Introducing “Horse People” by Cary Holladay—and a holiday discount on Astoria to Zion

AstoriatoZion3DforLookoutweb_000If you love fiction as much as we do, we’ve got a fantastic holiday deal for you! Astoria to Zion features twenty-six of our favorite stories from the first decade of Ecotone from writers including Lauren Groff, Brad Watson, Edith Pearlman, Rick Bass, and Rebecca Makkai. Use code HOLIDAY15 at checkout to get a copy for only $10! (It retails for $18.95, so this is a huge deal, guys.)

To entice you further, here’s more about one of the stories, “Horse People” by Cary Holladay, from Ecotone fiction editor Ryan Kaune. You can find introductions to many of the other stories on the blog here.

Introducing “Horse People”

At AWP in Seattle, I had the distinct pleasure of not only attending the book release party for Astoria to Zion, but also hearing Cary Holladay read and talk about a selection from her short story, “Horse People,” which is included in this wonderful anthology. Long after the party, I was still unable to shake a few especially poignant remarks from Holladay’s speech—in particular, her mentioning that silence is part of every family story, and that we all have to do the work of interrogating the past. Of course, she was more eloquent than I’m able to render here on the page, but what she said really spoke to me. It hit home.

We all come from somewhere, from some place that is ours and ours alone, no matter how many others share a similar geography. And just as that place often shapes who we are and who we will become, the complicated mixture of family and history does as well. I come from a long line of talkers and tellers of tall tales, but I knew at a young age that I was not one of them. Instead, I’m a listener, an observer. And so is Barrett Fenton, the character whose progression we follow in “Horse People.” It isn’t until much later in his life that Barrett begins to mull over the events of his childhood and to question the truth of them, to try to understand the ways in which the silences surrounding those events, the facts left out or untold, shaped his understanding of place, of people, and of himself.

“Horse People” begins with Barrett accompanying his father on a trip on horseback, to fetch a young man named Phillip so that he may reside with the Fenton family as their live-in cook. When Barrett and his father arrive at Phillip’s house, they’re confronted with the tragic situation of Phillip’s father, who lies on a heap of clothing in the corner, apparently dying from a poisonous spider bite. As the story progresses, we begin to pick up clues about larger issues taking shape within the family—for instance, Barrett’s mother’s affair with another man, and the quiet assumption on the part of the Fenton brothers that Phillip is gay. It is only in his later years, long after his wife has died and his children have grown and had families of their own, that Barrett finally chooses to ponder the mysterious events in his childhood and to finally reconcile his past—“feeling how impossible it was to tell the truth of an event, to know the truth of another person’s life.” He wonders about the mysterious silences that surround his mother and father, their relationship, his mother’s affair, and finally, Phillip. The story ends with Barrett looking deep within his past, within himself, realizing that he can’t remember a crucial part of the story of Phillip’s father. It is this missing piece, possibly more than any other gap in his memory, that causes him the most distress.

“Horse People” is a leisurely, seemingly straightforward story about a particular boy and his family, but it asks more from us than a surface-level reading. It asks us to reconsider the truths that have shaped our collective understanding of culture, class, race, and sexuality. It asks us to stare down our past and wonder at the blank spaces in the narrative.

—Ryan Kaune, Ecotone fiction editor

Introducing “Only Connect” by Daniel Orozco


The title of Daniel Orozco’s “Only Connect” serves as an instruction, or even a mantra, for the reader. The story reminds me of a relay race: Bennett, a whiny psychopharmacology researcher, holds the baton until he is mugged and killed by two men on a mission to make enough cash for their next drug buy. Then Costas—the older of the men—shares the baton with his business partner and lover, a young man known only as “the kid,” who holds Costas completely in his thrall. We travel with Costas and the kid until they connect with Hailey, a lonely woman on an ice cream run turned witness to crime. Whether she wants to or not, Hailey must carry the baton to the end of the story.

It would be so easy for each of these characters, especially in a story of only ten pages, to be reduced to archetype—Victim, Criminal, Bystander—and easier still for Orozco to round out one character at the expense of the others. But “Only Connect” is not simply the story of Bennett being in the wrong place at the wrong time, nor is it the story of Costas’s willingness to indulge the kid’s whims to the point of killing a man, nor is it a story about how Hailey’s ability to stay anonymous at a crime scene seems almost disappointing, seems only to exacerbate her profound loneliness.

Rather, it is a story about the collision of each of these circumstances, and about how impossible it is for any of us to fit neatly into a role. Bennett’s impending victimhood doesn’t prevent him from being a bad sport about his failed connection with a woman at the party he’s just left. How could it? Until he knows he’s being mugged, until he knows he might die, romantic disappointment is his biggest problem. Similarly, the pressure of the impending drug buy doesn’t prevent Costas and the kid from appreciating the pleasures of Led Zeppelin and rib-eye steaks and martinis and sex. They are human, after all. Hailey thinks that her life has changed forever when she witnesses Bennett’s death; while the incident does mold her consciousness in some ways, the clarity of the memory mostly fades. (“Everything fades. Everything goes,” says Orozco’s narrator.)

Still, Hailey transcends the role of bystander late in life, after decades of disappointment, when Orozco writes for her an unexpected connection with a client. Orozco’s decision to grant Hailey happiness is one of the most beautiful, merciful moments I’ve ever witnessed in fiction. That moment doesn’t bring Bennett back to life (not that I miss him much); even when Hailey flashes back to the night of the death, it isn’t him that she remembers. It doesn’t reveal whether or not Costas and the kid “last through Christmas,” or even live much longer themselves. It doesn’t even prove whether or not Hailey’s act of witness is a fateful one, if the night of the mugging really does change the course of Hailey’s life. What it does accomplish is something bigger: an echo back to “only connect,” a reminder that supporting roles are only a matter of perspective.

Katie Jones

Lookout intern

Read “Only Connect” in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon.

Introducing “The Blue Tree” by Rick Bass


Before relocating to North Carolina for graduate school this past summer, I lived for eight years in New York City. The city offered some of the world’s finest food and culture—four-star meals at Daniel, La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera House—but the one thing not readily accessible was natural beauty, though I tried hard to seek it out. My go-to spot was a small, nondescript bench at the peak of Fort Tryon Park, one of Manhattan’s highest points, where I could see the Hudson River laid plain. But as anybody in New York can tell you, nothing in the Big Apple comes easy, and enjoying the view was no exception. There were all manner of distractions to contend with: the endless noise of buses and trucks rumbling along the Henry Hudson Parkway a hundred feet below, the bleating of car horns, the smog roiling up from factory furnaces on the other side of the river bank. And yet if I sat there long enough, eventually the world would grow quiet, and I’d notice the elm tree branches overhead perfectly framing my view of the river.

The Blue Tree” by Rick Bass in Lookout’s recent anthology Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon asks how we hold just such a moment. In it, the main character, Wilson, struggles in nature as much as he enjoys it, and grapples with the impermanence of youth. The story begins with him, his wife, Belinda, and their two daughters, arriving at their cabin in the woods the day before Christmas Eve. Tradition dictates that Wilson cut their tree that night; he wants everything—as in years past—in place for a restful Christmas Eve. Against Belinda’s better judgment, Wilson packs his daughters in the Subaru and heads north in the falling snow, deeper into the forest, where the best trees can be found. They get stuck, of course, just as his wife had predicted.

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Introducing “Candidate” by Karen E. Bender


I came across Karen E. Bender’s “Candidate” several months after I moved to a small Southern town and began working as a local news reporter. Diane Bernstein—the protagonist of Bender’s grittily realistic tale exploring the human side of staunch ideologies—works in the remedial writing lab of a private university. Like Diane, I was a city dweller, from the North, and progressive-minded. At least, that is, compared to the undergrads Diane teaches—students who come to class bearing diatribes against terrorists, “lazy people” and the “gay agenda.”

Diane is also coming to terms with her husband’s recent desertion, and bearing all the parenting responsibility for their two children, one of whom has spells of autism-related rage that result in the regular fleeing of babysitters. The story revolves around a single loaded episode, during which a conservative state Senate candidate calls on Diane’s family at home, for what turns out to be an extended and revealing visit.

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Introducing “Hagar’s Sons” by Steve Almond


Some of my most memorable experiences of art are those over which I pre-rolled my eyes at the audacity. Black Watch, the play about a 2004 Scottish Army regiment’s eye view of the war in Iraq, crunched my ribs with its earned emotion. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann’s 2006 braided novel, powerfully evoked the Twin Towers with an arc of tightrope artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk between the two. The book floated with a poetic touch.

Like these expertly harnessed works, “Hagar’s Sons” is a deeply ambitious short story. The narrative hinges on a marriage forced by pregnancy. A discontent business analyst. A dead father. A surprise trip to Dubai. A sheik. A 9/11 conspiracy. It’s a high thread count story, but writer Steve Almond is a very skillful wordsmith.

“The call startled him.”

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Introducing “Leap” by Marisa Silver


Define bad. Define okay. Define trouble. Define sad. It’s easy to offer dictionary definitions, but when it comes to personal interactions, things are not always so clear cut. As a writer and reader, I’m interested in what motivates people, how behaviors are formed, and just why we do what we do. Marisa Silver’s “Leap” is an intimate character examination that explores how an experience shapes and defines a woman’s life. We’re offered a non-judgmental, introspective view of the oil spill that is human emotion. We see how it shifts and changes, sinks and grows, affecting every aspect of self. Silver treats her characters with care and sympathy in such a way that we understand even the most questionable patterns of thought.

I was introduced to “Leap” when reading for Lookout’s upcoming anthology Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade. Once I finished the story, I understood why it was included not only in this anthology, but in Ecotone’s fifth anniversary edition as well. The characters dwell in an emotional ecotone, where variant and even conflicting states overlap and exist in spite of one another.

