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The Age of Perpetual Light

The Age of Perpetual Light

by Josh Weil

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Overview

Gold Winner for Fiction in the 2018 California Book Awards

“A storyteller of the first order.”—Joshua Ferris

“Josh Weil is a spectacular talent.”—Lauren Groff

Following his debut Dayton Literary Peace Prize-winning novel, The Great Glass Sea, Sue Kaufman Prize winner and National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” author Josh Weil brings together stories selected from a decade of work in one stellar new collection that explores themes of progress, the pursuit of knowledge, and humankind’s eternal attempt to decrease the darkness in the world.

Beginning at the dawn of the past century, in the early days of electrification, and moving into an imagined future in which the world is lit day and night, each tale in The Age of Perpetual Light follows deeply-felt characters through different eras in American history; from a Jewish dry goods peddler who falls in love with an Amish woman while showing her the wonders of an Edison Lamp, to a 1940 farmers’ uprising against the unfair practices of a power company, a Serbian immigrant teenage boy in 1990’s Vermont desperate to catch a glimpse of an experimental satellite, to a back-to-the-land couple forced to grapple with their daughter’s autism during winter’s longest night. As he did with the rough-living figures in his soulful and “devastatingly memorable” (Binnie Kirshenbaum) The New Valley, in The Age of Perpetual Light Weil explores through his unforgettable characters our most complex and fraught desires.

Brilliantly hewn and piercingly observant, these are tales that speak to the all-too-human desire for advancement and the struggle of wounded hearts to find a salve, no matter what the cost. This is a breathtaking book from one of our brightest literary lights.



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802127013
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 09/12/2017
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Josh Weil is the author of The Great Glass Sea and The New Valley. A Fulbright Fellow and National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree, he has been awarded The American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Sue Kaufman Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and a Pushcart. He lives in California’s Sierra Nevada.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

NO FLIES, NO FOLLY

One by one the windows come alight. From up the hill, I watch: the Hartzlers' old stone house so dark, so still, it might be the new-turned soil of a garden bed — huge, square, black — and in it the orange lamplight blooming. Bloom, bloom, bloom. Mrs. Hartzler lighting the wicks. There: I can see her shape. It goes window to window, a bee drifting, till it reaches the first floor, again, and goes straight to — where else? — the kitchen. My stomach moans. I suck in my gut, tug the rucksack's belt more tight. On my shoulders I shrug the straps a little higher. Down I start towards the farm.

Such clanking! I am a houseful of noise, kindes playing tin can train, mamme scrubbing dishes by the well, tatte hammering a bent scythe blade flat. Even the dog with its tail — whap! whap! Even the mice in the walls squeaking. It is all in the rucksack, and the rucksack is always on my back, and wherever I go, I take it.

My name is Yankel Yushrov, and I was not always a peddler. I was once, too, a lighter of lamps. Street lamps, in the city of Providence. I was once a seller of lemons in Baltimore. I was a greenhorn seeing from the deck of a ship for the first time the lights of New York. I was a beggar. I was a deserter. Once upon a time I absconded from the army of the tsar. Yes, and hidden in a hay cart, too. Once upon a time, I was a soldier. A draftee. The small sound you cannot hear in the dark on this road beneath the clanking of my pack is my spit landing. The other one you cannot hear is my sigh. I was a Russian, a Jew. A brother. A son. I will tell you something: there was a time when I was not even me.

By the time I reach the gate, the children have come out.

"Feter Yankel!" they shout.

And when I call them by their names — "Yonnie! Samuel! Rachael!" — I feel like a feter. Okay, okay, of course, how would I know how it feels to be an uncle? Sometimes there comes the thought: Probably, I am one. Or my brother is dead. Or both. With my fingers I bush up my mustache. Behind my glasses I make my eyes wide. I come for the kindes with a big stride, booming and clanking, making noises in my nose and throat from when I was a kinde myself — my mamme snoring, my tatte gathering up the phlegm — monster noises that send the children scattering among the panicked geese, the darting dogs. I chase their giggles in the dusk.

