The New York Times
Pieces for the Left Handby J. Robert Lennon
Finally available in the United States, a singular story collection that Time Out declared “unsettlingly brilliant”
Astudent’s suicide note is not what it seems. A high school football rivalry turns absurd—and deadly. A much-loved cat seems to have been a different animal all along. A pair of identical twins aren’t/i>
Finally available in the United States, a singular story collection that Time Out declared “unsettlingly brilliant”
Astudent’s suicide note is not what it seems. A high school football rivalry turns absurd—and deadly. A much-loved cat seems to have been a different animal all along. A pair of identical twins aren’t identical at all—or even related. A man finds his own yellowed birth announcement inside a bureau bought at auction. Set in a small upstate New York town, told in a conversational style, Pieces for the Left Hand is a stream of a hundred anecdotes, none much longer than a page. At once funny, bizarre, familiar, and disturbing, these deceptively straightforward tales nevertheless shock and amaze through uncanny coincidence, tragic misunderstanding, strange occurrence, or sudden insight. Unposted letters, unexpected visitors, false memories—in J. Robert Lennon’s vision of America, these are the things that decide our fate. Wry and deadpan, powerful and philosophical, these addictive little tales reveal the everyday world as a strange and eerie place.
The New York Times
Lennon muses in brief, deadpan vignettes on mortality and progress in a small New York university town. Grouped under seven rubrics that range from the prosaic ("Town and Country," "Parents," "Children") to the existential ("Mystery and Confusion," "Doom and Madness"), these segments catch the unnamed narrator, a 47-year-old married man living with his professor wife in a renovated farmhouse and with ample time to walk, in moments of self-reflection and thoughtful observation on happenings such as a disused road's disappearance from a map, or how an under-construction water pipeline becomes a lethal joyride conduit for students. Or he wonders how his cat has obtained another cat's collar; why he sometimes feels like an intruder in his own home; and how dreams and memory often play tricks on him. One segment aims at exposing the sadness of an acquaintance who struck it rich, but it can't quite prove that money doesn't buy happiness; riffs about artists and professors poke fun at the charlatans and theorists of the trades. Occasionally withering and frequently hilarious, these anecdotes highlight little knots of human curiosity. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
- Granta Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.31(w) x 7.48(h) x (d)
Read an Excerpt
Pieces for the Left Hand100 Anecdotes
By J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2005 J. Robert Lennon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTown and Country
For more than a century, the main street in our town was named after a founding father of our state, a man who, in a recent revisionist essay, was revealed to have been a corrupt, bigoted philanderer who beat his children and disliked dogs. After a string of protests disrupted rush hour traffic, our mayor took down the street signs and promised to rename the street. But loyalists protested the removal, and the signs were restored. Further protests again eliminated the signs, and the battle has moved to the courts. Meanwhile, our town's main street has no name at all, confusing visitors, complicating mail delivery, and making us the butt of vicious joking from other, less volatile neighboring towns.
It is not unusual in our area for a road to fall into disuse, if the farm or village that it serves should be abandoned. In these cases, the land may be taken over by the state for use as a conservation area, game preserve or other project, and the road may be paved, graveled or simply maintained for the sake of access to the land.
But should the state find no use for the land, the road will decay. Grass will appear in the tire ruts. Birdsor wind may drop seeds, and tall trees grow; or a bramble may spring up and spread across the sunny space, attracting more birds and other animals.
In this case, the road will no longer be distinguishable from the surrounding land. It can then be classified as dead, and will be removed from maps.
Our town's electorate, generally quite active in, even obsessed with, local politics, was silenced during this year's mayoral race, in which the two prominent candidates, an incumbent Republican and a Democratic challenger, conducted campaigns of such a vituperative and vengeful nature that few city residents bothered to show up at the polls. Life might have gone on as usual afterward had not a nineteen-year-old college freshman, a hotel management major with no political experience, entered the race in the eleventh hour as an independent, registered six thousand students to vote, covered our town with cheaply xeroxed campaign posters reading STOP THE BULLSHIT, and published an editorial in the newspaper advocating the elimination of a city ordinance forbidding the sale of alcohol before noon on Sundays. The student's victory was a landslide.
It all seemed like a good joke until I saw our former mayor, disheveled and dark-eyed, buying a six-pack of beer at a neighborhood grocery one Sunday morning. After that, my own failure to vote seemed a terrible mistake, and I was filled with a shame and dread that linger still.
The Current Event
When I was young, our quiet city suffered the most painful disaster of its history: fourteen teenagers fresh from a party secretly boarded a boat belonging to one of their parents, brought it out to the middle of the lake, became drunk aboard it and, in the sudden storm that followed, capsized and drowned. The subsequent public grieving, underage-drinking crackdown and lake-safety campaign were covered in our local paper with sensitivity and insight, by a reporter whose fine writing and acute perceptiveness of current events I had known when we attended high school together.
When recently three fishermen drowned in a similar boating accident, the same reporter covered the current event as skillfully and thoroughly as he had covered the previous one. I happened to encounter the reporter around this time, and commended him on his efforts, which commendation he seemed pleased to receive. But when I pointed out the parallels between this incident and the other, he grew puzzled and asked me which incident I meant. Surprised, I reminded him of the drowned teenagers, and at last he nodded in recognition.
I could not resist telling him that it seemed odd that he would not remember, while reporting on a boating accident, the worst boating accident in the history of our town, which he himself had reported on at the time. In reply he only laughed and said that the previous incident, tragic as it had been, was presently "off his radar."
A local Indian tribe, irritated at the state's reluctance to issue it a permit to open a gambling casino, dug deep into its historic archive and unearthed a long-forgotten treaty granting it a large parcel of land which consisted not only of the area generally recognized as their territory, but also of a small spur, bounded by and including two creeks, on which our beloved three-term Democratic senator happened to own a summer cabin. The tribe's announcement of their intention to reclaim this land was met at first with puzzlement, then derision, as many state residents owned land there and enjoyed hunting, fishing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling within its borders. Nevertheless, a respected state judge declared the treaty legal and binding, and in a terrific political victory for the tribe, the state reconsidered its permit refusal. Ground for the casino was soon broken, and tribal leaders made a verbal agreement not to act on their land claim.
The casino was a smash success, drawing tourists from hundreds of miles away, and the controversy died quietly. Then, during an election-year stump speech near the reservation, the senator out of nowhere berated the tribe for its now-moot threat, and declared that only over his dead body would any greedy Indians wave their tomahawks upon his family's land. The statement's overt belligerence, coupled with its reckless ethnic stereotyping, rekindled tribal interest in the land. This time, however, tribal leaders were backed by a number of liberal political groups and a considerable fortune in casino profits.
The treaty became the focus of a political campaign characterized by endless sniping and overblown rhetoric, and when the election was over, the senator had lost his seat to an anti-tax conservative with broad appeal over an ethnically diverse constituency. The tribe immediately began legal proceedings to win back their land, and within six months had recovered more than 70 percent of it, with the state paying minimal compensation to displaced landowners evicted from their homes. The senator is now roundly despised statewide, and lives anonymously with his family in another part of the country.
When asked, while walking down the state house steps mere days after the election, what had made him issue his fateful statement, the senator could not answer. In a now-famous gesture, he shielded his eyes from the sun and shook his head ruefully, then slowly let fall his hand until it covered his face, and refused to remove it until reporters left his presence.
A discount department-store chain hoped to open a retail outlet in our town, and identified a site, on the edge of the city, where it preferred to build. The site lay at a bend in a creek, opposite a popular town park prized by both naturalists and recreationalists for its broad shade trees, clean water and abundant wildlife.
The town council, eager to bring new jobs to the area and stimulate economic activity, immediately agreed to allow the chain to build, on the one condition that they choose a different site for their store. The park, the council explained, was too valuable to the community to mar its beauty with commercial development. The chain took offense at this condition and called in its legal team, who filed a series of suits, tying up the town's attorneys and emptying its coffers with breathtaking speed. Ultimately the town gave up and issued the chain its permit, and the store was constructed quickly, using contractors from a neighboring state and laborers trucked in from the city.
For its opening day, the new store ordered several thousand butterflies to be released on the site, as a means of generating publicity and demonstrating its commitment to the natural environment. However, it was July, and the air conditioning in the van that was to deliver the butterflies broke down. The van driver, a temporary worker ignorant of the insects' needs, thought nothing of the problem and arrived uncomfortable but on time at the new store.
The company's CEO had taken a particular interest in this store, and now spoke in the parking lot to a crowd of reporters and eager consumers about the company's virtues. Then, with a wave of his arm, he ordered the butterflies released.
Sadly, the butterflies had suffocated in the blistering summer heat. Undaunted, the CEO sent his employees into the store for fans, which were unboxed, plugged in, and deployed within minutes at the edge of the parking lot. These employees, mostly local teenagers, scooped handfuls of the insects from their plastic bins and flung them into the path of the fans, where they fl uttered artificially for some seconds before coming to rest on the hot pavement.
The few customers who entered the store after this debacle tracked butterfly innards down its aisles, leaving long green stains on the white tiles. Those who left were forced to use their windshield wipers to clear the butterflies from their cars. The entire spectacle was captured in words and pictures by the journalists present. Nevertheless, the store has been an enormous success, as it has been in most towns, and many regard the CEO's performance with the fans as a perfect example of the resourcefulness and creativity that have made him the retail giant he is.
Our town is famous for its deep, beautiful mountain gorges spanned by one-lane bridges, and it is from these bridges that local would-be suicides typically jump. On a recent bright October morning, a young man, a student at the university, was found dead at the bottom of a gorge by two hikers. Police discovered in the student's dormitory room a torn scrap of paper on which were scrawled the words
can't go on
and the death was ruled a suicide. This news was a great shock to the student's friends and family, who knew him as fun-loving, even hedonistic, and much was said about how you can't truly know anyone, and how each of us, ultimately, is alone in the world.
