Anna Vodicka | Longreads | January 2016 | 12 minutes (3,051 words)
On Peleliu, the roads are paved with coral—a once-living thing, a hardy animal. The coral came from the inland ridges and valleys of thistwo-by-six-mile speck among specks in the island nation of Palau, in western Micronesia, an almost invisible scene in the shadow of bigger acts in the Pacific, where land itself is a kind of debris, cast from the ocean by tectonic clashes and shifts that left things topsy-turvy, bottom-up, fish-out-of-water. Before: an underwater reef, an ecosystem of competitive individuals. After: a coral atoll bleaching into a future island paradise. Something new under the sun.
During World War II’s Pacific theater of operations, the coral was harvested, carted, crushed, and laid at the feet of foreign militaries that took turns stripping Peleliu from the inside out. The Japanese landed first, evacuating locals and engineering a complex subterranean network of five hundred natural and man-made caves, bunkers and tunnels that still make up the island underground. Next, the Americans came in waves, and died in waves. In September, 1944, the first boats struck reef, forcing soldiers to sprint knee-deep for shore, where the Japanese waited undercover. For better aerial views, the U.S. experimented with a new technology: Corsairs rained napalm bombs from the sky, stripping the island naked, exposing rock and rotting machinery where jungle used to be. To win the battle, Americans used flamethrowers to trap the Japanese in their hives, then sealed off the entrances. Read more…
Judith Freeman traces Raymond Chandler’s early days in Los Angeles and his introduction to Cissy Pascal, the much older, very beautiful woman who would later become his wife. This chapter is excerpted from Freeman’s 2007 book The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, which Janet Fitch described as “part biography, part detective story, part love story, and part séance.” Freeman’s next book—a memoir called The Latter Days—will be published by Pantheon in June 2016.
A misfit in Spooner, Wisconsin, with its farms, bars, and strip joints, Debra Monroe left to earn a degree, then another, and another, vaulting into academia but never completely leaving her past behind. Her memoir My Unsentimental Education was published today, and our thanks to the University of Georgia Press for allowing us to reprint the chapter below. Two previous excerpts from the book have been long-listed for The Best American Essays (2011 and 2015), and an early excerpt also appeared on Longreads in 2013.
Jay Kirk | Harper’s | March 2002 | 29 minutes (7,333 words)
This essay by Jay Kirk first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Harper’s, where it was edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Our thanks to Kirk for allowing us to reprint it here.
For a year I worked in an office where I spoke to dying people on the telephone every day. The office was that of a funeral-consumer watchdog, which meant that we kept an eye on the funeral industry and helped the imminently bereaved and imminently deceased to make affordable funeral plans. Above my desk I kept an index card with a Faulkner quotation, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief.” On a particularly bad day I scratched out the last word and changed it to “nothing.”Read more…
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a series of travel journal entries adapted from poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s forthcoming book,Writing Across the Landscape. It first appeared in The American Scholar’s Summer 2015 issue (subscribe here!).
I was part of that Greatest Generation that came of age at the beginning of the Second World War. As I worked in San Francisco, the days and years fell away into the great maw of time. America went through a sea change after that. San Francisco, which had been a small provincial capital, grew up. So did I, and I started voyaging. I was usually traveling to some literary or political event or tracking down some author whose undiscovered masterpiece I could publish at City Lights Books. I didn’t keep journals consistently, so some literary capers went unrecorded, such as when I visited Paul Bowles in Tangier to pry from him his Moroccan tales in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard. This was agreed to, and then we sat dully in his high-rise apartment near the American Embassy. And when Jane Bowles suggested we turn-on, Paul said he didn’t have any hash. I was clean-shaven in a white suit, and I imagine he thought I was a narc. Paranoia, the doper’s constant companion! I wrote these peripatetic pages for myself, never thinking to publish them. It is as if much of my life were a continuation of my youthful Wanderjahr, my walk-about in the world. Rereading them now, I see a wandering figure in momentous times. …The war ends, decades whir by, there is a rumble in the wings, the scene darkens, and Camelot lost! Read more…
The following is an excerpt from Nina MacLaughlin’s memoir Hammer Head—the story of MacLaughlin’s journey out of a drag-and-click job at a newspaper and into a carpentry apprenticeship. In this section MacLaughlin strikes out on her own to craft bookshelves for her father and meditates on the relationship between writing and carpentry, and learning to build with wood instead of words.
The maple leaves dropped, the temperature fell, and we slipped into winter. After the skylight, in the slowing of the year, Mary planned to pause the progress on her third-floor office space in favor of redoing a bathroom downstairs, the one with the paintbrushes in the tub and the crumbling walls.
I swung by her place to pick up the last check she owed me before we took our annual break. She walked me through her bathroom plan.
“Give me a call if you want some help,” I said.
“We’ll see if I can afford you. I’m scared shitless about how much the plumbing is going to cost.”
This essay by novelist Alexander Chee first appeared in Apology magazine’s third issue (Winter 2014). Apology is a semiannual print journal of art, interviews and literature, created by ex-Vice editor-in-chief Jesse Pearson. The fourth issue is available for preorder. Our thanks to Alexander Chee and Apology for allowing us to reprint this essay here.
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How could you, my friends would ask, when I told them. How could you work for someone like him? Do you ever want to just pick up a knife and stab him in the neck? Poison his food?
You would be a hero, one friend said.
I did not want to stab him, and I did not want to poison him. From our first meeting, it was clear, he was in decline. And as for how could I, well, like many people, I needed the money. Read more…
On North Chester Avenue in Oildale, California, an 83-year-old honky-tonk named Trout’s stands down the block from a saloon with an aged western facade, and across the street from a liquor store that sells booze and Mexican candy.
Trout’s opened in 1931 to give hard-working locals a place to dance and drink and unwind to live music. During the 1950s and ’60s, local country music legends Buck Owens and Merle Haggard played Trout’s, in their own bands and others, and kept people dancing while helping popularize the raw, propulsive style known as the Bakersfield Sound. Read more…
Jeff Tietz | Harper’s | May 2002 | 35 minutes (8,722 words)
This essay by Jeff Tietz first appeared in the May 2002 issue of Harper’s and was later anthologized in The Best American Crime Writing: 2003 Edition.Tietz has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Livingston Journalism Award. His work has appeared in Best American Magazine Writing, Best American Crime Writing, Best American Business Writing, and The CAFO Reader. Our thanks to Tietz for allowing us to reprint it here. For those interested in an update on Darius McCollum’s story, see this 2013 The Wall Street Journal piece (subscription req’d).
Before leaving his girlfriend’s apartment in Crown Heights, on the morning of his nineteenth arrest for impersonating and performing the functions of New York City Transit Authority employees, Darius McCollum put on an NYCTA subway conductor’s uniform and reflector vest. Over his feet he pulled transit-issue boots with lace guards and soles designed to withstand third-rail jolts. He took transit-issue work gloves and protective goggles. He put a transit-issue hard hat on his head. In his pockets he carried NYCTA work orders and rerouting schedules and newspaper clippings describing his previous arrests: for driving subway trains and buses and various other vehicles without authorization, possessing stolen property, flagging traffic around NYCTA construction sites, forging documents. He also carried a signed letter on NYCTA letterhead:
To: All Concerned Departments
From: Thomas Calandrella Chief Track Officer
Re: Darius McCollum Effective this date of January 10, 2000, Darius McCollum is a member of a special twelve member Special Study Group; and will analyze the operations of track safety and track operations. SSG will report directly to this office and will be issued all related gear for the respected purposes of this department and will receive assistance of any relating department.
To his belt Darius clipped a flashlight and a key ring the size of a choker. From this ring six smaller rings hung like pendants. Along the curves of the small rings, 139 keys climbed symmetrical and fanlike. Each key granted access to a secure area of the train, bus, or subway system of the New York City Transit Authority. The collection was equivalent to the number of keys an employee would acquire through forty years of steady promotions. Just before he left the apartment, Darius picked up an orange emergency-response lantern.
Six weeks earlier, Darius had been paroled from the Elmira Correctional Facility, near Binghamton, New York, where he had served two years for attempted grand larceny—”attempted” because he had signed out NYCTA vehicles for surface use (extinguishing track fires, supervising maintenance projects) and then signed them back in according to procedure. Darius has never worked for the NYCTA; he has never held a steady job. He is thirty-seven and has spent a third of his adult life in prison for victim-less offenses related to transit systems. Read more…