Shame and Wonder

Shame and Wonder

by David Searcy


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For fans of John Jeremiah Sullivan, Leslie Jamison, Geoff Dyer, and W. G. Sebald, the twenty-one essays in David Searcy’s debut collection are captivating, daring—and completely unlike anything else you’ve read before. Forging connections between the sublime and the mundane, this is a work of true grace, wisdom, and joy.

Expansive in scope but deeply personal in perspective, the pieces in Shame and Wonder are born of a vast, abiding curiosity, one that has led David Searcy into some strange and beautiful territory, where old Uncle Scrooge comic books reveal profound truths, and the vastness of space becomes an expression of pure love. Whether ruminating on an old El Camino pickup truck, those magical prizes lurking in the cereal boxes of our youth, or a lurid online ad for “Sexy Girls Near Dallas,” Searcy brings his unique blend of affection and suspicion to the everyday wonders that surround and seduce us. In “Nameless,” he ruminates on spirituality and the fate of an unknown tightrope walker who falls to his death in Texas in the 1880s, buried as a local legend but without a given name. “The Hudson River School” weaves together Google Maps, classical art, and dental hygiene into a story that explores—with exquisite humor and grace—the seemingly impossible angles at which our lives often intersect. And in “An Enchanted Tree Near Fredericksburg,” countless lovers carve countless hearts into the gnarled trunk of an ancient oak tree, leaving their marks to be healed, lifted upward, and, finally, absorbed.

Haunting, hilarious, and full of longing, Shame and Wonder announces the arrival of David Searcy as an essential and surprising new voice in American writing.

Praise for Shame and Wonder

“Astonishment is a quality central to David Searcy’s Shame and Wonder. . . . What unites these twenty-one essays . . . is the sense of a wildly querying intelligence suspended in a state of awe. . . . Searcy is drawn instinctively to moments, the way parcels of time expand and contract in memory, conjuring from ordinary experience a hidden sense of all that is extraordinary in the world, in being alive.”The New York Times Book Review

“A lovely implicit argument for a particular orientation toward the world: continuous awe and wonder . . . Everywhere, David Searcy finds the strange and marvelous in careful examination of the quotidian.”—NPR

“Peculiar and lively . . . Like a down-home Roland Barthes, [Searcy’s] quirky observations and sudden narrative turns remind us of the strangeness we miss every day.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Often nostalgic and whimsical . . . brings to life the shadows of our kaleidoscopic world.”The Dallas Morning News

“What makes Searcy such a master storyteller is that he is a master observer, sharing his vision through essays that read like exquisitely crafted short stories.”San Francisco Chronicle

“In twenty-one captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy finds the exceptional in the everyday . . . and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence.”The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A collection of essays laced with wisdom and beauty.”Paste

“Slyly brilliant—a self-deprecatory look at life in all its weirdness.”Austin American-Statesman

“A work of genius—a particular kind of genius, to be sure.”—Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812993943
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/05/2016
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Searcy is the author of Ordinary Horror and Last Things, and the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

The Hudson River School

I'm in the dental hygienist's chair and she's a new one, although very much the same bright, cheery presence as the last, which works for me. The unencumbered heart is best, I think, in matters such as these. She seems about the age of my daughters, which I mention, and we talk. She's from West Texas, where her father is a rancher. I'm a writer. Well, her sister is a writer. Really. Children's books. How about that. It's a nice day. You can see downtown from here. We're on the eighth floor. I've been coming here for years, and I have always liked the view. I think there may be something classically romantic (if that's not a contradiction) about the view and my condition as I view it. Like those grand romantic nineteenth-century landscapes so majestic you don't see at first the tiny human figure there, oblivious and engaged in tiny purposes of his own right at the edge of where the whole world seems to fall away toward heaven. This is just like that except it's Dallas, Texas, with no place to fall away to and I'm only here for a cleaning.

When I'm able to speak again, it is to lie about my flossing habits and ask about her childhood on the ranch--I spent some time on a ranch myself when I was young, pretending to help with shearing sheep and hunting the wild dogs that would prey on them. It's coyotes in West Texas, though, she says. And so develops out of all this bright and cheery and obligatory chitchat in the eighth-floor dentist's office such a strange, opaque, and mysterious tale, it startles me and makes me ask if she'd mind if I spoke with her father about the events.

It seems there occurred, a number of years ago on her father's ranch, an alarming rise in coyote depredations among his flock. The lambs, especially, suffered terribly. He believed it was the work of a single animal but his efforts to hunt it down were unsuccessful. For two seasons he tried all the usual snares and calls but nothing worked. The animal was too cunning. And the lambs continued to die. One day he hit upon a new idea--and here's the part I'd like to know a little more about and why I'd like to give him a call, find out where the idea came from, whether he made the tape recording for this purpose or already had it; how it felt to do what he did, if it seemed desperate or dishonorable or too risky in some indefinable way--but anyway, one morning he took a tape recording of his infant daughter's cries (not those of Lila, my hygienist, but another daughter's cries) out into the tall grass or the bush, the range, whatever you call it out there where the coyotes wait to take away your lambs, and played the recording as he watched with his rifle ready. And it worked. The coyote came, he shot it dead, the depredations stopped and that was that. She writes her father's name and number on the appointment card and says she's sure he wouldn't mind at all if I gave him a call and that she'll see me in six months.