In the days that followed, a rash of copycat suicides ensued, each with his own scrawled suicide note explaining that he too could no longer go on, and that it was only the first student's decisive act that convinced him there was a way out. Further misery and mourning overtook the community and high fences were promptly erected atop the bridge railings.
Not long afterward, the original suicide's roommate returned from a vacation and presented to police the rest of the paper that the suicide note had been torn from. Restored, the note now read:
Midterms over, dude! I totally can't wait for this party. You can go on without me if I'm late.-B.
Around this time police also discovered the suicide's hat caught in the branches of a tree growing in the gorge, and a scrap of fabric caught in a bramble which matched the suicide's ripped pants. They theorized that the student had attended a party, gotten drunk, lost his hat in a gust of wind and fallen to his death attempting to retrieve it.
Though still in mourning, the young man's family was consoled to hear that their relative had not been so unknowable after all. However, the parents of the copycats have sued the police department and are expected to be awarded more than fifteen million dollars in damages.
A small town not far from here gained some small notoriety when a famous movie actress, fed up with the misanthropy and greed of Hollywood, moved there with her husband, children, and many dogs and horses. In an interview published in a popular national magazine, the actress said that she was sick of being recognized by tourists on the street, approached by scheming strangers at restaurants, and generally restricted in her activities by her own popularity. The nearby town, she said, offered ample privacy and a beautiful natural setting; most importantly, she added, she would not be bothered there by slimy, self-interested people more concerned with what she represented than who she was.
Hearing this, the denizens of the small town resolved to make her residence pleasant, and agreed they would welcome her in the same way they would welcome anyone who moved there; that is, the chamber of commerce sent her a package of advertising circulars, her neighbors engaged her in lively debates about the borders of her property, the police solicited her for tickets to the annual charity ball, and she was encouraged in town to apply for shopping club memberships, coffee punch cards and home improvement loans.
Respectful of her fame and her unwillingness to acknowledge it, the townspeople averted their eyes when she passed them on the street and made no mention of her films, which everyone of course had seen. When her new movie debuted, the town filled up with reporters and photographers, but all requests for comment on the actress were rebuffed, and a few dedicated townspeople even claimed to be unaware that she lived there. The local paper printed no articles about the national press presence, and ran only a short wire-service review of the new film.
Not long after, a terrible scene erupted in the diner when the actress threw down her utensils in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable meal and shouted something to the effect that the townspeople were the unfriendliest bunch of stuck-up bastards she'd ever encountered. Within weeks she had sold her enormous house in the hills and returned to California.
The nearby town is still baffled by her strange behavior. As for the actress, she has said nothing about her experience in our area, except that she was unaccustomed to town life and was glad to be back where she belonged.
Autumn, once the most popular season in this town of tall trees, is now regarded with dread, thanks to the bitter athletic rivalry between our two local high schools. The school in the neighborhood commonly called the Flats is attended by the children of the working class, who are employed by the town's restaurants, motels, gas stations and factories, and who live in those low-lying areas most frequently plagued by pollution, flood and crime. The school in the Heights, on the other hand, is populated by the children of academics and property owners, who live on wooded hillside lots that offer panoramic views of our valley. Students at the Flats consider students at the Heights to be prissy, pampered trust-fund halfwits, while Heights students regard Flats students as mustachioed, inbred gas huffers. Historically, these class tensions were brought to bear in the annual football game, played at our university's enormous stadium the last weekend in October.
Five years ago, however, some Heights players spray-painted ethnic slurs on the dusty American sedans of several Flats team members, and the Flats players retaliated by flinging bricks through the windows of the shiny, leased sports coupes of their rivals. Four years ago a massive mêlée at a fast-food restaurant landed players from both teams in the hospital. Three years ago the much-painted "Seniors' Rock" in front of Flats High was rolled into a nearby creek, and the brand new sciences wing of Heights High was set on fire. Two years ago each coach was kidnapped by still-unidentified members of the opposing team and traded on Friendship Bridge at midnight of game day; and last year the Flats' beloved mascot, the Marauding Goat, was disemboweled before the war memorial in Peters Park, while not a mile away the starting quarterback for the Heights was partially paralyzed in a hit-and-run incident outside a drive-up bank. The subsequent game was canceled.
This year's game has also been canceled, but for a different reason entirely. A steep drop in the population of our town has made the existence of both high schools fiscally untenable, and beginning with the fall semester the two will be combined into a single entity, to be called Area High. It remains unclear how the rivalry will play itself out, but many seem convinced that the solution lies in targeting a common enemy, such as the students of nearby Valley High, thought by all to be buck-toothed hicks, or those of faraway City Regional, who everyone knows are greasy-haired gang-bangers. Meanwhile the peace here in our town remains uneasy, and we await with trepidation the turning of the leaves.
Excerpted from Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon Copyright © 2005 by J. Robert Lennon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
J. Robert Lennon is the author of five novels, including Mailman and The Light of Falling Stars. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s, Playboy, and The New Yorker. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two sons.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews