Saturday, March 9, 2019

Shattered reflections on Hemingway

Shattered Reflections on Hemingway

It’s safe to say that Hemingway set me on the course of the writer’s life. He certainly loomed large in my development as a writer and as a man.  Through my 20s, I read most of his novels and stories, particularly In Our Time, The Green Hills of Africa, and The Sun Also Rises (of which I’d read the latter twenty times or more).  He led me to Turgenev and Twain and Sherwood Anderson, and at least one book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes.  With some sense of urgency, I traveled to France and Spain.  I worked on a newspaper.  I began to drink heavily.  Although it’s been at least 25 years since I’d consciously let go of Hemingway as any kind of a model, here I am having another go at him.

I’ll start with the interview I recently viewed.  If you’ve read what Hemingway has said about himself, or what others have written about him in biographies—or, Heaven knows, hagiographies—you are told that he could speak French fluently, read Flaubert’s Madam Bovary in the original, knew German, and also spoke Spanish.  In The Sun Also Rises andThe Old Man and the Sea, as well as several short stores, he peppered his prose with Spanish words and phrases.

I don’t mean to be nit-picky but for crying out loud, after listening to the interview, I have to ask: Was this the level of his Spanish when he was driving an ambulance during WWI in Spain, or when he fought with the Republican Communists during the Spanish Civil War, or when he was chumming around with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba?  He must have missed a lot of the conversation or had an interpreter.

And note, Hemingway was being interviewed at the end of his career, not at the beginning.  Was he just having an ‘off day’?  Had his brain already become pickled from years of heavy drinking?  I speak Spanish more fluently.  Gwyneth Paltrow speaks better Spanish.  All these many years I continued to hold this idea of Hemingway as a towering intellect, a man of letters and languages; but in the interview, he used soy instead ofestoy. He virtually ignored a complex question asked by the interviewer on how Cuba had influenced him as a writer and, instead, launched into the probably rehearsed, linguistic theme of The Old Man and the Sea on the difference between la mar and el marin very pedestrian Spanish.  Oh well.

I began to break free from Hemingway’s magnetic personality after I quit drinking at the age of 29 and sobered up.  Shortly thereafter one clear-headed day I asked myself: Why in the world cannot I write ‘can’t’?  Why do not I write ‘don’t’?  Why will not Hemingway let me write ‘won’t’?  Good grief.  Hemingway adamantly didn’t use contractions so I didn’t use contractions.  Scales might have fallen from my eyes.  I’m no polyglot but name me a language that doesn’t ellipse and elide, compress, blend in, or telescope in spoken and written forms.  English does.  Spanish does.  That’s how people talk and write—and Hemingway’s writings are almost nothing but talking.

I’m inclined to think that his hard-headed dicta was a manifestation of his addictive personality, the obsessive compulsive behavior of the alcoholic.  I know all about it.  Maybe if he’d loosened up a little bit, he would have grown as a writer; but instead he held to this narrow principle his entire life.  Couldn’t he have taken a risk and tried something new?  Couldn’t he slip the surly bonds of his own hidebound code?  He could hunt kudu in Africa, elk in Idaho, game fish for marlin in Cuba and Mexico, sip brandy and chomp a cigar as he watched Che Guevara murder his political enemies in Cuba—but he couldn’t use a contraction? 

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Reflections on Gerard Manley Hopkins and “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

Reading Hopkins’s poem aloud is a revelation, and I’m convinced that it’s the only way that it should be read.  And being submersed up to your neck in water, upon reflection, adds to the understanding.  Not to be flippant, but Hopkins wrote the poem in memory of five Franciscan nuns who drowned in the wee hours of the morning of December 7, 1875.  They were passengers in a ship called the Deutschland that ran aground and broke up in a terrible storm at the mouth of the Thames River in England.

I tried to read the poem many times because I had to.  Right?  It’s his most famous, the pinnacle of his poetic achievement, the consummation of his sprung rhythm theories, the triumph of sound over sense.  And it’s a religious poem that even a secular could enjoy, bad things happening to good people, a theme that atheists use to deny the existence of God, and Christians ponder to understand the mystery of suffering.

Read more at:  Dappled Things

Monday, February 5, 2018

Volunteering at English Plus in Zihuatanejo, Mexico

The author is volunteering as an English club facilitator at English Plus in Zihuatanejo, Mexico until April. Geoffrey wants people to know that it's always summer in Zihuatanejo!

(Also, click link below)
English Conversation Club

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Wound

Dappled Things literary magazine has published one of my poems.  They've featured it online: The Wound

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Footh... by Geoffrey Smagacz
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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Appalachian Authors Guild Anthology

Two of Geoffrey's poems have been published in this anthology, which can be purchased for $10 here: Proceeds go to the Appalachian Authors Guild.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Footh... by Geoffrey Smagacz
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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Reviewed: A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills

A WASTE OF SHAME, and Other Sad tales of the Appalachian Foothills
by Geoffrey Smagacz

•Reviewed by Jim O'Neill

Appalachia is an American Transylvania; its myth looms larger than its reality. The region evokes images of craggy hills, dark woods, feuding families, and woodshed moonshine. Appalachia extends along the mid-Eastern United States from southern New York and Lake Erie to Mississippi and Alabama. Its geographic expanse and its ecological and cultural diversity hardly qualify it as a stagnant backwater or a desperate outpost, although quite a bit of literature, film - and even news reporting would lead us to think so.

Mapletown, a fictional Appalachian community [somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line], is the setting of Geoffrey Smagacz's short novel, A WASTE OF SHAME. Smagacz's tale about the dissolution of a friendship deals with real things that occur in real time in a real place. The author does not mythologize, caricature or patronize the book's Appalachian setting or the region's population. He presents people whose flesh aches and whose blood runs. Mapletown could be any locale passed by time and forgotten by the world. It is a town studded with "houses one on top of the other like a misplaced New England village only dilapidated," and roundly encroached upon by woods whose paths are "hewn out by village drunks," but much like Mapletown Lake, the "dark forlorn puddle" on which the small town sits, something deep and dark swims under the surface. That something will rise up and create a tempest that will rattle lives in the small, otherwise sleepy, enclave.

Smagacz's first person point of view is droll and deft. He lets the reader stay a few steps ahead of Kevin, a narrator physically in low gear ("There's nothing in his shoulders") but morally in overdrive. Kevin disapproves of foul language, halter-tops, and creased pants. He's a stuffed shirt, but a colorful one: "I aspired to class (whatever class was.)" He's likable in the way a somewhat simple but amusing sidekick or companion can be. He tries to come to grips with the interactions that play out between himself, his best friend Jim, Jim's fiancée Debra, and Jim's lover Pam. While Kevin manages to know every aspect of everyone else's life, he has little insight into his own. Self-awareness beckons, and ultimately falls in his lap, but it comes at a tall price.

Kevin, Jim, and Pam work in a restaurant. Beer battered fish is the nightly special. Kevin is as adept at brining, seasoning and coating his own underbelly as he is at battering and frying those fish fillets. He is a master of putting a golden shell on top of the so-so meat underneath. But fish is not the only thing in Maplewood dipped in beer; everything seems to be beer soaked. Even the kisses are "beery." It is a booze-fueled world, but never a stale one. Yet all the brew in all the taverns of Maplewood won't dull the sting of the truth that ultimately breaks through the alcohol-buzzed surface.

Smagacz's story breathes fire, but it is a fire that smolders more than it blazes. Unease creeps into every interlude, even the funny ones, and there are many of those. The author has a way of catching the reader off guard just when things start to seem comfortable and cozy. As in any good noir or anti-hero piece, the slack-paced lead character reaches a watershed - but he gets there by taking all the wrong turns.

The small circle of friends come together, tangle, separate and reunite as each moves closer to a wrenching showdown. Kevin resents Jim, whose stronger and more confident - but also more reckless and heartless. May also have a thing for Jim's fiancée, Debra - especially since Jim openly carries on an affair with Pam, a restaurant waitress. The plot may sound like the soap operas Kevin's mother likes to watch—yes, poor Kevin even lives at home with Mom—but it is not; its taut, cunningly minimalist structure builds steadily to a climax that will stay with the reader long after the book's final startling moments.

In Flannery O'Connor's short story, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," one character says of another, "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." A clear mind is elusive. Discovery almost never comes full and fast. It is a poky process. When it comes it hits like a bullet - one nobody saw coming, not Kevin, nor us. A WASTE OF SHAME starts with a cocked gun whose trigger will at some point be pulled. After the shot, all is revealed.

Smagacz's characters often find themselves lost in thick woods. They do not have an easy time finding their way out. Neither does the reader. The novel is challenging and disturbing (as is the short story collection "Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills" included in this edition), but it is a gripping read, one that both chills like the wind across the town's dark lake and warms like the fire from one of its even darker taverns. (Wiseblood Books 181 pages)

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Waste of Shame -- Reviewed

A Waste of Shame

What are the thoughts that run through our heads when we eat at a small-town restaurant? Do we look past the crappy bowl of soup in front of us to the hobbled steps that brought it to our table? What is our honest opinion of the kitchen staff we may catch a glimpse of? Are they too lazy to go out and get real jobs, or might there be more complicated factors at work?
A Waste of Shame
Life is hard, period, but it is especially difficult in the poverty-stricken foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In Geoffrey Smagacz’s, A Waste of Shame (from the forthcoming, A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills [Wiseblood Books]), we follow a small group of young adults as they sometimes confront, but more often than not attempt to avoid, the facts of life and the repercussions of their choices. As we watch this new generation make decisions that lock themselves and those around them into the cycle of poverty and pain, we may be left wondering if it is even possible for these young people to break out of it at all. Woven into this fabric we find an excellent study of character, and a writer’s engagement with the contemporary milieu in which he writes.

