Laura Gill

Barrelhouse Reviews: Burn Fortune by Brandi Homan

Review by Laura Gill


Clash Books / May 2019
214 pp / Paperback $15.95
ISBN 978-1944866426

June, the narrator of Burn Fortune, has a summer job in a cornfield, which, much like the town she lives in, is full of hidden danger. Almost every location, friend, and experience holds an underlying threat to her safety. And yet, Brandi Homan’s language is understated and subtle, and her writing is spare, and so description stands in for melodrama: “reaching between the corn leaves, I pull my first tassel. It slides out with a pop, white like a green onion. I drop it to the ground, wet with dew. The little black insects that were clumped around the base of the tassel are smushed on my palm.” 

The whole novel is full of moments where the writing holds back, and in doing so, reveals violence just under the surface of June’s life. Most of the actual danger is exhibited in the men she spends her time around; they are rarely safe, and at their worst, they are abusive and frightening. Her father won’t let her mother drive. While June loves her boyfriend at first, his abusive father lurks in the corner of her boyfriend’s psyche, and eventually appears when he tries to hit her. And then there is Chet, a boy who commits a terrible act against June later in the novel. She describes him sitting in a chair with a “buzzed head and stark blue eyes, an eager animal.” When a friend comes in with a VHS tape, they watch “two naked people butt fucking,” and “neither takes their eyes off the screen.” These boys are hungry, and neither they nor June know the boundaries of that hunger. 

Homan’s ability to write small, clear, evocative scenes gives the book an eerie, understated tone. Like June, we never quite know when we are safe. The writing rarely indicates panic, even if June is experiencing it. In one scene, for example, she has to pee at work. She’s in the cornfield and knows she’s not supposed to urinate in the field, but she does it anyway despite being “afraid of spider mites in [her] asshole.” As she pulls up her shorts, she “hear[s] a rustle, a pounding, but when [she] stand[s], the field is empty and the tops of the rows are still.” It’s the “stillness” that haunts; it’s the calm spread above the danger that terrifies. 

It’s not surprising, then, that June finds an escape, even if she finds it in an unlikely place: the school gymnasium. There, she sees movie posters featuring Jean Seberg, who grew up in her town, and June decides to learn more about her. She dives into Seberg’s films thanks to the novel’s fairy godmother, Mrs. Devereaux, the school librarian, who helps her get access to the movies and encourages her investigation. Mrs. Devereaux can’t put June into a costume and send her to find her prince at a ball, but she can give June Seberg, who ultimately presents June with a question she hadn’t considered before: “how do you start from here and end up there?” 

This question resonates deeply for June, and she starts to dive deeply into Jean’s life and her roles, especially her portrayal of Joan of Arc. Mrs. Devereaux tells her she got the part by a narrow margin, and it not only made her famous, but it also brought her back to town, resplendent in a convertible. June discovers that she received four gifts on that homecoming: “1. An orchid corsage 2. A key to the city 3. A small gold-plated ear of corn and 4. A parade.” She reflects, “it’s the ear of corn that kills me, not quite gold but gold enough…it must’ve felt comforting in her hand, moist on metal. The right size for a purse…” For June, corn is spider mites, abusive men, and work. For Jean, the woman who escaped, it is gold. 

What stuns June isn’t simply how the role transformed Jean’s life, but also watching Jean in the role itself. Then, her fascination turns to Joan of Arc. After a particularly abusive experience with one of the men in her orbit, she reads more and more about Joan. (It can’t be a coincidence, this alliteration of names: June/Jean/Joan.) Partly because Mrs. Devereaux is excited about her interest, and piles books in her lap, but also because of the role Joan of Arc played in a world of men. “[T]he biography says that Joan wore men’s clothes so she wouldn’t be raped. Imagine. Clothes as repellent, shield. Doors her companions can’t unlock.” 

For June, just as protection is a fantasy, so is leave-taking. And yet: she does try. As June wrestles with her new reality, she finds herself escaping again. This time, she heads to a culvert. If a culvert carries a stream, then perhaps it’s a place where June can carry herself: away from the world that haunts her, away from the natural forces of mites and men that threaten her well-being. She brings photos, clips, and a camera into that space. She decorates it with the narratives she needs. And, in the end, she turns to the camera on herself, her “blood inside.” She says, “fuck this place, fuck everything…somebody needs to tell. Anybody.” She then puts her finger “on the button,” and says, “light your fire.” 