Until, from behind me, a light washes over the yard, paints the geese fiery, lifts from the dark the faces of the kindes. I stop, hands on my knees. The air is gone from me. I can feel her watching from the door. But when I look, I cannot see her face, just her shape broad and solid as the side of a milch cow, her ankles below her dress like the widest part of fence posts before they bury into the ground, breasts so heavy their weight makes them known even in the darkness of her body, shoulders even heavier, sleeves bunched to her elbows. Such forearms! Through the lace of her bonnet there glows the lamplight from inside the house. Behind her, in a chair shoved back from the table, scraping at something on his foot with the blade of a knife: Mr. Hartzler.

"Feter." It is the oldest, Samuel — he must by now be the age of a bar mitzvah — who is the first to ask, "May I see it?"

I glance back at the doorway, his mother moving more into it to block his father with her skirts. "Come," I say.

One by one, into the light thrown by the doorway, they do. Then the light is gone. I know she has shut the door, just as I know she is standing outside it, on the top stone step, in the cold, watching.

I unbutton my coat, the top of my shirt. Into the collar goes my hand. Out it comes with a necklace, a simple copper haldzband that fifteen years ago my mamme gave to me. And attached to it? The flasch. A little glass bottle, no bigger than the poz of a newborn boy. A tin cap screwed on very tight. On the inside of the cap, in Hebrew letters so tiny it is a miracle a hand could make them: C. E. YUSHROV, APOTHECARY. But that nobody sees. The cap never comes off. What they could see, if they could read Hebrew, and had very good eyes, and were leaning so close to make their breath puff on my neck, is what my tatte stamped onto the top: NO FLIES, NO FOLLY.

It is by now more dark than dusk. Venus, yes. A moon yet, no. From the almost-gone light of the sky the haldzband is a faint thread stitched from my wrist to my neck. In the palm of my hand the glass of the flasch barely shows. With my other hand I take off my fox-hair cap.

"Here," I say, "rub it on your head."

But Samuel is already doing it, rubbing as if his scalp is on fire, until his fine blond hair sticks out like a dandelion puff. Then he stops, and, holding his breath, leans his head down — slow, slow — towards my palm. The zap, when it comes, makes my shoulders jerk. As if attached to them by fishing lines, the other kindes step closer. Beneath his fuzz of hair: my hand. In my hand: the flasch glowing. A faint green glow like the eyes of night animals in the last of the light. For a moment, before it fades, the green light is on all the kindes' faces. It is in the teeth of their smiles. Watching their wonder, I have a feeling so odd: I hope Mrs. Hartzler sees it, that she will see me giving it to them, that in exchange she might give to me a word, a look, a moment of her praise.

Inside, the brightness of the lamplight is a spark in the eye. Up from the table comes Ura Hartzler and — one boot off, one boot on — he clomps over. In one of his hands there is still the knife. With his other, he grasps my fingers.

"Still?" he says, motioning with the knife at my mustache.

Every time I come he asks me, Why don't you shave this? And every time, I ask him back, Why don't you grow this? Three times a year for four years I have been coming.

"Even," he says, bringing the tip of his knife under my nose, "I could do it for you now, güt?"

"Schwindler," I say, pushing the knife away with one finger. "You only want to steal my wonze from me so you can have it for yourself and put it there." He is a tall man and I am not, but with the same finger I reach up and poke the bit of shaved skin above his lip.

He makes a noise, his mouth jerking downwards into his beard. "Kalt!" he says. And I feel, for a second, how warm his skin is against my frozen fingertip.

Over supper, we talk of beards. Not because of Ura's and my joking. Or even because Samuel shows the nick he gave himself below his chin, swears he has stubble on his cheek, wants me to feel.

"You better find a wife quick," I tell him, unable to keep from grinning at the thought of such a young kinde obliged to grow a beard.

"Or," his father says, grinning beneath his own, "get better at shaving."

No, the reason we talk of beards is Mrs. Hartzler. She wants, she says, to learn of Russia. It used to be when I would mention something of that part of the world, she would sit, her fork held still, her mouth a little open as if through her lips she might taste the words I made, but always silent as the kindes.

But, maybe a year ago, she began to ask the questions. They started very simple: "What is this in Yiddish?" Scooping a ladleful of smashed potatoes onto my plate, or holding up the ladle, or pulling out from her bonnet a strand of hair, or drawing with her fingertip above her upper lip so I could feel it as clear as if it was brushing through the hairs above my own. "Kartofel," I would tell her. "Eslefl, har, wonze." Her face showing nothing with each word until there came one that was nothing like the word she knew. "Wonze?" she would ask, something in her eyes more bright, as if the strangeness of the word rubbed her the way her children did my flasch. "Wonze," I would say. And she would tell me, "In Pennsylvania Deutsch it is schnurbaertli," and I would say, a little too loud, a little too hard, so Ura would hear, "I know."

Until, one visit, she asked, "And in Russian?"

It was after supper, in the sitting room, by the woodstove. We were standing over the rug on which I had spread my wares. In her hand, she held a box of matches.

"Schwebelen," I told her, in Yiddish.

She frowned. "Nein," she said. "In Russian."

I glanced around the room. Ura was still at the table next door: I could see his stocking feet scratching one of the dogs behind its ears.

"Surely," she said, "they have matches in Russia."

I nodded. She waited, her eyebrows lifted just a little, her lips parted.

"Speechki," I said.

How strange, after so many years, the word felt in my mouth. How strange, watching her face hear it, to imagine for the first time what she would look like in the act of making love.

She shut her eyes, opened them. "And," she said, "in French?"

I told her I didn't speak French.

"What else do you speak?"

"Nothing," I said. But I added, "Well."

Nothing well: a stopper followed by a corkscrew. She slid open the matchbox, reached in, drew one out. Through the doorway to the dining room, I could see just one stocking foot now. It remained on the dog's head. But it had gone still.

"A little Polish," I whispered.

The whisper: a wineglass lifted.

"In Polish?" she asked.

And when I said nothing, she touched the match to the strip at the side of the box and struck it. The flame burst. The dog's head lifted. Did he hear it from so far? Did her husband?

In my surprise, I said, "Mecze." I watched Ura's foot.

Until his wife said, "What else?"

Then I looked at her. She was holding the match between us, letting the flame burn slowly down.

"What if he sees?" I said.

"What else do you speak?"

"What will he think?"

"That I'm testing them."

The air just above the flame was wavery with heat. Through it, she looked at me. Mrs. Hartzler has eyes that are like lying on your back in the forest and looking up at all the flecks of green that are the leaves of the trees and in a moment of breeze seeing through them so many slivers of sky. She rattled the box. I could feel inside my chest all five hundred matchsticks knocking together.

"What else?" she said.

I watched the flame burn down towards her fingers. "French," I said. She smiled. "Allumettes," I told her.

And she shut her eyes, the smile still on her lips, the flame still crawling towards her fingers, until it almost reached them. Then, her eyes opened. And, as I watched, she opened her mouth. And, watching me, she slid the burning match between her lips and shut them so they pressed around her fingers that still held the end, sealing the flame inside. She did not blink. I did not blink. Slowly, she opened her lips. Out of them, around her fingers, there came a curling cloud of smoke.

"Allumettes," she said through it. And, then, in her own tongue, "Danke." She cleared her throat, shook the matches again, slipped them into her apron. "How much?" she said.

Through the thin screen of smoke that remained, I saw Ura in his socks padding towards us.

After that, her questions became more difficult. She wanted to know what kinds of pies my mother made, what I ate on my journey by foot across Russia to Riga, on the steamship to New York. What was my favorite thing to eat on Delancey Street? And did I ever sell it from my cart? And how many other carts sold it too? And how many Jews did I think lived there? And Russians? And Irish? And Chinese? And all together, everyone? And what, she would ask, her eyes wide, her lips a little open, what was such a world of people like?

Difficult? Yes. Because with each one, each time I came to show my wares, each time I again sat at their supper table, I could feel Ura's disapproval thickening. I could see on his face that his mind had begun to ask questions of its own.

Now, reaching with the plate of chicken parts across the table to me, she is asking about beards. "Surely in Russia," she says, "you had one."

"I was a kinde," I say, hoping with my grin and shrug and taking of the best piece left — the last breast — to put an end to it.

But she only sets down the chicken plate and lifts her hands to her cheeks. "Wasn't your face cold?"

When she takes her hands away they leave a gleam of grease on her skin. I want to take a rag and dip it in the kettle warming on the stove, press it there and rub. And so, I do not look at her. I look at the kindes. "Kelt?" I say to them. "You want to know about kelt?"

The youngest boy stops trying to push a chunk of chicken cartilage up his nose. He got it in pretty far; it sticks out while he stares.

