July 26, 2011

The Natural

Son and Sippican

Roy Hobbs: My dad wanted me to be a baseball player.
Pop Fisher: Well you're better than any player I ever had. And you're the best God damn hitter I ever saw. Suit up.

The Devil’s in the Cows by Sippican Cottage

One of the benchmarks of our culture’s decline is that our best writers are barely known and our worst writers are widely celebrated. One of the hopeful thoughts that springs from this is that the celebration of bad writers is an artifact of the final era in which publishers and editors were the gatekeepers of what passed for our literature. In those years getting a new writer launched and established was often a project that required at least four books and half a decade. The process had a little to do with the technology of publishing and lot more to do with the “New York Literary Mafia.” (Which everyone said didn’t exist and which was how you knew it did exist. Especially if you were part of it. Which, at one time, I was.)

Random Selection 1: “Roll over easy, like you might not get up, to get the right buffer. Then stand up, and put your fist one inch behind that feller’s head. The beer is gettin’ warm.”

Since launching my first magazine in 1971 I’ve made my living off of writers and, by and large, they’ve been good to me. As a book and magazine editor I’ve published well over 250 books and so many thousands of magazine articles that I’ve long ago lost track.

Along the way I’ve found a few authors that nobody knew at the time I found them and soon after everybody knew. Luck of the draw really. If you keep rolling the dice, sooner or later you’ll have run of luck. But lucky or not I’ve developed a sixth sense about writers. I know when a writer is marketable, when a writer can be made marketable, and when a writer is capable of writing not books but “properties.” Most of all I know when a writer is “A Natural.”

Random Selection 2: “You see, you’re not born knowing, and you can’t learn much useful from a book. How you gonna know to put fabric softener in the steam box to make the oak come out of there real withy and limber?”

The naturals are the rarest of all but they are the easiest to spot. The trick is seeing them first. According to my archives, I spotted Sippican back in 2007. I wasn’t the first but close enough. “Sippican” (of Sippican Cottage) is “a natural,” and his first book,The Devil’s in the Cows proves it on every page.

The Devil’s in the Cows is a slim volume containing some 37 “stories” that Sippican styles as “flash fiction.” The method here is to take a “random” photograph of old American life from the infinite archives of the Library of Congress and to discover, inside oneself, the story that is inside the photograph.

Random Selection 3: “I wish it would rain. No. Sleet. Sleet would finish the scene nicely. Rain is God’s mop.”

Lit’ry types that make their livings off of approved bloviations in approved journals that nobody reads call this sort of thing “the search for the epiphany.”

Lit’ry parasites who make their livings off of wannbe writers by bloviating at summer writers’ “retreats” call this sort of thing “writing down the bones.”

It’s neither of those things and it never was. Musicians know what it really is. It’s brain jazz. It’s riffing. The Devil’s in the Cows has, on every damn page, the stamp of the real; the sure turn of the hand of a craftsman who can get beneath the appearance of things captured in a photograph’s momentary slice of memory and show you how the never-ending story of the world unfolds on the inside of a man by looking at his outside situation. And not just how it “looked” but how it was to be alive and real in that moment. It’s a higher kind of truth and that’s why we have to, to spare ourselves the pain and shock of recognition, call it “fiction.”

Joseph Conrad, who knew a bit about dressing the truth in the more acceptable costumes of fiction, knew what his job was: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”

That’s the natural craft that Sippican musters and masters on every page of this book. Every page. There is, and this is rare in books, not a single page in the entire book that does not return an image to your mind that is vivid, striking, and lingers unfolding in your mind like a paper Chinese flower blooms in a glass of clear water.

Get two copies. One for yourself and one to loan or give away. Buy them now. You can thank me later: Amazon.com: The Devil's In The Cows.

It’ll give you chills. It will give you moments like this:

How many books can do that?

Posted by Vanderleun at July 26, 2011 2:23 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I do woodworking too -- or I did until it was necessary for me to suck on oxygen.

I actually purchased 3 books (what a deal -- free shipping from Amazon). One for me and the other two for two son-in-laws. One has brains but is bi-polar and the other is as handy as a pocket in an undershirt. Both depend completely on daughters to feed and cloth them.

I don't know that the stories will awaken them to the outer world -- one can only hope.

From the reviewer who is forever requiring me to consult a dictionary and the vivid pictures that you imbed in my memory with your writing, thanks for the heads up.

Posted by: ChiefTestPilot at July 26, 2011 4:01 PM


Posted by: Cynyr at July 26, 2011 5:31 PM

Bought, waited anxiously, read in about three sittings. Book was over too soon. Great stuff. That dang Sippican can write, I tell ya'. Next, please.

Posted by: Clasher1940 at July 26, 2011 6:01 PM

I read one of his lovely stories on my back porch after supper tonight, because the heat was gone and the light was right, and you couldn't see my eyes tearing up.
The genius of these stories are that they are packed with so many gifts on just one or two pages. Excellent is the only word I can grasp at the moment to describe this wonderful book. You picked a winner, Gerard.

Posted by: Jewel at July 26, 2011 7:33 PM

Yes - every bit of what Gerard said is true; every bit of what Sipp writes is True.

Posted by: Julie at July 26, 2011 8:19 PM

Well if the biography and the video on Amazon are any indication, the book should be everything Gerard claims and then some.

Posted by: RedCarolina at July 27, 2011 5:49 AM


Way ahead of you (or behind if you like, cuz you tuned me on to SC three years ago). As soon as I saw he wrote a book I snatched it up. Now all I have to do is find a reason to get up North to get SC to sign the damn thing. (Although knowing him he will put me to work in exchange). You might want to let folks know that it is for sale at Amazon for a reduced price too!

Posted by: Derek Cockerham at July 27, 2011 7:53 AM

Yes, it's cheaper at Amazon, but according to Sipp if you buy from the publisher it puts a little extra money in his pocket. Since we really hope he'll write another one some time, I see no reason not to throw a couple extra bucks his way...

Posted by: Julie at July 27, 2011 8:10 AM

Good point Julie, Now I'll have to buy another on!

Posted by: Derek Cockerham at July 27, 2011 9:05 AM

Yep, I bought it at the book's site, even though it's on sale at Amazon. BUT...go to Amazon and leave a good review of the book and maybe you can up his ratings.

Posted by: Jewel at July 27, 2011 9:25 AM

How did I miss that there's a book! I thought I'd been keeping up with the blog(s) and enjoying them mightily, but I missed this. Thanks for the heads-up. I'm off to buy several!

Posted by: Dinah at July 28, 2011 5:42 PM