In this final line, we are brought back to the beginning, the title of the book: Burn Fortune. Fortune is worth burning if what it has brought you is violence and danger. If the luck of your life has been made up of threatening people and places, then you must find a way to burn it. To set fire to the definition of the word itself: “arbitrary force of human affairs.” What makes June’s reality so dangerous is just that: arbitrary forces. These are the forces that June needs to escape, and she’ll use her story to do so. 

Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. Her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart.

Barrelhouse Reviews: I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott

Review by Laura Gill

I Miss You When I Blink FINAL.jpg

There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t. Many of us would probably like to think we are the latter—people who don’t use categories or classify people into groups because humanity is expansive—even if most of us accept we are often the former: we do group people, and sometimes there’s worth to doing so. We ask our friends and lovers: are you an Order Muppet or a Chaos Muppet? Are you type A or type B? All of us are probably a bit of both, or something different in between. Sometimes, we have moments when we do need to divide the world into two (or at least four, six, eight) types and moments where we see humanity as infinitely complex as possible.

In the world of essays, one might be able make a similar point. There are two types of essays; essays that explore questions and essays that want to answer them, and to answer them too quickly. In many of Mary Laura Philpott’s essays in the recently-released collection I Miss You When You Blink, we get the latter. Topics sometimes go unexamined, and simple metaphors or colloquial language soften what might be more complicated moments—the result of which makes it feel as though the narrator is attempting to simplify a much messier truth.

Mary Laura Philpott admits she’s Type A early on, and the essays mirror what we are meant to assume comes along with a Type A personality: a tendency to control an experience, to walk through life (and an essay) checking things off the list. Even though she questions with that impulse in herself, as it has been both the driver of her success and the reason for her stress about those successes, her essays don’t dig in deeply enough to the underlying issues that might participate in what has lead her to not just feel frustrated by her own perfectionism but also guilty for it. Often, it seems like she’s driving towards a predetermined end without interrogating the process to get there, a technique deployed often with deflecting remarks like this one: “I had my health, my youth. I was not yet forty. I was not dying of insidious cancer, and I had not accidentally gotten hooked on meth, like those soccer moms I saw on the news.” Since when did being forty indicate some terrible end? And when did getting “hooked on meth” become a barometer that made any sense for this narrator? While what she is saying is true—all of us are no worse or better off than millions of people (or I guess older or younger?)—it feels to me like a way to get out of digging more deeply into what that psychology means for those who do seemingly “have it all.”

Deflection on pops up in other moments in the book. In one essay about moving frequently as a child and having multiple fainting spells, she closes with: “I do know that learning to give in to sudden fainting spells and weathering the end of friendships severed by childhood moves gave me practice in accepting, without struggle, the unexpected. Don’t make a big deal, let it pass, everything’s fine.” In the margins, I wrote, “wait, what?” next to those sentences. As a child who moved a lot and experienced fainting spells, I wanted more. “Everything’s fine,” she declares. But, wait—what about when it isn’t?  Though she doesn’t state it, she clearly feels the need to offhandedly say “no biggie, it’s all ok,” lest the reader think she’s complaining. Don’t look to closely, she seems to be asking; really, it’s nothing. Then why write an essay about it at all?

There are moments when Philpott deflects, and others where it feels like a detail or metaphor gets too much attention, almost diluting the material. In her title essay, she writes about where the phrase “I miss you when you blink” came from. It came from her son who says it to her while he’s doodling. She is stunned by it, as most writers would be—it’s a beautiful phrase, and it speaks beyond a simple gesture to a kind of longing; it acknowledges the pervasiveness of loss, and is made more moving because it comes from a voice that does not yet know know the true expansiveness of what that loss means. Philpott repeats the phrase to herself “as she lays awake in bed” and then again as she is in traffic the next day, and then she thinks: “How cute.” How cute?! No! How profound! How beautiful! She goes on of course: it isn’t just “cute, it  “helps her be more “patient” and it “captures the depths” of her love for her son. But a strange thing happens as she continues to examine the phrase, she weakens it instead of enhancing it, writing that it “captures that universal experience: the identity crisis,” specifically the one where “you feel sure you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you absolutely, positively cannot stand still one minute longer.” It is also a mantra: “I say I miss you when I blink to myself,” she writes, “and it means, Get a grip. Don’t panic. To figure out where to go next, look at where you came from. If you got here, you can get to the next thing.” And there, perhaps, is the problem. If the phrase means so many things, does it really mean anything at all?