"So kelt," I say, "that at night, in winter, on guard duty outside the barracks, at our post far in the north of Karelia ..." I know what a name like that will do to their mother; I steal a look at her; her eyes are bright as the grease on her cheeks. "... Near Petroplavilsk," I say, just to watch her lips open that little bit, "it was so cold we were afraid to pischn. One button of our pants we would ..." I pull my fingertips apart and with my mouth make a popping sound. "Only one. Enough to let out just the very tips of our pozen." Over their giggling I say, "Like the nose of a little mouse sniffing." With my palms I cover my face. Through the crack between my hands I poke out the pink tip of my nose as if it is a poz poking through an unbuttoned fly. I wiggle it. My ears wiggle, too; I cannot do one without the other. When I take away my hands there they are, all of them, laughing. Ura is so loud the others, beneath his booming, are just open mouths and happy eyes. I wait until his laugh has died down enough to hear the others again before I go on: "Through that tiny opening, we would pischn into bags. Ya! Bags! Little bags. Why?" They are quiet now. The chunk of cartilage falls out of the boy's nose. It goes plink on the plate. "Because," I say, "our piss was warm. So warm! In the bags it was so steamy! And what do you think we did with these steamy warm bags?" With my hands I make a bowl. Gently, I press it to my face. I roll my eyes to the ceiling. I let out a sound such as I would make at the first touch of my toches lowering into a hot bath. "Oh!" I say. I take off my glasses and press the imaginary steamy bag to my eyes, my lips, the back of my neck, saying, "Oh!" over and over, "Oh!"

Ura, struggling to break apart two leg bones, says through a grunt, "Until the bag leaks."

"Leaks?" I lift my brows so high they lift my glasses. And keeping my face like that so everyone will see, I reach to my coat on the back of my chair. In the pocket I fish around. Ura, over his twisting of the bones, watches. And just as I bring the bag out, the bones break with a snap. His elbows jerk.

"I hope," he says, "that's not what I think it is."

"To remember" — I pat the pocket — "I keep one right here."

"Piss?" Yonnie, the youngest, says.

I look at him as if to say of course, but speak instead to his mother. "Not one spill in fifteen years."

Little Rachael looks like she is thinking not so much about the spilling as about the length of time the piss has been in the bag. She crinkles up her nose.

I reach across the table and hold the bag before her face. "What do you smell?" She refuses to breathe. I hold it in front of her little brother's nose. Then her older brother's. Then, reaching all the way across the table, under her mother's nose. I can feel her breath on my knuckles.

"Nothing!" I say, and, over her plate, turn the bag upside down. I shake it. Not a drop comes out.

"What kind of bags?" she says.

As if such a bag is too valuable to be away from my body for long, I pull it back. "Canvas," I tell her. "Soaked in turpentine and wax."

Ura chews the end of a bone. "From Russia?"

"Where can you get them?" his wife says.

"This," Ura says, "is how they make them in Russia?"

"Do you have more?" she asks.

"I think ..." I answer, "I believe ... I might ... No, I am almost certain I must have, even right now, one or two still in my sack."

But once we are in the sitting room standing beside my rucksack, it is not the bags she wants. It is colder in there, the fire unlit — the Amish, in all my years of knowing them, are never ones to waste wood — and when I bend down to open the straps of my rucksack, she bends down behind me. I feel, in the pocket of my coat, her hand. On the straps, my own hands go still. From the kitchen: the sound of the kindes cleaning up the plates, of Ura talking to them, just on the other side of the wall. But she is right there. So close. Her soft, round face with its sun-hardened skin, dark beneath the white of her bonnet, her mouth a hard line. Is the line shaking? Through the lining of my coat pocket, I feel the back of her fingers against my thigh. I feel them find the bag, close around it. Yes, her mouth is shaking, just a little. I see it when her lips open, hear it on the murmur of disappointment she makes.

"What is it?" I whisper.

"Dry," she says. "But not still warm."

"The piss?" A small laugh comes from my throat and I try to tamp it out before it gets past her ears. "After fifteen years?"

She smiles. "Why do you lie, Yankel?"

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Age of Perpetual Light"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Josh Weil.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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.

Table of Contents

Cover,
Also by Josh Weil,
Title Page,
Copyright,
Epigraph,
No Flies, No Folly,
Long Bright Line,
The Essential Constituent of Modern Living Standards,
Angle of Reflection,
The Point of Roughness,
Beautiful Ground,
The First Bad Thing,
Hello From Here,
Acknowledgments,
Back Cover,

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