A Waste of Shame, gives us a wonderful illustration of just how powerful Minimalism can be when invoking character, especially in its volcanic first chapter. By chapter’s end, we have been presented with very few concrete details about our protagonist, Kevin, but we feel pretty confident that we know who he is and what his relationships are with the people around him. It is a wonderful evocation of the timeless nature of frustrated, unbridled youth, and it is immediately apparent why this chapter has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

The placement of the entirety of Shakespeare’s, Sonnet 129, in the prologue is a curious move, one which begs our careful consideration. Sonnet 129, is basically an extended rant on the dangers of unbridled lust, and our early inclination may be to assume that it points towards interpreting this story as a condemnation of the young men who abandon their wives and children for the pursuit of base pleasures. This interpretation ties in nicely with the way that Kevin is shocked to learn that Jim is cheating on his pregnant girlfriend, and how he is outraged when he learns that Jim has continued the affair after his marriage, but at times Kevin also seems to be complicit, almost jealous of Jim’s affair. The more we learn about Kevin, the more we wonder if he isn’t just angry that he’s not the one getting laid.

As our understanding of Kevin continues to expand, we begin to suspect that maybe he’s a better explanation for the presence of the sonnet (this is a brilliant character study, after all). Once again, we find this cannot be a simple application of condemnation. Not only is there an anger and frustration to Kevin, but there’s also the effects of a crippling bout of depression; a fact that he can’t see and, given the first-person narration, it takes us a bit longer to realize is there.

So what are we to make of the sonnet in the prologue? Can we find a better fit for it?  While it may contain a good deal of insight into human nature, you might start to wonder how much attention the average contemporary reader will be willing to give it. Many readers may just skip over it.  It sounds too harsh to our contemporary ears: too Elizabethan, too poetic, too moralizing. Don’t we prefer our characters more like Kevin?

The answer lies in the brilliance of this book; what it has to add to the conversation. We begin by acknowledging the fact that the old rules regarding character have changed. There was a time, not long ago, when writers simply needed to leave the stagnant harbors of the bourgeois and nobility for the safer shores of the peasantry and other fringe groups of society; but, this is the age of soap operas and syndicated tabloid talk shows. Consider for a moment how readers might react to characters such as those we find in, A Waste of Shame, after they’ve had such a prodigious helping of Jerry Springer. Will readers still be able to find in these characters the epitome of the human condition, or will they just see a bunch of hillbillies who need to stop drinking, smoking, and cheating on their wives? Will they still sympathize with our narrator, Kevin, or will they just want him to get off his ass and go back to college and get a real job?

These are questions that Smagacz openly wrestles with, and there are moments where the thoughts of Kevin seem to be overtaken by those of the author: “I must have heaved several sighs, but who could hear over mom’s soap opera? Sappy strings tried to direct her to feel trepidation over some immanent doom.” Later at a party, we find that, “the song Don played was kind of rock and roll and kind of twangy at the same time, a tune with a sappy story. “ Upon hearing this song, one listener seems to voice the consensus of those around him (and potentially us) when he asks, “What is this shit?”

There is more to this than just the standard, post-modern questioning of plot. This goes much deeper, to the many debates recently regarding the authenticity of character in fiction; of what exactly is believable and what is worthy of our sympathy. Here is a well written text that is both believable and full of characters that more than deserve our sympathy, and it dares to ask us what we make of it. Do we really know ourselves well enough to answer, and are we honest enough to admit our judgment? Perhaps the crisis is not in literature, it is in us.

There is much more to be found in this and the other short stories that are included in this volume. Don’t let the cover fool you; “literary fiction that scrupulously avoids being literary,” does not mean that it is short on themes, conflicts, and many of the other literary elements that make fiction worth reading. There is plenty here to satisfy readers with both contemporary and more traditional literary interpretations (know of any other young men in Shakespeare who were unable to summon themselves to action?).

The late James Laughlin’s publishing house, New Directions, is the standard at the moment for contemporary fiction. When you see ND on the spine, you know that you’re getting a solid work that is actively engaged with contemporary literary concerns. It is still too early to tell what will become of the upstart Wiseblood Books, but such a strong entry as this early on is a sign that it is heading in the right direction.
Dappled Things

Sunday, August 25, 2013


A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills:

As the Russian great Anton Chekov infamously noted, when a loaded rifle appears on page one, it absolutely must go off. In A Waste of Shame Geoffrey Smagacz does not ignore this dramatic principle.  Before the last page is turned, someone sadly pulls the trigger.

Smagacz debuts a short novel and an accompanying collection of short stories written in a vein that carries the blood of Hemingway, Wodehouse, Nathaniel West, and Sherwood Anderson. Enter a small town where tragedy collides with fish fry cooks, soap-opera addicts, and the convenient but strained friendships of youth. Minimalist through and through, this is literary fiction that scrupulously avoids being literary.

On December 15, 2013, A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills will be available for purchase via Amazon or

Stay Wide-Eyed!