Philpott is at her best towards the end of the of the collection when she writes about her depression. In saying that, I don’t mean to imply that essays that focus on personal struggle are intrinsically more interesting. In Philpott’s case, it’s that these essays are simply where one gets the strongest sense that the narrator has a universe of questions about the experience she’s trying to unravel, and in her unraveling, opens up to some poignant ideas about what it means to live with depression. She writes that she needed to leave her family for a few months because she “wanted to be unwitnessed for a while.” That phrase is moving, especially in light of her role in her family, as a mother and wife, often (and perhaps always) being witnessed. In this moment, and among those essays, it feels like she’s truly essaying, which is to say: making an attempt and trying to explain an experience she doesn’t completely understand.

In such essays, she also resists deflecting with off-handed comments about how she knows she doesn’t have it as hard as other people. This comes as a relief...but we are not relieved for long.  In her essay, “Ungrateful Bitch,” she makes the point, again, that she is fortunate, but still, sometimes, distressed:

I know how fortunate I am to have my health and my family and my jobs and my roof and my car and my democracy. I do know. I promise. And I know that saying out loud, ‘I think I might want a different life,’ when you already have a perfectly good life is sort of like holding a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie in your hand while saying, ‘I don’t want a chocolate cookie.’ I know some people have no cookies. Unfortunately, having a fine life doesn’t exempt anyone from existential anger...

Here, it feels like the is pushing the reader away again. “I promise” she seems to pleads with the reader: I get it, I am fortunate. And because she gets it, she really needs us to step off, or step back, from a platform we weren’t on until she put us there. She then goes a step further to say that not only does she understand her own privilege, but she understands what it might be like to not have privilege, explaining that if she were homeless, she might not “give a damn about things like personal satisfaction or personal fulfillment because [her] greater concern would be not freezing to death.” To assume all homeless people have the same needs is an issue in and of itself, but what is more concerning, is that it perpetuates the type of of white guilt that keeps people complacent. In an article for the New York Times, Eula Biss wrote about white guilt as a “potential prod, a goad, an impetus to action,” asking, “isn’t guilt an essential cog in the machinery of the conscience?”  I think the answer is yes, it can be, but in Philpott’s essay the guilt essay does not serve as a cog, or if it does, it is doesn’t function in the way it needs to. Instead of turning the magnifying glass on herself, she turns it away, further distancing herself from the complexities of her reality. She starts to blame herself for considering herself ungrateful, instead of examining the realms of that ungratefulness, and why gratefulness, in the end, really isn’t the point. In that same essay, Eula Biss writes that “being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it. Without thinking, I would say that believing I am white doesn’t cost me anything, that it’s pure profit, but I suspect that isn’t true. I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life.” In the end of the essay, Philpott seems to be suggesting it shouldn’t cost us anything—all thinking about whiteness does is lead to guilt. And for her, this guilt feels like useless self sabotage, something she needs to get rid of so she can simply be happy in her privileged life. The way to do that is, she suggests, just writing down the words“ungrateful bitch,” and staring “at them until they are just squiggles and shapes.”

Here’s the thing: I’m all for exploring layers of distress, and I’m all for exploring what the psychology of “having it all” means for all of us living in a country focused on striving, above all else. It’s a pathology that is clearly detrimental to society.  But it’s worthy of a much better diagnosis than the one Philpott is able to give. James Baldwin comes back to the forefront; he who wrote so extensively about how the privileged in this country have just as much to reckon with as those that they’ve oppressed also strenuously argued that the delusions and the myths that we carry are not only making us sick, but perhaps do demand scrutiny and an honest reckoning. Of course, one can’t assume that Philpott and Baldwin are necessarily speaking to each other in a meaningful sense, or that this country’s past is the reason for her struggles, but if someone is going to offhandedly mention their privilege, it would serve them well to dive into it. The book takes place in the South, which is to say it takes place in America, and so much of it feels particular to that place and our country's relationship to success—who gets to have it and who defined it in the first place. And given that she doesn’t, there’s a rather awkward hole left in her work, waiting to be filled.

Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. Her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart

Barrelhouse Reviews: Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland by Duke Haney

Review by Laura Gill

Death Valley Superstars cover.jpg

I watch the Academy Awards every year, and every year, the Academy Awards tries to recruit more people like me—consistent, loyal viewers, who will watch the show despite its flaws. Every year, the producers fall short. But this past year has been particularly fraught. First, the Academy floated the possibility of a Best-Popular-Movie Award which fell flat on its face when a public outcry questioned the grounds on which they might judge a movie’s “popularity,” and that the Academy inadvertently appeared to concede that “Popular Films” are less artistically-valid than less popular ones. So they nixed that idea, and then put faith in their host—Kevin Hart, a young, black comedian who does star in “popular” movies and television—but when Hart’s homophobic tweets from ten years ago resurfaced, another public outcry  ensued. He stepped down. Their final effort was to remove certain categories from the televised show—among them editing, hair and makeup, and cinematography—to which the public, and many people in Hollywood, responded with more outrage; are these categories lesser than? All the while, despite pandering on the part of the Academy, there is little expectation that the Oscars will ever succeed with younger audiences—people who find their content on YouTube, Snapchat, and Netflix, another controversial subject since the ostensible frontrunner for Best Picture for the longest time was a Netflix release, ROMA. That it lost to Green Book is another controversy altogether.

The continued outcries from what one might call Academy Award “traditionalists” resonate with many of Duke Haney's concerns in his essay collection, Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland, published this past December, which is a lament for an old-fashioned style of film he sees as being replaced  by lesser works of art. In the first essay, he sets up this take on the current state of culture, thinking that we’ve lost certain reverence for the art of film  (the kind he considers worthy and worthwhile) , and with it, certain cultural touchstones of our past. While he likely wouldn’t necessarily be up and arms about the Academy Awards given  his knee-jerk contempt for modern Hollywood film, he is—as perhaps many in the Academy are—disturbed by what he sees coming into its place: short, consumable narratives for kids. Indeed, he sees this everywhere, not just in film. An anecdote about Norman Mailer illustrates this—according to Haney, that there are no young people today who, upon meeting a writer like Norman Mailer would have minds “nuanced enough to critique a literary lion.” Mailer has lost what he calls his “army,” replaced by a “hive mind stuck in chrysalis.” To which I ask: So? That sounds like is great news! Let the hive minds lead away from Mailer, towards, say: Hilton Als, Rebecca Solnit, and Claudia Rankine.

Haney’s reverence for Mailer is just the beginning of a series of essays that relish the hyper-masculinity of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He seems to find it immensely unfortunate that Mailer has been pushed aside ‘simply’ because he was known to be “obnoxious, violent, egoist.” Instead, he wants us to remember that Mailer was “perhaps the most important American writer of the sixties,” a claim built on the preposterous assumption that if one chooses not to read Mailer because he was an “obnoxious, violent, egoist,” it’s a travesty. In fact, the book is riddled with kinds of claims about people's worth, impact, and value—and the ones with value are mostly men, with a penchant for womanizing. While the aim of the essays is to explore the varied lives and complicated legends of some of Hollywood’s most remembered, and in some cases most forgotten, stars, all the while exploring Los Angeles and its role in shaping these characters, most of what comes through instead is the romanticization of a past that even Haney acknowledges is problematic. But instead of addressing those troublesome components,  Haney pokes fun at them or ignores them entirely—sometimes wishing he could have a slice of the good old days back, as if to say: get another writer like Mailer, or another actor like Marlon Brando. In other words, reading these essays feels a lot like  entering a boys club where you’ll be ridiculed if you don’t laugh at the penis joke, or looked at with disgust if you say you admit that not only did you take years to listen to it, you also don't even like Graceland!

Somehow, his worst tendencies come to light with a figure Haney claims to love: Marilyn Monroe. Haney dwells on the fact that many people thought she was never a good actress, instead finding her annoying, daft, and hollow. Tennessee Williams allegedly said that “Marilyn’s mind was a desert, a drought, with tiny compartments devoted to clothes, makeup, stardom, and fucking. That is all. That is absolutely all.” Haney reflects that “this blistering assessment might sadly have rung true to Marilyn at her most insecure,” that “acting, then, may have terrified Marilyn because it could expose her as the hollow shell...she suspected herself to be.” But though Haney claims to find her a great actress and a great artist, why he might feel that way is entirely unexplored. Instead, he spends his time exploring why people were critical of her, and how she might have been critical of herself. The lack of scrutiny for the criticism she received is misogynistic and cruel, at best. For Haney, Monroe herself is peripheral. The talk of the town is all that matters.

Perhaps it is understandable that Haney doesn’t dive in. Not every essay needs to unravel every aspect of a person and in Marilyn’s case, perhaps there’s a point to be made about the criticism she garnered that goes beyond the fact that she was a woman. And yet—when put next to an essay with this sentence about Elizabeth Taylor—“not that she was really an actress; if not for her spectacular looks, she would have never starred opposite Brando, Dean, and Clift”—any benefit of doubt one may be willing to extend to Haney dissipates. And it doesn't stop there. In another essay, he objectifies a woman he meets on his journey to find a medium for a seance for Jim Morrison: “it was instantly clear that she was in fact part Indian—she reminded me of a half-Iroquois acquaintance—and I guessed her age as fifty, though most would probably guess younger.”. Another essay, dedicated to his admiration for Elizabeth McGovern, relishes in a rumor about her farting on stage and a declaration from a friend he refers to as  “The Captain.” First, “The Captain” tells him McGovern "has beautiful breasts” and then Haney chooses to bring the commentary back around (or, perhaps The Captain does, but in either case, it’s completely unnecessary) when he asks about her again a page later, and “The Captain [affirms] his [own] judgment of her breasts.” Captain’s objectification of McGovern is comical, but Haney is entirely comfortable letting such objectification slide. It’s all mostly material for a gossip rag than an actual problem.

To be fair, Haney is aware  that such criticism is coming. His final essay about Stephen Cochran, where the title “The End of Cock Run” really says it all, Haney addresses the fact that he nearly didn’t write about Cochran because “he was always a dicey subject,” he was worried he might be “accused of condoning him by simply writing about him” without “ [waving] the progressive flag.” But yet again, Haney flat-out romanticizes Cochran. He’s not simply writing about him. On one of his favorite scenes of Cochran’s from the movie Private Hell where Cochran plays the bad guy Haney writes: “the clincher for me was a later scene in which [Cochran] confess(es) that he [is] stuck on Lupino and slap(s) her when she refuse(s) to reciprocate.” Haney revels in the acting, not the person or even the action itself, but later, Haney reveals just how much Cochran’s on-screen persona was connected to the man himself, a man accused of the assault and abuse of women, among other crimes. Haney knows that Cochran is, as he says, a “pig and a covert coward,” but he can’t help saying that perhaps he was a “more nuanced pig than most.” One may be forgiven for questioning if Haney truly has moral qualms about his subjects, if his disclaimers are just editorial intrusions designed solely to avoid harsh judgment.

Viewership for the Academy Awards hasn’t gone down simply because it’s long. People are over the spectacle because even as the show tries to include more voices, it’s still mostly an old white man’s show. Like with Haney’s material, even as they try to celebrate groundbreaking work, the limits of real change creep in and make themselves known in the show itself.  Only two years ago we witnessed  Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty accidentally award Best Picture to La La Land instead of the rightful winner, Moonlight. It was hard to watch on a number of levels, partly because it’s painful to watch a mistake on live T.V., but mostly because it was hard to watch two stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood accidentally awarding a film about a white couple singing and dancing to jazz while trying to make it in L.A. over a coming-of-age story about a black, gay boy in Miami. But at least Moonlight actually did win! At this most recent spectacle, there were a few innovative, thoughtful movies being celebrated—ROMA, The Favourite, and Black Panther—but it was a film perhaps consciously designed to revel in the white savior trope that won Best Picture. Seeing the three, older white men accept the award for The Green Book was enough to tell you that even if it hadn’t been a movie that, as Jenni Miller wrote was a “movie about racism made by white people, for white people,” it was one; the old guard still has the lens, and they won’t let it go. As many people have said more eloquently, and with a good dose of wit: both of those moments were metaphors for the larger reality of Hollywood. (Said Best Adapted Screenplay winner, Spike Lee, whose classic Do The Right Thing was defeated by Driving Miss Daisy in 1990 and whose BlacKkKlansman lost to Green Book 29 years later: “every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose.”)

Haney’s approach is another metaphor.  The serious flaws he discusses seem like quirks, not questions that merit important engagement. The lack of self-reflection about Hollywood’s past are, thus, immensely frustrating; here is an opportunity to reflect the dark, disturbing underbelly of Hollywood, and here is a writer who is too sheepish to examine it. Haney, in fact, seems charmed by his own masculinity. One can't help but feel like having gotten stuck in the corner of the bar, in a conversation you thought might be interesting while the man keeps talking, and you can’t get a word in. Anyone who has been in this situation knows it’s easier to nod your head and smile, but one doesn't have to do that when they read, and so, I didn't.

Perhaps Haney could have taken a page out of one of his heroes, Marlon Brando’s, playbook, when, not only did Brando not accept the Academy Award for The Godfather, but he had Sacheen Littlefeather—President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee—do so in his stead. She read a statement about the treatment of American Indians in film, and on “television in reruns” to boos and cheers. Brando, far from unproblematic himself, used his platform to ask Hollywood to look forward at least once—vigorously. But Haney is committed to the rerun. Worse, he finds himself immune to the insidiousness of the stereotypes they promote. And all that does is add weight to the parts of our past we’re hoping to reject.


Bio: Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. She received her MFA from Bennington College, and her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart and is working on a book project about traveling to author's homes across the country.