Welcome, Joe Oestreich!
This month we are featuring the poets and writers who have signed with us since last summer—all writers who submitted work during one of our two annual open reading periods.
Today we bring you Joe Oestreich, whose essay collection Partisans is due out next May.
Joe Oestreich is the author of three books of creative nonfiction: Partisans (forthcoming in 2017 from Black Lawrence Press), Lines of Scrimmage (co-written with Scott Pleasant, 2015), and Hitless Wonder (2012). His work has appeared in Esquire, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, and many other magazines and journals. Four of his essays have been cited as notable in the Best American series, and he’s received special mention twice in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, where he directs the MA in Writing program.
Where did you write the book?
These essays cover a long stretch of time. Ten years. One of the pieces, “This Essay Doesn’t Rock,” was my first-ever publication, way back in 2006. The newest essay in the collection, the title piece, “Partisans,” will be published this month in the journal River Teeth. In the decade it took to generate these essays, I’ve lived in three cities: Columbus, OH, Tacoma, WA, and Conway, SC, which is just a few miles inland from Myrtle Beach.
In the photos of each place, here’s what you’re looking at:
-Columbus: My bandmates and me in front of the old gates to the Ohio State Fairgrounds. I’m the bald dude in the sunglasses.
-Tacoma: Me standing on in Murray Morgan bridge.
-Myrtle Beach: My son on the sand in winter.
These regions—Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Southeast—feature many geographical and cultural differences, and spending time in each if them has taught me a lot about the various ways to cobble together an American life.
What is your favorite memory from working on this manuscript?
As every writer knows, the writing itself, planting your ass in the seat and pecking away, is just about the least glamorous activity imaginable—unless you think a desk that’s stained with coffee mug rings and dusted with trail mix crumbs is glamorous. So, no. I don’t have many memories, favorite or otherwise, of the writing. But I do have memories of the living, of the experiences, good and bad, that gave rise to these pieces: traveling through Mexico and paying for the trip by attending timeshare presentations; watching a family friend be tried and convicted of murder; getting (and then regretting) a hack-job tattoo on Eight Mile Rd. in Detroit. The best part about working on this book is that it forced me to make more sense of these events, to think more deeply about how and why the stuff that happened, happened.
How did you know that the book was done and ready to send out?
I tend to prefer essay collections that aren’t too tightly focused. I’m thinking here of books like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe, Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion, and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. There’s some degree of thematic unity within these books, but what really connects the essays is the sensibility, intelligence, and narrative voice of the author. Take a smart, interesting person and let them loose on a wide range of topics and experiences. Now, I don’t claim to be half as smart or interesting as Wolfe, Didion, or Wallace, but I wanted to try to put together a collection that felt as rich and expansive as my favorite books by authors such as these.
Once I started compiling the essays into a manuscript, however, I saw that there were more strands connecting the pieces than I originally thought. As Stephen Kuusisto, one of my MFA professors at Ohio State, says, “Trust your subconscious. It’s pretty smart.” Still, at that point, I couldn’t have articulated exactly what those strands were—at least not in the kind of hooky synopsis that fits into a pitch letter or on the back of a book cover. But then I wrote the essay “Partisans,” a piece about self-identification and loyalty and trying to decide with whom we are going to align ourselves. Who’s in and who’s out. This essay seemed to be the purest distillation of the themes that were running through the rest of pieces. As soon as I added “Partisans” to the collection, the manuscript felt like a book.
What’s on your reading list for this summer?
Ah, summer. Now that I’ve got a break from teaching, I can finally tear through the stack of awesomeness that I picked up back in March at the AWP Bookfair. Here’s part of that stack:
An Earlier Life by Brenda Miller
Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion by Pasha Miller and Jeff Parker
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper
Ultrasonic by Steven Church
Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean
Little Sister Death by William Gay
Blood: Stories by Matthew Cheney
Late One Night by Lee Martin
Between Wrecks by George Singleton
Excerpt from “The Mercy Kill”
Wet hot suburbia, circa 1985. I was fifteen and staring hard down the long barrel of summer. My dad had just left my mom for another woman, and this hit me like a bag of bricks. It was proof positive that I didn’t know, couldn’t know, anyone. Not really. Not on the inside, past whatever veneer they’d doctored up and spit-shined. Easier to stick to the few things I could count on. The ball, the bounce, the basket. Every night after dinner I’d shoot free throws in the driveway. Toeing the mark on the blacktop that served as the foul line, I’d flip the ball to the ground three times and take aim at the hoop my dad had once paid some guy to attach to the garage roof.
My mom would come out the front door trailing Rex—a dog we’d owned for at least ten years, since the days when my parents’ marriage was solid, and who, despite the name, was female. “Joe, doll,” she’d say, “please remember to open the garage when you play ball.” She’d thumb toward a cracked window on the garage door, one of several I’d broken shooting baskets that summer. “I’ll have to ask John Parsons to fix that.” John Parsons lived five doors down, and my mom walked with him and his dogs religiously, every night as soon as the dishes were done. She had since March, when my dad moved out.
Dribbling the ball, I’d watch her follow Rex down our elm-lined street. We lived in Worthington, Ohio, home of the middle-class dream exemplar. She’d walk past houses that were all variations on an aluminum-sided theme. She’d pass lawn sprinklers firing tracers across grass so green it looked straight off the sod farm. She’d pass the open maws of two car garages: American sedan for him, foreign hatchback for her, hand-me-down beater curbed out front for the kid. My mom was an adjunct at Columbus Technical Institute, and on the side she taught English to Vietnamese refugees, so she was too busy grading papers and running my sister, Jill, to soccer practice to maintain our home at the Worthington standard. Our aluminum siding was moldy. Our lawn was pocked with brown patches and turd piles. Our garage door was blackened with basketball dimples, and every time I opened it like my mom asked, I’d see a Pennzoil stain where my dad’s ’77 Grand Prix should have been.
My dad was never much of a honey-doer, so our place had always looked sort of neglected. Now it was worse. Recently, though, John Parsons had offered to help my mom around the house. “Anything you need, Mary Anne,” he’d told her. “Yard work. A broken dishwasher. Car trouble. You call me.” And when the battery in her VW Rabbit died, she called him. When the garage door went off the rails, she called him.
John was my friend Steve’s stepdad. An ex-high school chemistry teacher, he’d left the classroom to go out on his own as a handyman. A few times already that summer, Steve and I had squeezed into John’s cigarette-smelling El Camino, and he’d taken us along to a job site. Paid us a few bucks to help him paint a room or trim a row of bushes. As we drove home to prim-and-proper Worthington, with John’s tools rattling in their buckets and wall primer streaking my mall-bought Levi’s, I was both proud and embarrassed. Proud, as a kid who now lived with his mom and sister, to be led by John into the hands-on, get-er-done world of men. And embarrassed to be seen with a man so unlike my dad—Ph. D., Licensed Professional Counselor, director of a rehabilitation facility for the disabled—a white-collar guy who paid grunts like John to do jobs like hang basketball hoops.
As my mom and Rex walked up John’s driveway, he and his two fat beagle-mixes would be waiting on the porch. From there they’d head down to the ball fields at the elementary. Standing in the grass, watching the dogs run, John would mostly talk and my mom would mostly listen. He was stocky and bolt-strong, smart and well read. Knew something about everything. She was not quite five feet tall, an Adult Education Ph. D. who loved opera and Agatha Christie. Maybe my mom liked John precisely because he was so different from my dad. Maybe she just liked the company. Or the ritual: Walk after dinner, because that was the routine, like mass every Sunday morning and Masterpiece Theater every Sunday night. These were the things she could count on.
When she’d come home an hour or more later, I’d still be shooting baskets, though it was too dark to see the rim. “Oh, boy,” she’d say, smiling as she let Rex loose in the front yard. “Didn’t we have fun?”
I’d drop the ball in the corner of the garage by the rake and the shovel, neither of which had been used in a long, long time. I’d shut the garage door, which, thanks to John, now went up and down ten times smoother than my jump shot. And I’d follow my mom and Rex inside, a little bit happy because she seemed so happy, and a little bit grateful because John had reached out to her, to us.
What I didn’t know, couldn’t know, was that my mom and John Parsons would walk the dogs together nearly every night for three years. And they’d keep doing it even after John was charged with murder.