of nature that is disinterested in the human, mute and terrifying in how little it cares whether we understand it.[3] The camera language is revealed as unnatural, separated from the world it is encoding. Wenders does something similar with nature, as well as photography.

Schlöndorff’s Baal (1970) is based on a Brecht play and focuses on a poet; we hear the poems, and though beautiful, they do not move as they might, instead once again lacking, having been mediated through the language of film. In response, Schlöndorff oversaturates the interior rooms, the film language revealing what the poet conveys even as the poetry itself loses meaning. The omnibus project Germany in Autumn (1978) knits in documentary sounds and shots with the fictional, the language of visual non-fiction mediated on by a fictional film. In short, Young German Cinema tends to not comment on film language itself, but instead uses film language to comment on other modes of communication, which then dialectically becomes a comment on film form. Instead of Godard’s navel gazing, the Germans look elsewhere and in doing so comment on film. They recognize that they cannot escape Hollywood and its language. Instead of trying to, they comment on the inability to perfectly translate other German languages into film language, thereby exposing what film is more or less suited for. I must admit, this is the form I prefer; it demands the audience do the work even as it pushes the limits of film.

I’m making broad generalizations, working off arbitrary examples. I’m sure any film scholar who has made it this far is tearing their hair out at one claim or another. I’m purposefully playing on slippages between language and medium. Even the inclusion of Herzog as part of Young German Cinema is controversial; the director’s first feature was a direct attack on his contemporaries. What language is Klick playing with in Supermarkt (1974) and Deadlock (1970) if not cinema’s? In this schematic tracing, I’ve somehow given both Godard and the Germans too much and not enough credit. And why did I subtly shift the comparison from French vs. German to Godard vs. the Germans? How is this comparison useful? I’ve been trying to answer a question that picks at me, why I feel such an affinity for New German Cinema, when I have less than no connection to the nation.

Recently, I put together a “Wim Wenders” playlist on spotify, composed of the soundtracks to Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, and Until the End of the World. Some of the hardest songs to locate were by a German Rock band called Improved Sound Limited; they were also my favorite from the list. As a friend of mine, Riley, accurately described one of the songs as seeming “like they took a German man who couldn’t sing and ludovico techniqued him with like endlessly long videos of trucking in America.” Called “9 Feet over the Tarmac,” the song reminds me of the Oklahoma band The Turnpike Troubadours (who I hope to write about soon, as 2020 is the ten year anniversary of their masterful Diamonds and Gasoline); roots rock interpreted by Germans imitating psychedelic Americana. Indeed, the soundtrack is heavy on Southern music, both Southeast or Southwest. T Bone Burnett, Robert Johnson, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, Roger Miller, R.E.M., and J.J. Cale make appearances across these films, not to mention various European bands translating black Southern sounds.

I haven’t read Calvino’s Invisible Cities since my freshman year in college, when I powered through it for a class on “Literature and the Myth of Venice.” Though I’ve forgotten the structures of Calvino’s cities, something else from it stuck with it. Venice doesn’t appear in any of the tales Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan. But, as Polo tells Khan, he is always talking about the city. “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” I wish I could make this the epigraph of everything I write (as is, I tend to include it in every essay). Though I speak of one thing, I am discussing something else.

Now, perhaps, we are getting somewhere. When I speak of Germany, I am speaking also and equally about the South. This makes sense, intuitively. The two share similar contexts: nations (in the cultural sense of the term) so racist that other bigoted nations had no choice but to intervene even as it went against their economic interests. Both the South and Nazi Germany rationalized genocide, made it run smoothly. The horror of Southern Slavery and concentration camps were how dispassionate they were, treating murder and exploitation as numbers on a balance sheet, related to questions of efficiency, not ethics. The danger to the North and the Allies wasn’t the genocidal actions themselves, but how they threatened to reveal what is at the heart of capitalism, what happens when we build a cult of rationalism masquerading as society. Rationalism always carries its opposite within it, ready to be expressed.

Fanon once said that every anti-semite is also anti-black. This is part of what makes people like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers and Louis Farrakhan so awful. They ignore that we have natural solidarity; we have both experienced the horror of the ratio, we know the violence capitalism carries in its essence in ways few others have.[4] This is not to minimize what other minority groups have experienced. But IBM didn’t organize the murder of Irish-Americans, nor were Italian immigrants subjected to the violent proto-fordism the 1619 Project described.

This camaraderie only goes so far, of course. Jews are now firmly white, and in fact are perpetuating on others the atrocities once committed against us. The state of Israel as well as a great many Jews have revealed themselves to be okay with capitalism’s essence, as long as it isn’t directed against us.

Returning to Godard and the Germans, we might say that the difference between the two lies in the philosophical concept of identity, or an object’s status as existing for itself, singular and separate from all else. I want to emphasize here that I am not speaking of the related concept of sociological identity, how it used in contemporary “identity politics,” a topic I prefer to treat like a third rail. Capitalism both produces and negates identity; to exchange two objects, one must be able to differentiate each from everything else to assign it a value. But exchange then casts a spell of sameness over the objects, reducing any difference between them, since they share an exchange value. Godard deconstructs cinema’s identity, revealing it to be an artificial production. But jettisoning the concept is not as simple as pointing it out; its purest expression, the mythical concept of the subject, is central to Western modes of thought, even as modern capitalism destroys the last semblances of true subjectivity. Identity sneaks back into Godard; cinema becomes unique, gaining status as “truth 24 times a second,” with every cut being a lie. But what of the absences between frames, which comprise almost half of the second? Is the televisual—which does not have these gaps—more truthful than film?

The Germans harbor no such illusions; if there are truly two films—one in the spectator’s head, one on the screen—then one of these films must not be truth, and so cinema is not truth 24 times a second. In German film, identity only comes through the relationship between film and other mediums. We cannot speak of film’s “medium specificity”—academia’s ten-cent phrase for what makes it unique—without talking also of literature and poetry, music and painting, photography and television. In doing so, they reveal how identity is dependent on exchange.[5] Cinema’s status as an autonomous object relies on it being placed into the logic of trade.

At the same time, however, their frequent attempts at reconciling various art languages ends up negating themselves, revealing that all art carries the non-identical in its identities. There is something inexpressible that is nonetheless conveyed, the promise of a better world from which we never exiled ourselves, one we were part of rather than separate from. The failed reconciliations reveal that each medium’s identity points elsewhere. The history and identity of the film runs up against the history and identity of its interior arts, producing no synthesis but instead negating both, offering the possibility of existence free of the two, even as the freedom is outside the work, unreachable and guarded by these histories we cannot overcome. Hollywood colonialism and a bigoted German culture run up against one another, falsifying both and holding the promise (but not the realization) of a better world.

Recently, I’ve seen a myriad of social media posts about how the Germans are properly ashamed about what they’ve done, unlike Southerners. This is based off the laws banning Nazi paraphernalia, as well as Willy Brandt’s kneeling apology. It’s bullshit, of course. If the Germans were ashamed, they wouldn’t have voted for former Nazi’s throughout the 50’s and 60’s, they wouldn’t have right-wing tabloids like Das Bild, they wouldn’t have cared when left-wing terrorists executed the Daimler-Benz CEO in 1977 (considering he was an SS member), they wouldn’t have given said executive a state burial reminiscent of Rommel’s—indeed, the Desert Fox’s son was the mayor responsible for this second funeral procession. Fassbinder wouldn’t have been compelled to film his mother smirking as she dreams of a kind dictator; the kinder of Young German Cinema would not have to addressed the way their families squirmed when asked about history, refusing to admit how they had let everything happen.

What the banning of the flag and Brandt’s apology signified was an admission of guilt, not shame. The two are related. But guilt is a legal concept, and acknowledging it is seen as the first step in redemption. One pleads guilty in hope of a lesser sentence, in hope of forgiveness. But no matter how much we confess our shame, it does not free us. A great many Germans feel shame, as do many Southerners. We are the ones who do not talk about our fragility and guilt, because we do not want to be forgiven. We recognize we must live our lives carrying this shame. This is the least we can do, having instilled shame in others, who were told their skin, hair, noses, and culture were something to be hidden away and denounced. The only freedom from shame would come from cultural death. Not only a toppling of racist monuments and statues, but the complete dismantling of the concept of Southern Culture.

As I’ve learned more about Germany and it’s culture, I have come to realize that though not all Jews are German, German culture is Jewish, and this was particularly so before the war.[6] What do I mean by this? The German-Jewish bourgeois had attempted to fully assimilate in the late 19th and early 20th century, and done it too well. The most interesting scholars of Kant and Hegel and the rest were very often Jewish. Fichte was half-Jewish, Mahler was Jewish, Heine was born Jewish, Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler were members of the tribe. You can find World War I essays by Jewish nationalists arguing that they must support Germany, because Jewish identity has finally been expressed in the cosmopolitan German State.[7] Very often, Jews produced the most perfect expressions of German culture. At the same time, a central aspect of German culture was its anti-Semitism, which permeated almost everything. It is no accident that Nietzsche uses the Jews as a critique of the Germans by setting them up in opposition. But an anti-Semitic culture still relies on the Jews—it is defined by what it hates, not by what it is.[8] Hitler’s Aryan fantasy was enticing precisely because an Aryan culture could be free of the Jew in a way the German never could. Hitler famously wanted to bulldoze Berlin and build a new capital, Germania, free from the Jewish influence his own country could not escape.

Southern culture is much the same. Southern cooking, music, art, and literature is mostly appropriated Black culture. And what little that isn’t—namely, the Confederacy and its history—is explicitly anti-black, and so still relies on the thing it despises. In this light, what the “heritage, not hate” freaks are trying to do is erase blackness from Southern history, not erase racism (which they are more than fine with).

However, this does not mean we can simply abandon Southern culture, or declare it to actually be black culture and be done with it, wiping the slate clean to build something new. The Germans tried something similar after the war, producing what the auteurs derisively referred to as Papa’s Kino, or Daddy’s Cinema. These were pastiches of American Hollywood films with empty signifiers of “Germanness” painted on top, often produced by the same men who had worked for the national film industry under the Nazi regime. Cinema is a colonial language, no less exploitive than Southern culture. Instead, those of us who believe in building a better South must follow the route of the Young Germans, using all tools at our disposal to reflect deeply on our history and culture, to convict ourselves and hence reveal that we could be better. I’ve written before about the beginning of Kluge’s Artist Under the Bigtop: Perplexed, where archival footage of the Nazi’s Day of German Art is screened as an Italian rendition of “Yesterday” plays. The Beatles’ nostalgia is cast as regressive, yet this regressiveness links the past and the now—Nazism was not distant, but happening only yesterday. German culture is indicted. But despite that, Kluge does not abandon it. His female protagonist in Germany in Autumn, disappointed with the sanitized history she must teach pupils, goes off digging in the snow for a real German history. She will never find it, but it doesn’t matter. The digging is enough. It may tell you more about the dirt you disturb and the shovel you use than what you’re looking for, but that’s the point.

[1] I might add that discussing Godard and Truffaut as a pair is misleading in itself—Truffaut used Hollywood language much more uncritically than his partner in crime turned enemy. Here I am mostly talking of Godard; Truffaut chooses to negate Hollywood through taking its logics to an extreme, not through abstraction/revealing its construction. I.E, in Truffaut, every single object within the mis-en-scene seems to have meaning and a linkage to his other films. This is the logic of classical Hollywood turned to eleven, its detailed sets and inter-textuality taking on such symbolic value that it overwhelms and becomes meaningless.