The story opens with Sheila as a young girl, selling lemonade at a stand with her sister and two friends. They’re approached by a man holding a wrinkled bag. We immediately understand that his intentions are anything but genuine. While Sheila feels in her body that something is wrong, the event leaves her with a heightened sense of self-awareness. “Suddenly, she felt beautiful and much older than she had ten minutes earlier. She was certain of it … She would never tell her parents that for the first time she had been taken seriously.” From an early age, Sheila’s idea of desire is entangled with risk.

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Introducing “At the Cultural Ephemera Association National Conference” by Robert Olen Butler


Last week I did an exercise in the poetry class I teach: we came up with ten lists of ten words that could fall under the category of love. In the first column, we started with some familiar images, like “heart-shaped boxes of chocolates” and “roses,” but by the tenth column we had images like “garlic” and “spider webs.” In the wake of Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be useful for my students to remember that love can be “butterflies” or “light,” but it can also extend into stranger, more complex notions, ranging from “cold potato soup” to “stretch marks” (their suggestions, not mine).

When I think of uniquely expressed love, I think of Robert Olen Butler’s short story, “At The Cultural Ephemera Association National Conference.” The story explores the familiar concept of love, but does so in an unfamiliar way. Butler details the meeting of the two main characters, Bill and Cleo, alternating between their voices to create a complete narrative. Each character is at the conference referred to in the title to present on a piece of paper ephemera—Bill’s is an advertising card featuring a caricature of nineteenth-century actress Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Cleo’s is a Bourneville cocoa trading card depicting the Titanic. Upon my first reading, I was immediately struck by how the story made the delicate moment of connecting with another person so personal, yet accessible. The language, characters, and emotional impact are spot-on, and while it’s technically fiction, this four-and-a-half-page piece has the linguistic punch of a finely tuned poem.

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Introducing “The Traitor of Zion” by Ben Stroud


Many of us who loved to read when we were very young, who read everything we could get our hands on starting in elementary school, at some point had a historical fiction phase. For me, this took the form of devouring books by Ann Rinaldi, Scott O’Dell, the Dear America series, even (gulp) the American Girl Dolls books. This seems natural to me in the way that the popularity of fantasy and science fiction do—what could be better than discovering, along with characters and their fates, entire worlds?

What I think we forget as we grow up is how truly weird the past can be. But fortunately, we readers have Ben Stroud to remind us. In his story “The Traitor of Zion,” idealistic settlers overlap with whiskey smugglers on an island utopia in Lake Michigan. But to give that summary, spoiler free though it is, grossly undersells this story—not for nothing did it first appear in Ecotone’s Sex and Death issue.

Stroud’s layers of story are immersing. There’s a charlatan, as you may have suspected, but throughout the story the characters’ moralities are overturned—fathers acknowledge failings to their daughters, lovers fail in atonement, and enemies become new brothers. The characters are driven by desires not different from our own—a twenty-three-year-old works a dead end job during the day and drinks away his nights, all while wishing for some greater purpose. Stroud’s characters long for love, purity and grace, and struggle between the pulls of the sacred and the profane, the safety of home and the call of adventure.

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Introducing “What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers” by Edith Pearlman


I first read Edith Pearlman’s “What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers” when considering it for the Abnormal Issue of Ecotone, in which it found its first home. I remember being excited by its boldness, made to feel uncomfortable at moments, and ready to fight for it to appear in the pages of the magazine.

At the time, I was twenty-three, in UNCW’s MFA program, and feeling a little out of my league. I was also dating a woman for the first time, and coming to terms with my sexuality. Reading Pearlman’s complicated characters felt almost essential to me, and the story’s ending stayed with me long after—a piece of wisdom I’ve often returned to.

The story follows fifty-year-old Gabrielle on a path of self-discovery after she uncharacteristically volunteers for the local chapter of The Society Against Female Mutilation, an organization that hosts testimonial-driven seminars in church basements and hotel meeting rooms. A petite and attractive woman, Gabrielle “was without her high-heeled shoes only in the bath.” Before her sudden philanthropy, her only responsibilities in life included her concierge job at The Devlin Hotel and the “half-crippled aunt back in Pittsburgh” she visits annually.

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Introducing “Broadax Inc.” by Bill Roorbach


One thing I tend to dwell on while reading is language. An author’s language is his music; it carries the story across the page in rhythms, fluctuating in tempos between and within sentences. Language creates texture. So I was thrilled to read “Broadax Inc.” from Bill Roorbach, an author whose language has carried me before. Roorbach writes:

“We liked each other fine, had a nice lunch after the court date that had sundered our marriage, went home and made love for two hours (effects of wine)—we’d never lost our lust for each other, a kind of proof of the divorce: it wasn’t about your everyday death-of-sex issues, but about a lack of love between us. I don’t remember being sad, though I must have been.”

The reader feels the pile of language, compounding detail until the speaker evaluates himself. This piling guides the reader through the sentences, as the speaker moves through the ended marriage, until the evaluation is completed on a calm, but total, note. This stimulating use of language exists throughout “Broadax Inc.”

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