Six months later I've not called him. Though I've thought about it often enough. I've even gone online to look up Sterling City, Texas--which is the nearest town to the ranch--and used that Google Maps capability that is still, to me, so ghostly, where you're able to descend from heavenly cartographic altitudes right down into the street-level world to pass among the living. I'll pass west on Fourth Street--Highway 87--through the middle of town, which isn't much, proceeding in those spooky-smeary increments of fifty yards or so. You don't just jerk along between the discrete locations like you'd think. They've introduced a bit of theater here, I guess. So when you click from one point to another along the virtual yellow stripe--from here in front of this boarded-up feed store, say, to where that little white-haired lady waits to cross the street on up the block--it all goes blurry, sweeps away to the rear like smoke in a wind before things rematerialize around the next coordinate where you find you've overshot the white-haired lady, have to spin that magic compass thing to turn around and get a closer look. She seems uncertain. She looks past you down the highway to the west, where the town itself blurs away into mesquite and scrub and rolling empty distances. On down the road I pause and spin the compass thing again, but I can't see her. I suppose she got across. I have no reason to believe the ranch is out this way at all. I get a sense of how it looks, though. And it all looks like it's pretty much the same. This sort of scrubby empty country. Line of hills off in the distance. I keep thinking I might spot some sheep or something--maybe a coyote even. Everything's so open. But the resolution isn't very good. Those smudges out there could be anything. A mile or two outside of town the virtual yellow stripe splits off to the left down Highway 158. I drift that way for a while until the sameness seems to settle in completely. Then I stop and look around. I can't tell which is the way to go and for a second I'm like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, stuck out here in my business suit in the middle of nowhere, absolutely lost.

I think the view across the city on a nice day from the eighth-floor examination room is better than a fish tank. Although possibly to similar effect. So, here I'm back again and haven't called her father. Lila, I say, I'm afraid I haven't called your father. And perhaps she's disappointed, having told him I might do so. I apologize, explaining how terrifically tangled up I've managed to get in my current project but I really had the time and should have called. There's something here that makes me hesitate.

Back home I open my little kit and throw the floss away, replace my orange toothbrush with a green one. Later on I'm paused on Highway 87 at the edge of Sterling City once again for no particular reason, gazing past the brown brick church and the service station out to where it fades to open country. It's a nice day here, as well. The blue sky hazes into white near the horizon. It's late morning, I would guess. My girlfriend, Nancy, a painter who pays close attention to the way things look and lived in California where they know what coyotes look like, says she saw one near my house once. Right out here in these densely ordinary 1950s neighborhoods one foggy night, quite late. It stood in the grass beneath the power lines that run beside the tollway. She had come across the Northaven bridge and there it was, just standing there long-legged in the grass, in the foggy pale pink tollway light. She stopped and rolled her window down for a better look. And for a moment it looked back, then loped away.

A number of years ago on Forest Lane, not half a mile from here in heavy afternoon traffic, I encountered a giant snapping turtle attempting to cross the road. And it had almost made it somehow, crossing all six lanes but found itself unable to mount the curb. I parked my car to block the traffic, got behind it trying to keep away from the bloody but still dangerous-looking beak--it might have been injured by a car or just from bashing against the curb--but, anyway, this thing was as big around as a trash-can lid and weighed about fifty pounds, so it was all I could do to hoist it over the curb and get it headed toward a narrow grassy corridor that ran behind some houses. There was no place in the area I could think of that might call to such a creature. No place anywhere nearby for it to have come from. But next morning it was gone. I've seen raccoons at night dart in and out of storm sewers on my street. And once, alerted by the yelps and exclamations of my neighbor who was fighting to control her dog, a toad the size of a mixing bowl right out there in the gentle summer evening beneath the streetlamp. I encouraged it--one sort of stomps and lunges--out of the street into another neighbor's yard. Then we retreated--she with her wild-eyed dog and I with my thoughts. That toad was even bigger than the giant African bullfrogs I had seen at the Dallas Zoo. It had no business here. Nor anywhere we care about, where limits are imposed and children sleep and dream unburdened by outrageous possibilities. In the morning though, of course, it too was gone. Where in the world do these things come from? Is the city like a net? Does our imagination--urban, gridlike--drag behind us deeper than we know? And these are just the ones we see. Or are they simply passing through. Unsure of us. Our world perhaps a little ghostly to them, streets and houses hardly here at all, a blur like smoke across an older landscape.

Table of Contents

The Hudson River School 3

El Camino Doloroso 33

Mad Science 37

A Futuristic Writing Desk 46

Sexy Girls Near Dallas 54

Didelphis Nuncius 59

The Depth of Baseball Sadness 67

Santa in Anatolia 77

How to Color The Grass 107

Science Fictions #1 116

Science Fictions #2 (For C.W.) 123

Science Fictions #3 126

Nameless 131

On Watching the Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan Documentary About Lewis and Clark on PBS 150

Love in Space 152

Am Enchanted Tree Near Fredericksburg 176

Cereal Prizes 185

Paper Airplane Fundamentals 194

Three Cartoons 200

Always Shall Have Been 216

Still-Life Painting 219

Acknowledgments 227

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