[2] Talk of nature and the social is necessarily fraught, marked as it is by a long history of racism with regards to the “other” who is one with nature. This figuration has led to creation of racist ideologies such as the “noble savage” that erases indigenous and black humanity. However, there is a possible way around this: the indigenous and black art that was heralded as “primitive” and “in tune with nature” were in fact prodigious acts of mimesis, extended mediations on internally developed techniques producing a natural realism that equaled or outstripped its European counterparts. In other words, we should not talk of the social and the natural, but the human and non-human, placing all constructed communities from the tribe upwards on the side of the human. There is no human other in the dialectic. Indigenous and tribal communities may try to live in a way that is more intune with nature, but we run unsafe pipelines through their remaining land and practice systematic disinvestment in infrastructure, leaving them no choice but to use cars (possibly the technology that has most perverted our relationship to nature).

[3] To truly explore this idea, I’d have to invoke difficult the concepts of “mimesis” and subjectivity. See the section “Utopia Banned” in my Master’s thesis, as well as my talk at University of Montreal on Herzog and Adorno.

[4] Indigenous groups around the world have also experienced these outbursts of geist, as well the subjects of British India.

[5] As well as the sin of self-preservation, which I will not get into here.

[6] Since the “guest worker” policy of the 1960’s, we might add that German culture is now also Turkish.

[7] Scholem’s Zionism (as well as that of many of his contemporaries) was a rebellion against their parents’ assimilation and belief in the German state.

[8] One could take this even farther, as Sam Kriss sardonically does, and argue that no one hates the Jews as much as the Jew does—we should pity the anti-Semite, because they can only imitate us and our self-loathing.

Lies We Choose to Believe*

One of the few times I complimented the South while in the South, I was talking to my mother. I was remarking on the Southern storytelling tradition. What I was saying—probably wondering why such a backward region produced such great storytellers—is less important than my mother’s response. She said that the South is a Romantic culture, a place that believes that stories can evoke more truth than available in the individual words themselves or in what actually happened. In this vein, the South creates a past that may or may not correspond to actual history, but nonetheless lives on in the cultural imaginary. This past, then, only becomes real when it is told or thought, and so the past comes into existence in the present, bearing down on those doing the speaking or thinking. Looking at three of Faulkner’s novels: The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, and Light in August, we see the Old South push upon characters in three different ways—as a repressed memory that violently imposes itself on the present, as an ever unfolding line that ensnares those who attempt to unwind it, and as an image that drives the seer into madness. In examining these moments, I hope to understand why the South becomes an obsession for these characters, and work toward an impressionistic answer to the question that has haunted me, and I believe haunts Quentin Compson: How can we hate and love the South at the same time?

To begin with, let us look at Quentin’s portion of The Sound and the Fury. In the novel, the old south is ostensibly dead, or at least on it’s deathbed. Yet nonetheless it presses upon Quentin, making itself real in the present. Events from the past that Quentin is remembering interrupt things that are actually happening in the present—while Quentin is staring at Shreve, Faulkner writes, “he went on, nursing a book, a little shapeless, fatly intent. The street lamps do you think so because one of our forefathers was a governor and three were generals and Mother’s weren’t…Jason I must go away you keep the others I’ll take Jason” (Faulkner The Sound and the Fury 101). As he watches Shreve, the words of his father and mother echo, which then brings to mind a moment from his past until he is back in that moment, the words being remembered as spoken in the present even as they exist in the past. Quentin’s obsession with the past causes it to intrude on the present.

Much of what Quentin remembers his father saying relates to conceptions of virginity, and particularly his sister’s virginity. Still obsessed with the old southern belief that a woman’s worth is defined by her virginity, Quentin tries to tell his father that it was he who slept with Caddie, believing that claiming it could somehow make it true and put him in a special hell with her, where he could protect her. This belief suggests that he sees the past as something malleable, something that can be changed after it has happened as long as it is remembered in a new way. Part of the reason for this is because, as Faulkner’s prose reveals, Quentin experiences the past in the present as vividly as it was in the moment it actually occurred. And part of it is that, ostensibly if one remembers something, then it happened or exists in someway—although this obviously is not actually the case, as individuals remember falsehoods and stories and things that exist only in their minds. However, this is not the entirety of why Quentin believes that the past can be changed in the present, and remembered past can differ from history. To fully grasp why Quentin believes what he believes, we must pivot to two different books, including one in which the Compson clan is absent: Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!.

It is admittedly counter-intuitive to examine a character through a book he is not in. However, it is nonetheless apt. In Light in August, Reverend Gail Hightower is paralyzed by images of his grandfather fighting in the Civil War. His mammie, Cynthie, tells him that his grandfather killed many union soldiers, and even rode into the garrisoned city of Jefferson to conduct a daring raid. The imagery sticks with Hightower, haunting him. He imagines that he is partly his grandfather, and died 20 years before he was born, when his grandfather was shot in Jefferson. This belief shapes his entire life—he works to get posted in the city, and even when he is removed from his position, he continues to live there, even risking his life to stay. The past he is told, the one he dreams of, effects his present, even becoming part of it—at times he speaks of his grandfather’s actions as if they are in the present. Furthermore, he is unable to “get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other” (Faulkner Light in August 62). He tells the congregation, and himself, about the noble death of his grandfather, how there was no looting of Jefferson even as it burned. However, as Hightower admits at the end, Cynthie told him his grandfather was “killed in somebody’s else’s henhouse wid a han’full of feathers” (Faulkner Light in August 485). The past he believes is true usurps true history for most of his life, the latter only coming into the reader’s evidence at the end of the novel. Indeed, one could argue that his imagined history is in some ways true, at least in that it was this history that dictates his actions, how he thinks, and how people treat him throughout his life.

However, in true Faulknerian fashion, Hightower’s understanding of his grandfather’s history is not this simple. We know Hightower was told that his grandfather was shot in the henhouse during his childhood, since his mammie told him it. He has kept both pasts in his mind—his father being shot off his horse in the street, and being shot with a shotgun by the wife of the confederate soldier—because for a hero, their “physical passing becomes rumor with a thousand faces before the breath is out of them, lest the paradoxical truth outrage itself” (Faulkner Light in August 484). He says that he believes Cinthy’s story because even if she made it up, “even fact cannot stand with it” (Faulkner Light in August 484). What matters is not which happened, or even what Hightower thinks happened, but what Hightower believes happened, which is both pasts. When talking to the congregation, his grandfather was shot off his horse, but when talking to his wife on the train, his grandfather was shot in the henhouse. Neither death may be accurate, but because he believes both, they both are, in some way. The past is not history, not an accurate representation of what happened, but what people remember happening. Indeed, the same moment in history can have several contradictory pasts.

This, then, starts to offer an understanding of the past that explains Quentin’s belief that if he can claim Caddie’s virginity to his father, then he might be able to protect her in some way after the fact. Hightower lives his entire life believing these two pasts about his father, and hence both become true in some way, shaping his life as well as the lives of those around him. As he says, he is the “debaucher and murderer of my grandson’s wife, since I could neither let my grandson live or die” (Faulkner Light in August 491). His obsessions with these pasts shape not only his life, but also his wife’s and the community’s. Furthermore, these false pasts manifest themselves in the present, overwhelming Hightower, taking control of him and making it so he cannot live his own life, but instead only a life dictated by said pasts.

Unlike Light in August, Quentin is very much present in Absalom, Absalom!. Much of the novel is people recounting the story of Thomas Sutpen to him and vice-versa. He is at the center of this novel that is obsessed with the relationship between history and its retelling as the past. As the novel unfolds, the same story—the rise and fall of Sutpen’s Hundred—is told from several different perspectives. Sutpen’s sister-in-law, Rosa Coldfield, tells Quentin some of it, his father tells him what his father told him, and Quentin and his roommate Shreve discuss it. As this constant talk about the South happens, the dialogue is peppered with “perhaps” and “maybe.” Partly this is because they are talking about the thoughts that other people had, and it is impossible to say for sure what is in someone else’s head. However, it is also because though it is one history they are retelling, it is several pasts.

For example, part of the derailment of the Sutpen dynasty comes when Thomas Sutpen refuses to let his daughter marry Charles Bon, causing Bon and Henry Sutpen, Thomas’ son, to run off. Jason Compson tells Quentin that it was because Charles Bon was Judith’s sister, only for Quentin to learn from Rosa that Charles Bon was part black, and it was this that stopped the marriage—Rosa does not even suspect incest. As the book draws to a close, Quentin and Shreve come to the idea that it was Bon’s black blood that stopped the act of incest from occurring by causing Henry to shoot Bon to stop the marriage. As Bon tells Henry, “so it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can’t bear” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom! 285). The discussion continues, and Bon taunts Henry that he is not his brother, but “the n****r that’s going to sleep with your sister” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom 285). The two pasts merge into one, yet still stay as two. To Mr. Compson, incest is the central issue that causes the impasse. To Rosa Coldfield, it is miscegenation. But to Shreve and Quentin, it is both. The pasts imagined by Mr. Compson and Rosa bear down on the boys, pushing them into creating their own past that holds both of these other pasts to be true, regardless of what the historical record says.

From Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, it has become more clear why Quentin Compson might understand the past as something able to be modified in the present—the past in Faulkner is something separate from history, something linked to memory, community, and the individual and hence constructed in the present and then put onto history from such a vantage point. In such an understanding of the past, it makes sense that Quentin believes that if he is able to claim Caddy’s virginity to his father the claim will somehow become true. However, in doing so we have strayed from the questions that inspired the essay. Let us return to them. In Faulkner, much as in life, the past of the South—how it wants to be remembered, not its actual history—imposes itself on those from there. It is inescapable, pressing constantly upon the mind. Reverend Hightower becomes so obsessed with the death of his grandfather that, as he says, “for fifty years I have not even been clay: I have been a single instant of darkness in which a horse galloped and a gun crashed” (Faulkner Light in August 491). His entire life can be reduced to a single moment not in history, but in the past. Similarly, when Shreve is talking, Faulkner says “he had no listener…then suddenly he had no talker either…because now neither of them was there. They were both in Carolina and the time was forty-six years ago and it was not even four now but compounded still further, since now both of them were Henry Sutpen and both of them were Bon…” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom! 280). And, as mentioned above, in The Sound and the Fury the prose of the past jumps into the present, interrupting Quentin’s thoughts about where he is to refocus on where he is from.

The South’s past is reliant on memory, and pushes upon those tasked with remembering it. It exists only in the minds of those in the community. Through individuals describing what happened in in the temporal past, the imagined past is created in the present, and then is mapped onto history. The South has to obsess those who carry it with them for its history to live. The implication of this process, however, is that the South’s past is always personal, in that it says something about who created it. This, then, starts to explain why these characters are obsessed with the pasts they and those around them create—it is a way of learning about themselves. And it also starts to explain why it is impossible for Quentin to hate the South, nor not hate it. It is the reason why Absalom, Absalom! concludes with that striking paragraph:

I Dont hate it,” Quentin said quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!

(Faulkner Absalom, Absalom 303).

How can one not hate something that tells one about oneself even when one looks outward? And yet how can you despise something of your own creation? For those of us from the South, it is not that the south is part of us, just where we are from, something that can be disavowed and cleanly analyzed. The south is us, for we construct it. There is a dialectical relationship with the South’s past: it consumes and swallows those who live in it and those who try and escape it, yet it is those same people that it consumes that create it.

When I was younger, I could not eat in the rural South. Whether at a Chili’s in Dothan, Alabama or an unnamed barbeque shack in Arapahoe, North Carolina, the smell of food would make me nauseous. If I tried to eat, I would throw up. At the time, I figured it was fear of getting food poisoning. Now, however, I realize that it was a different form of anxiety. I hated these places, hated them with all my heart, hated them as only someone deluding themself can hate. I hated them because though they were ostensibly different from what I was used to, I recognized myself in them. They were from another time, stuck in the past, and whispered that I was no different, that I was equally stuck, no matter how much I fought it. In identifying them as relics, I admitted that I too thought of the South’s past, and I too am unable to escape it. If they are relics, so am I.

The individual in the South, however, does not exist alone. There is always a community around them. If the South’s past is created by individuals remembering the past in the present, and the individuals are part of a community, then it stands to reason that the community has some relationship to the past, complicating the process discussed above. Returning to Faulkner’s novels, both of the characters analyzed above are simultaneously part of the community and outsiders in some way.[2] Reverend Hightower, of course, is a pariah in Jefferson, almost an exile who never left. Quentin leaves the South, putting both literal and metaphorical distance between himself and his community. The act of creating the South’s past falls upon those who are not entirely within the community.[3] If in the creation of a Southern past there are always remnants of the individual doing the creating, then it becomes clear why this is the case. It is a way of re-inserting oneself into the community.

Here, it is important to clarify that though it first appears that Reverend Hightower is made an outsider by his obsession with the past, in fact his outsider status begins much earlier. His father was an old man by the time Hightower was born, and “though born and bred and dwelling in an age and land where to own slaves was less expensive not to own them, he would neither eat food grown and cooked by, nor sleep in a bed prepared by, a negro slave” (Faulkner Light in August 467). He is a soldier in the confederacy and a man in the South, yet also a firm abolitionist, putting him at odds with most of his contemporaries. The result is that Hightower “grew to manhood among phantoms, and side by side with a ghost” (Faulkner Light in August 474). This does not sound like the upbringing of someone deeply rooted in the society of his contemporaries.

Both Reverend Hightower and Quentin are outsiders, then, and use construction of the South’s past as a way to place themselves back within the community they are exterior to. This is often manifested in the stories themselves. When he arrives in Jefferson, Reverend Hightower talks such that “the dogma he was supposed to preach all full of galloping cavalry and defeat and glory” (Faulkner Light in August 63). His story about his family’s past becomes a fable about the community and humanity, putting him in the community’s history—which the community resents him for doing. Furthermore, he thinks that he “skipped a generation…I had no father and that I had already died one night twenty years before I saw light” (Faulkner Light in August 478). In bringing forth the past in the present, he can imagine himself as his grandfather, a garrulous man who shared values with many other Southerners, rather than as the son of his semi-outcast father, one who still has a soft spot for the plot of African-Americans in the south.

Similarly, in Quentin and Mr. Compson’s stories, General Compson (Jason Compson’s father) plays a large role, both as supplier of information and as Thomas Sutpen’s best friend. Throughout the story, they take pains to emphasize General Compson’s standing in the community— he is able to get people out of jail, loan money, and eventually becomes a higher-up in the Confederate Army. If they are telling stories about the community, and they or their forbearers are in the stories, then in a way they are in the community.

However, the act of telling the past inserts the individual into the community in another way. One final personal anecdote may clarify. Though I am from the South, one would be hard-pressed to find another Southerner who would identify me as “Southern,” or as part of the region’s lineage. I am Jewish and cosmopolitan, with no Southern accent and a disdain for the region’s ideology and history. But when I construct a past of the South, it is one that provokes certain temporal questions in the writers it produces. As someone interested in those questions, I can then position myself as part of this South that shares a history but not a past with the other South. In this, I then assert a claim to membership within the community. Quentin does much the same—the characters in his South are interested in the same questions of miscegenation and incest that he is, and if their thinking is produced by the community’s beliefs, and they think of the same questions as Quentin, then he is produced by the community and its beliefs and hence part of it. Reverend Hightower does something similar, though slightly different. In Light in August Faulkner describes how after the war “men returned home with their eyes stubbornly reverted toward what they refused to believe was dead,” namely the South they once knew (Faulkner Light in August 474). Reverend Hightower, in his obsession with his grandfather’s history and fighting spirit, becomes another one of these men, joining the community. Constructing a past of the South allows individuals who might be excluded based on the actual history to imagine themselves as part of the community.

Finally, we have come to something resembling an understanding of the relationship between the South’s past and individuals in Faulkner. It is a symbiotic relationship—the past cannot exist without these individuals, and the individuals need to create the past to claim a position within the community. It is no wonder they become obsessed with the past—it is their only grasp on those around them. Without it, they would have to disavow the region. But to do that would be to go too far. Instead, they create their own version of the region through their telling of the past, knowing quite well that it differs from actual history. They love the former and hate the latter, but are unable to separate the two, seeing them as one, confusing them, making their denials confirmations and their confirmations denials, until it is all one big neurosis, history and the past bleeding into each other like they had made a blood pact to torture these characters that can never be undone even when Quentin is at the bottom of the river and Reverend Hightower is bleeding on the ground of his house and Caddy is exiled and everyone is dead or crazy except for Shreve practicing surgery in Alberta and maybe occasionally thinking of his suicidal freshman roommate who was hounded by the very past he created into self-destruction and thinking that this is the cost of the south, this is its disease that it destroys the very people who work to create it, chewing up storytellers until there is nothing left of them but empty shells and broken minds. He hates it, he hates it for that and its racism and its absurdity. He does not exist; I hate it and left it and will return more obsessed than when I left.

*This title is adapted from John Moreland’s song “Lies I Choose to Believe”

[2] In fact, even the more peripheral characters interested in the South’s past are in some ways outsiders. Rosa Coldfield lives alone and has almost her entire life, and was raised by an abolitionist father who starved to death rather than help the confederacy. Mr. Compson is an alcoholic and failed classicist. Finally Shreve, who is at times less invested in the act of constructing pasts than Quentin, is Canadian. He is fully the outsider, and is thus able to construct pasts with Quentin without being swallowed by the act, without drowning in the subtle undulations of Mississippi history.

[3] One can see something similar in The Hamlet, where it is Ratliff who tells many of the stories and hence creates the past. Though he is ostensibly part of the community, his job as a travelling salesman takes him away from it for long periods of time.

Empty Gestures

“The house I built is burning”

The Turnpike Troubadours’ lyric echoes in my ear as I walk, the original stuck to the corner where I heard it, its copies mutating and shifting as the real becomes more distant. “The house I built is burning… the house I built burnin…the house we built…burnin…” It’s sunny and warm here in Providence, but the remnants of the bomb cyclone that stormed away weeks ago still liter the corners. Across the country, my sister’s town is covered in the scar tissue that fills the void burning brings. In Atlanta, there’s still ice on the ground. Before I left, I watched as fire failed to melt the snow around it, my understanding collapsing with each flicker. In between these coasts sit proud mountains stripped of their cold coverings, the snow refusing the peaks’ plea for modesty.
Down in Southeast Atlanta, there’s a park centered around two ponds. The ponds were created by The South River Brick Company, who used the area as a clay quarry. They weren’t the first diggers though—the area around the park had been a quarry as far back as 3000 BC, mostly for soapstone. After SRBC closed down, an African-American family homesteaded there, only for white neighbors to burn their house and chase them out, turning the location into a dumping ground. Years later, after a billionaire philanthropist gave Dekalb County the money to turn the land into a park, local artists started using the remaining trash to create installations. Dolls’ heads and broken brick dot the hiking trail, sitting in old TV’s and playing tricks on the local copperheads. Geese land on the lakes, flapping their wings until they have a readymade whitewater ride. The dead trees have ornate tattoos, the product of termites’ artistic ambitions. Occasionally otters appear, messing with the floodplain in unexpected ways.
Yet something is off as you walk through, a palpable tension independent of the lifeless eyes that track walkers or the greedy poison ivy that reach for your legs. It comes from the nagging suspicion that though we gave this land back to nature, it didn’t forgive us. Huxley writes that English forests and marshes are “only there on sufferance, because we have chosen out of our good pleasure, to leave them their freedom.” But the truth was these wilds did not accept their enslavement peacefully—it is only now that we begin to see their vengeance manifesting, and so we desperately return what we never actually conquered. What good is a million dollars for a park, when the money came from the system that destroyed it in the first place? Our house is burning; even our most conscientious leaders are doing little more than throwing cups of water on the ever growing flames, knowing damn well it’ll change nothing. They’re in collusion with the fire, just like those in the back dumping gasoline and laughing as the flames grow. They don’t feel the heat, at least not yet. Cotton and linen, the make-up of currency, are mighty fine at cooling.
“And all that trouble you’ve been looking for is easy in the finding
Well the devil’s into fine detail” The Turnpike Troubadours sing. Oh how I wish they were right! The devil Huxley found in nature, the alien distance that fills the tropics with dread, that asserts there is world outside of us we cannot know, is gone. With it is inimical goodness; the devil cannot exist without God to cast him out of heaven. Those details the devil loved—the ice on the corner, the burned out tree, the rock strewn peak—reveal nothing but his retreat. Climate change is the manifestation of capitalism, of our society. Every tree we plant is already dead, stripped of its essence and power.


I’ve recently been suffering from writer’s block, especially as I’ve tried to write fiction again, something I haven’t done in well over a year. At the same time, I’ve been listening to Crimes by These United States a lot. Like, an unbelievable amount. It mourns a place and time that it knows never existed, crafting this world while softly reminding us to not imbue it with too much meaning or treat it as history.

And so, as an exercise to break my block, I decided to write the beginnings of twelve separate stories—one for each song on the album. The rules were simple: the story, diction, and structure of the stories had to be true to the song, without simply fleshing out its lyrics. Even though part of me wanted to reorder it, I stayed true to the original track listing. These are the results.

Certain studio songs aren’t available to listen to on YouTube, or only live versions are available. In these cases, I’ve linked to the Spotify page, because the live versions are so different from the studio ones.

West Won (Spotify)

He talked in a way that dissolved each word’s meaning. Empty catch phrases, bungled clichés, and indefinable buzzwords all combined to make a piss-poor pastiche of the English language. He’d rode in from Sacramento, or maybe San Jose—whichever is the shining city of the West. He’d spent forty days and forty nights wandering through the desert in the middle of the most developed area of the West, a dwindling bottle of whiskey his only escape back to society. He’d been in gunfights with Indian tribes long gone from these parts. The coyotes that followed him around had a “multitude of follicles.” Our coffee was damn fine. Assigning each word a truth-value was an exercise in futility—it lost this value as soon as it was chained to the ones that preceded and succeeded it. It was all true, even when it wasn’t. We only realized our wallets were missing thirty minutes after he left. Destroying meaning acts as a mighty fine smokescreen.

Susie at the Seashore (Spotify)

I wandered down to the pier. There was Susie plying her trade while avoiding the grasping hands of unsubtle old men. Only steamers over eighty feet were allowed to dock today, so it was especially bad. Assorted lawyers and bankers, titans of industry and boozed-up old money, none a day under seventy, whispered about her bra. Or more accurately, her lack of one. Approaching from behind, I tried to giver her a peck on the cheek, which she deftly avoided.

“Why do y’all never get the message?”

I shrugged. “Trying anyway keeps us young. That and the expedition.”

“Ah yes, the creeps’ search for the sunken city, filled with nymphs to deflower and resources to plunder.”

“Something like that.” In reality though, it was mostly an excuse for the men to drink without their wives and ogle the blue-collar crew, indulging our more repressed fantasies.

“I get why you reject these geriatrics still sucking on silver spoons, but why me too? I’m single, self-made, retired, and still sort of young. How can you resist?”

“In asking that question, you’ve supplied the answer,” she said pinching my cheek. “Now, if you aren’t going to buy anything, please leave me alone.”

“Same as yesterday. Fifty dollars worth of rods, please. One of these days I’m going to have to learn how to fish.”

Get Yourself Home (In Search of the Mistress Whose Kisses Are Famous)

The train rounded the bend, a little too fast as always, and there was his hometown up on the horizon.

At the station, his brother was leaning against a white column. Their mother sat on a bench nearby. As the man disembarked, the brother shouldered one of the man’s bags. There were no greetings. The three began to walk in silence—past the intersection with the stoplight and the hardware store; past the antebellum courthouse; past the empty docks; past the homes of childhood friends and foes. Mostly foes. Eventually, they arrived the house—more of a glorified trailer, really, twice as wide as it was deep, single story with an old slate roof. When they were children, the brothers would jump from the dark tiles to the wooden zip line platform their dad had made for them.

They entered the house. It was no longer empty, as it was for most of the man’s childhood, but brimming with relatives he’d thought long dead. Uncles on the Lazy-Boys, aunts packed shoulder to shoulder on the sofa, cousins on Calvinistic chairs. No conversations stopped when the three walked in, mostly because there were no conversations to stop. An unopened bottle of bourbon sat on the table. Staring out at the yard where he had learned to swing a bat and time a tackle, now covered in kudzu, he smiled and cracked the jug’s plastic safety seal.

Pleasure and Pain and Pride and Me (Spotify)

Chris was regretting the pact he’d made with Luke all those years ago. Hadn’t he noticed the stolen glances, the uncomfortable pauses, the signs that were so clear in retrospect? When they promised to be partners for life, they had been small time. Stealing horses and loading die, just until Chris’s political career took off and he could swindle legally. Now they were scoping out First State Bank, prepping for “the crime of the century,” as Luke kept calling it. Chris damned his partner’s adrenaline addiction. Luke didn’t care for girls or gambling; he’d given up alcohol after that unfortunate incident with Brady the Brute. Chris never had to drag him out of the brothel or saloon at 3 A.M.—no, that’d be much too easy. Instead, on a near daily basis he’d have to use his silver tongue to diffuse a duel or veto a plan. But there was no deterring this. Luke had been dreaming of it since he was a boy with a cap gun. And Chris’s pride wouldn’t let him back out. They’d either rob the bank or it’d rob them.

We Go Down to That Corner

Ben stumbled back two steps, landing on bended knee, arms akimbo as if he was proposing again. He squeezed off two rounds that lodged in the wooden frame of the corner saloon. Edith had broken his heart for good this time. He fell on his back. The mountains at the bottom of his field of vision danced, contorting themselves up and down, left and right as the dust around him floated. He could’ve sworn he heard her scream, though maybe it was in celebration. The setting sun was getting closer, moving down to reach his level. Ben’s cigarette smoldered on his chest, burning a small hole in his vest. “Well I guess this means she’s keeping the ashtray,” he thought.

Honor Amongst Thieves

“Jimbo stumbled out the bar on his own accord…though just barely,” I added through a chuckle. “And who’s standing outside but Atticus and his trusty revolver. ‘Well’ says Atticus, ‘I reckon this the proper time to…let’s say repossess that money you stole yesterday.’ Ole Jimbo can only laugh and hand over his last fiver. Once he does, Atticus holsters his gun, slaps Jimbo on the back and says, ‘why don’t we grab ourselves a drink. I’m buying,’ and the two go right back into the bar.

Well, three hours later, the two have run through the fiver. Jimbo is out like a light in the corner, but Atti still wants another. He begins wandering out the bar to look for a new drinking partner, only to walk headfirst into the barrel of Raymond’s six-shooter. He complies—hands over the rest of his cash and turns back into the bar yelling ‘Raymond’s buying this time.’

A couple more hours pass, and now Atticus is done. I mean, head on the table, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, hand shaped as though it’s still holding a whiskey tumbler. Jimbo is coming too, though the only thought getting through the haze of his hangover is ‘hair of the dog,’ which he’s repeating like some kind of mantra to keep the spirits at bay. Problem is, Atticus took his last cent. So he walks out, and lo and behold, it’s Sara Anne. He fumbles out his .44, shrugs, and says ‘revenge for last week.’ The—”

“Why didn’t anyone ever rob you? You must’ve been around to see all this?”

“I was behind the bar. And common decency said that, if you don’t tip your barkeep, you don’t rob him either. What type of person’d do that?”

Six Bullets (Five Complaints) (Spotify)

I awoke with a start. Why’d it feel like I was moving?

“Because we’re in the back of a car, silly” Dana laughed, baring her straight white teeth. “Sarah,” she said as brushed her blonde hair out her eyes, “aren’t you going to show our guest some hospitality?”

Sarah nodded and reached into a Givenchy purse, producing a perfectly rolled joint. “And what is that, may I ask?”

“Don’t your small town manners mean you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” They handed me the number and small lighter. Raising my head a second later, something hit me.

“Who’s driving this thing anyway?”

“I am,” responded Jeff from the front. “Isn’t she a beaut?” A beauty it was. A brand new 1963 Cadillac El Dorado convertible, fins and all, painted baby blue.

“I was talking about this, actually” he said, waving a .38 in the air. “It’s the same one as in The Big Heat.” Hiding my surprise, I tried to change the subject, preferably to why I woke up in a car going 90 down I-9. “So what’s happening? Do I need cash? Can I chip in for gas or something?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’re taking care of you—our treat.” Sarah chimed in.

“Being from New Mexico and all, can you teach us how to use this thing, actually?” Dana added, pointing toward the revolver.

Heaven Can Wait (Spotify)

Joel sat in his room, staring out the window at his mailbox. Why had he sent that letter? Maybe her response would arrive today. Then again, he’d thought the same yesterday, and the day before that too. Taking out a piece of paper, he began to write. Why not did the hole a little deeper?

