Jim Powell as Witness

Jim Powell, the longtime IUPUI professor and founder of The Indiana Writers Center, has published a book of short stories with a very fitting title: Only Witness.

That is the true calling of the writer – to be a witness to the people and the world around him or her – not to judge, not to praise or condemn or flatter or berate –only witness. It is a noble calling and Powell serves it well.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Night Train to Vienna,” in which a woman is with a man who doesn’t really see her, doesn’t see that she has needs of her own, but seems to feel her job is to fill his needs (sound familiar?) They are sharing a tiny room on a train with two bunks.

“They had become so. . .static, their boundaries, like the two bunks in the same room but unaligned.”

By chance she encounters a dark man who gives a greeting in Arabic; it’s obvious he is a refugee and she helps him avert a confrontation with police at a border crossing. At another stop, police escort him from the train. The woman feels a kinship with the man, and hoping for his escape, she begins to imagine her own escape from an unfulfilling relationship.

“Her chance would come.”

The story is so nuanced, so layered with meaning, it has the feel and weight of a condensed novel.

Powell gives us swift, telling portraits of a range of men, women and children, as they balance lives in the midwest, make brief escapes to try to lose their familiar selves in Mexico or Europe; a son contends delicately with a mother losing ground to dementia, a woman returns from California to pit old boyfriends against one another in an Indiana bar, a married couple tries to negotiate “the middle of the journey” of their married life.

Most of all, I treasure “Tigerville” – not a place, but a state of mind and heart, where a man comes to settle himself in the newly-found territory of life with a woman and her cats, her presence. The story teller watches her “puzzling over words at her desk, leaning back in the chair she chose for its uncomfortable uprightness. You wonder at her focus, her distance. She is near, but her self-absorption is power. . .”

Reading this quiet, attentive story, I think of the poet Mary Oliver’s line “I don’t know how to pray, but I know how to pay attention.”

In these true, insightful stories, Jim Powell knows how to pay attention.

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Why Vonnegut stays relevant

I was asked by the director of the Middletown (PA) public library to answer questions from his readers about the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Since I have edited and written introductions to three books of Vonnegut’s works, and I had the pleasure of knowing him for more than forty years, it was assumed I would know all the answers. I didn’t. There was one answer I felt good about, though. It was the last question I was asked, by John Grayshaw, director of the library. He asked

“Why do you think Vonnegut’s works are still so popular? What is their staying power?”

This is what came out of my head in response:

Other contemporary writers of his era seem “dated,” like Updike and Roth, who were writing of their time – Vonnegut was writing of past, present and future. Young people are not interested in the suburban life of the 1950s. Vonnegut transcended that.

He gave people hope. He showed he cared for the planet. What other writer of his time did that?

Mailer? Mary McCarthy? Fitzgerald or Hemingway?

He cared about the clumsy, the poor, the downtrodden. He saw that they too had a right to be fed, clothed, and housed against the elements.

He refused to write battle scenes of war, knowing that they made people see slaughter as glamorous. He wrote a war novel in which there are no battles. Saturation bombing is not a “battle.” It is only a devestation.

Next to The Beatitudes the lines he quotes most were from his fellow Hoosier Eugene V. Debs:

“As long as there is a lower class, I am in it; as long as there is a criminal class, I am of it; as long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

He asked why people don’t say things like that anymore. He said them. He dramatized them. He built stories around them. He fed our imagination. He knew were hungry.

Nuff said.

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My Favorite Year: In Los Angeles with Eve Babitz in 1971

My latest piece appears in the LA Review of Books: My favorite year: In Los Angeles with Eve Babitz in 1971

Men didn’t conquer Eve Babitz, she conquered them — and wrote about it, in seven published books and assorted articles and stories. Not only did Eve repel unwanted advances, sometimes even an unwelcome opinion could evoke her wrath, which could just as well be a kick in the shins as a withering retort. One friend of mine refused to go to any party he feared might include Eve, having been withered by her once too often. The list of her conquests is long, and it includes me, in my year at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard.

My plush year was thanks to the royalties of my first novel, Going All the Way, which hit the Time magazine best-seller list in 1970 and was a double main selection of the Literary Guild, alongside Michael Crichton’s Five Patients. As Lili Anolik, author of the loving and perceptive new book on Babitz, Hollywood’s Eve, reports, I was “riding high” when I met Eve.

My first week in Hollywood was blessed by two former neighbors who lived behind me on Ocean Front Walk in Venice when I started writing that novel two years earlier. John and Sandy Gibson were working in publicity for Atlantic Records when I landed at the Marmont, and they fixed me up with Eve. I met her in a bar two blocks from the Chateau and I knew when she smiled that this would be a dream year. She was flagrantly beautiful and proud of it. Her outfit was simple and direct, a very short skirt and a very tight sweater. I called my old friends from our New York days, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, to tell them my good news, which was Eve. Did they know her? The question was naïve. Everyone knew her.

You can read the full story here.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield