Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Jo Neace Krause's The Last Game We Played

I mentioned in a previous post that I greedily opened a package that arrived from Black Lawrence Press a few weeks ago. It contained Jo Neace Krause’s The Last Game We Played, which won Black Lawrence’s Hudson Prize in 2008.

The book is truly a spectacular read. Of course, it's easy for me to allow the English instructor to pop out of my back pocket and and edify everyone on the parallels between stories like Krause's “Nothing But Idolatry” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” or even O'Connor's covertly religious parable of “Parker’s Back.” Comparisons could also be made between William Faulkner’s Emily Grierson and Krause’s Miss Geneva Wellner in the story “Blindness.” But Krause's stories are all so vivid, so darkly humorous or piercingly sad—generally, so absorbing--that looking at potential influences misses the point. The 12 stories are all like “The Whole World Is Watching You,” which the former editor of In Posse Review Rachel Calahan proclaimed to be “a little classic.”

So many of the stories captivated me, but the wry resignation of Patsy Ramsey in “A Woman in the News” was the first to make me physically and mentally unable to put the book down. The story has an unconventional construction, but it’s fitting, too, a detail I’ll get back to in a moment. The narrative begins in a classroom, with the admonishments of a theater professor, who chooses an unnamed student to assume the identity of someone famous, eventually deciding on Patsy Ramsey, a former Miss West Virginia and mother of Jean Benet. The character is teased out, slowly by the student talking, taking on Patsy’s explanations and musings and by the professor asking questions. Insightful revelations follow. Take this, for instance:

“Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe it dumbfounds you to be told what I know: that it is possible to construct yourself out of one grand bursting moment of admiration. But I believe that, just as I believe it is possible to become ugly if the world declares you ugly. Think of it this way: before I won the prize, I was just someone who was rather pretty, and I think that people were blind to me the way they are blind to most things about them that doesn’t get up in their faces…That’s what being beautiful is, getting up in the face with your act.”

This is the moment, the revelation that defines Ramsey for the rest of her life. It is what she misses as it fades, the affirmation she proclaims to want for her daughter. With this monologue, we seem to get the real story behind Patsy Ramsey; previously unknown truths are told. We learn her story is somehow melancholy and filled with a kind of vague loss even before the death of Jean Benet. The loss, the emotional vacancy that descends on Patsy as she ages, is what propels her into an illicit relationship with the man, who, it is implied, kills the daughter. It is a plot she is part of, it seems, but Krause allows us to feel compassion for Ramsey—deep compassion because she doesn’t seem to consciously recognize the man's intent. The volume of her alarm is stuck on low and does not penetrate the fog of her dreamy inattentiveness, her attempts to escape further disillusionment.

As the story enters a “Part II,” all traces of the student who has assumed Patsy’s identity and speaks in what she imagines is her voice, disappears. We see only Patsy now, and it can be assumed that either we are getting her genuine voice or the student has so fully transformed herself (as the professor intended) that we cannot distinguish between the real and the illusory—as I mentioned: this is a fitting construction. Krause’s Patsy was addicted to a kind of dangerous fantasizing, a fantasizing that kept her from recognizing the danger existing in reality. Also, Patsy was forced to act for police, to assume an impervious persona neither moved nor damaged by verbal attacks. In Part II, she is wearing her full body armor.

I could go on like this about each story (and may very well do this when I don’t have a stack of summer semester papers to read, all of which are staring at me accusingly and now on the verge of pointing). Each one is wonderfully detailed, and deeply psychological—like “Hans and The American Father Town,” which I suspect may be based in part on Weirton, WV (where I live…but maybe not?) or the more northerly New Cumberland, WV.

Buy the book here: http://blacklawrence.com/krause.html

AND In the meantime, read the wonderful story, “Blue in the Face” by Krause here: http://www.mid.muohio.edu/segue/8/8krause.pdf

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