Upstairs, Patricia finished packing her bags. Thomas kept trying to approach, filling her nostrils with the smell of good whiskey and cheap perfume. The stench kept his indiscretions fresh and her anger strong. She threw her last dress into the trunk and slammed it shut.

Study the Moon (Spotify)

They found him in Georgie’s saloon. Though I guess they call it a bar now, and Georgie doesn’t own it anymore. The coppers put their hands on Ole Frank’s shoulder and hauled him down to the courthouse, where the judge demanded he be cuffed. A jury, no faces he recognized, had already been assembled. His stone-faced public defender, fresh in from Pittsburg, was waiting for him. The prosecutor, wearing saddle shoes shined to an inch of their life and a silk tie, coolly asked for death by hanging. As he did so, Frankie couldn’t help but blurt out, “Aw hell, I didn’t take nobodies’ money. Just figured, what better place to get the cash Georgie owes than the bank itself?”

Well, the jury didn’t like that much. Didn’t take more than a minute to convict. In the back of the room the sheriff, Frankie’s old drinking buddy, did his best to stifle his sobs.


Matt was the only congressman sitting. Papers floated around him, fluttering down into his lap before slipping onto the wood floor below. Everyone was face-to-face in one big scrum, a hurricane of screams and middle fingers with Matt as the eye. Eventually, a member of his party noticed him. “Why aren’t you leading the charge like usual?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’ve already won, whether or not we vote no. The funding is coming in from the feds thick and fast. So what if we win? Another three months? Another six? Nothing worth losing your voice over.”


John sat at the edge of the party, glass in his hand, staring up at the moon. In front of him, women in hoopskirts two-stepped with Colonels. As Ignacio approached him, John looked up with a smile notable only for how appallingly fake it was.

“You keep grimacing like that, it’ll become permanent.”

“How you enjoyin’ the party?”

“More than you, evidently. They haven’t been married but five minutes, and you’re already the grumpy father-in-law.”

John grinned. “That make you the nagging mother-in-law?” His smile dissipated as he stirred the ice cubes in his bourbon with his index finger. “It’s the end of us, Ignacio. It’s not just the groom; everyone here is from the city,” he lamented, staring at a man in a business suit across the room. “Pushing us and our ways out.”

“Like your people did to mine.”

The two chuckled. Ignacio kicked the dirt. John took another sip of bourbon. “Guess so.”

The men in loafers and gold watches were streaming out, leaving glasses stacked nicely on the abandoned tables and various bits of detritus scattered across the ground. A silver coin reflected the moonlight onto John’s drink. “Remember when these things’d go all night?” He reminisced.

“What’s all this hot tin for? Declaring us dead already. The girls are still dancing, aren’t they? And the bar’s still serving. Come on.” He offered a hand to help John stand, and, arms draped around the other’s shoulders, the two meandered through the crowd of revelers, still spinning on and on, for one more night at least.

Low Country Girls (Spotify)

We pulled the pick-up over to the side of the road, got out, and hopped the fence onto the farm. We ran towards its eastern edge, she and I, where the outline of tobacco plants gave way to moonlight reflecting off the water. Sitting there with our feet in the lapping waves, her dirty blonde hair almost glittered.

“You aren’t worried about being caught?” she asked.

“What’s it matter? I sail off again tomorrow.” I whispered as I leaned in for a kiss. Pulling away a few minutes later, I smiled and said, “each time I come home, it gets harder to leave.”

“What happened to the wanderer without a country, the border-hopping heartbreaker?” She teased.

“Carolina girls, I guess.” Seeing lights in the distance, I grabbed her arm. “I think that’s our cue.” And we were off again.


Old Chapman Takes a Good Long Walk

“So I tell him,” he says, chuckling softly, “I say ‘Sam, you know how to kill a hog?’ And he shakes his head no. ‘Well, you can’t shoot it in the head, unless you got a real cannon.’” He tries to make a hand motion, spilling whiskey on his prodigious belly and the empty notebooks of the crowd gathered around him. It doesn’t faze him, though he might not have even noticed. ‘“If you take it head on, you’ll have a real bad time. They’re mean creatures, hogs. No, you gotta climb a tree in the morning and wait. And wait. And wait some more. And a bit more after that. Eventually, it’ll pass underneath. When it does, you jump on top of it, stab it in the neck, and flip it on its side. We’ve got to do the same with this legislation. It’s cowardly, sure, but it’s also our only chance. They’ve got the speaker. They’ve got presidential and public support. They got us dead to rights, but we still got our wits.’” He stops for a second, watching the crowd lean in and flashing a smile that foreshadows the punch. “And so Sam thinks for a minute. I mean really thinks, you can see it in his face, and says, ‘well Tom, that sounds great.’” Tom pauses for a beat. “‘Except I don’t know how to climb a tree.’” The previously enraptured reporters explode in laughter as Tom bellows, “well, there goes our wit. Only the finest minds here in Washington.”

As the crowd calms, a young man in the back, one hand scribbling furiously, looks up at the congressman. “Would Senator Nance corroborate this, that this conversation happened?”

Dozens of unhappy faces turn to face him. Tom, still chuckling at himself, sends the cub a wink and a smile. “Sonny, let me buy you a drink and tell you what a wise man once told me: ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’”

When You’re Traveling at the Speed of Light (Spotify) 

The hard twang of a blues guitar waft from the window of the car. If I were going any faster, the rules of relativity would start to apply. I’m in no real rush—just that middle Alabama looks like Middle Georgia looks like Middle Mississippi and when you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a million times. Doesn’t help that the word that best typifies these places, especially at night, is creepy. And so I drive onwards, hard and fast, reaching towns with names like Moultrie and Doerun at daybreak, leaving them two nights later, passing through kudzu covered forests and over snake filled swamps, singing along with B.B. and co like I’d have it any other way.