A hilarious send-up of writing workshops, for-profit education, and the gulf between believers and nonbelievers
Marianne is in a slump: barely able to support herself by teaching, not making progress on her poetry, about to lose her Brooklyn apartment. When her novelist ex-fiancé, Eric, and his venture capitalist brother, Mark, offer her a job directing a low-residency school for Christian writers at a motel they’ve inherited on Florida’s Gulf Coast, she can’t come up with a reason to say no.
The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch is born, and liberal, atheist Marianne is soon knee-deep in applications from writers whose political and religious beliefs she has always opposed but whose money she’s glad to take. Janine is a schoolteacher whose heartfelt poems explore the final days of Terri Schiavo’s life. Davonte is a former R&B superstar who hopes to reboot his career with a bestselling tale of excess and redemption. Lorraine and Tom, eccentric writers in need of paying jobs, join the Ranch as instructors.
Mark finds an investor in God’s Word God’s World, a business that develops for-profit schools for the Christian market, but the conditions that come along with their support become increasingly problematic, especially as Marianne grows closer to the students. As unsavory allegations mount, a hurricane bears down on the Ranch, and Marianne is faced with the consequences of her decisions.
With sharp humor and deep empathy, The Gulf is a memorable debut novel in which Belle Boggs plumbs the troubled waters dividing America.
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About the Author
Belle Boggs is the author of The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood and Mattaponi Queen. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Harper's Magazine, Slate, and elsewhere. She teaches at North Carolina State University.
Read an Excerpt
The applications arrived, first in a trickle that Marianne could have read in an afternoon, then all at once, in alarming, mailbox-stuffing sheaves. She spent all day avoiding them, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico instead, or reading the stubby, water-damaged Judith Krantz and Stephen King novels she borrowed from the paneled-wood study. The applications covered every horizontal surface in her room: the oak-veneer bureau, the top of the boxy, old-fashioned television, the round Formica dinette table. They splayed across the second double bed's glossy navy-and-orange bedspread, and blocked the heating and air vents that jutted out below the heavy floral curtains.
They were Christian poems and stories and novels, or rather the novels and stories and poems of Christians, and Marianne could hardly bear to look at them, much less read more than a page or two at a time. First off, a good number of them had been printed on pastel paper, pinks and blues and yellows and creams. Easter egg colors, baby blanket colors, three-pack-of-panties colors, clashing, in their ever-growing stacks, with her room's dark-and-bright seventies decor, the grainy wood furniture and the demented cabbage roses on the upholstery. And they smelled, some like talcum powder and others like a cloying, familiar perfume, many like menthol cigarettes. Together the smells blended into a noxious, headache-inducing sweetness that drove Marianne outside, into the hazy light of Florida's late summer.
The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch — or the Ranch, for short, suggestive of a mix of industry and ease, Republicans and wealth — was a collection of white stucco buildings set back from the road and obscured by a stand of live oaks with twisted gray trunks and dusty, rubbery leaves. It had two long rows of guest rooms, perpendicular to the beach, behind a central building, which had since been turned into the common areas: a room for pool and darts, a library, a caterer's kitchen. These would comprise the school's office and dining hall, its spaces for readings and public functions. There were two large rooms in a single building, and a smaller cabana near the water, that would serve as classrooms. The grounds included a kidney-shaped pool, a sliver of beach, a garden — but groundskeeping, or any other kind of upkeep, had not been a recent priority. Broken things — the pool filter, some of the air-conditioning units, most of the minifridges — had gone unfixed, while everything else took on an air of seaside decay. Screen doors made an uneven seal with the rooms. Giant bugs lurked in corners. Almost every room had a spreading stain on the ceiling, marking the many places where the roof shingles had dislodged. Outside, vicious sand burrs crept onto every footpath, and the statues in the garden, a collection of half-naked nymphs and satyrs thoroughly unsuitable for a Christian writing ranch, groped each other in long tufts of switchgrass.
"This was a bad idea," she told Eric over Skype, her laptop screen angled to show a recently scrubbed fridge and a towering pile of manuscripts. "Here is what you should do: sell this place for the land, then refund all these application fees."
Eric Osborne — her best friend, ex-fiancé, and business partner — had recently abandoned her for the United Arab Emirates, where he had a semester-long gig teaching fiction. Marianne pictured him lazily eating figs and pomegranates, sunning himself next to a pool uncontaminated by algae or raccoons.
Skype's slight delay, made worse by the way the internet here cut in and out, gave Eric's normally calm and reassuring voice an annoyed and impatient edge. "Everything is mortgaged, we need to make money with what we have. Plus." The screen froze for a moment. "Where will you go?"
"Maybe Dubai," she said, squinting at the screen. The room behind Eric's head glowed with an opulent golden light. She could see a bookcase filled with leather-bound volumes, and a sparkling chandelier. What kind of a fool did Eric think she was? "Do you know what I found in that minifridge behind me?"
"Trust me," he said, and the screen froze again. "You wouldn't. Like it here."
"A condom," she said. "Full of sand. I thought it was a penis, and I screamed, and there was no one here to hear me. Also: the applications," she said, putting her eye up close to the camera so that all he could see of her was a big, staring eye. "They are crazy."
"One hundred and twenty-three," she said. "But I haven't gotten the mail today. Or yesterday." She groaned and lay back on the bed, remembering the last time she'd neglected the mail. The mailman had simply left a stack of envelopes on the ground.
"There are bound to be some good ones," he said. "In a sample that large. Some. Interesting ones. Have you read. Them all?"
"Yes," she said. "No." The day before she'd tried to read a few, but stopped after coming across a series of poems that had been conceived, both in manuscript length and creativity of the punishments inflicted upon sinners, as a contemporary Inferno.
"Don't worry about cleaning fridges or fixing stuff. Mark is working on getting some people out for that. Just read, interview the teachers, and I'll be there in December to help you make the final decisions."
"Tell him to get the pool fixed," she said. Eric was never able to talk long, and she pictured him logging off to take his students — demure, kohl-eyed women — on coffee dates where they asked him about their manuscripts, which he would have mistaken for good because they described a world so foreign, and because the women themselves were so pretty. While Marianne scrubbed odiferous minifridges and took notes on poems (poems!) about serial killers.
Just a month ago, Marianne had her own place in Brooklyn, a miraculously cheap railroad apartment on the top floor of a four-story walk-up in the treeless and newly trendy neighborhood of Greenpoint. Not that she cared about trends (and she would have preferred some trees), just the cost of things, which needed to be bargain-basement low. Marianne wasn't cheap; she was just a poet. Really? she thought each year at tax time, totaling the measly grant or teaching payments she'd collected. She felt like someone on a calorie-restricted diet, looking over a list of what she'd eaten in a week: shock and a little pride that she was even still alive.
It was, in its way, the life she'd imagined for herself, growing up in rural Virginia: the sparsely furnished apartment, the neighborhood buzzing with unfamiliar languages (Polish, mostly, but also Russian and Spanish), the clacking of grocery and laundry carts along the street. A job she didn't have to go to every day. Time, hers alone, for writing.
Her mother, an art teacher at the local high school, had fed Marianne this vision when she was very young, with books like This Is New York and Eloise and later with stories of her own time at the New School, studying painting. "Every artist requires a New York experience," Theresa used to say, her soft coastal Virginia accent mixing with a slight Yankee nasality. For Marianne's fifth birthday, she'd given her a heavy glass snow globe with a pewter cityscape, and had pointed out the crowded-together landmarks: the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Central Park. Though Marianne couldn't draw or paint or act or sing, she had loved books and words even before she could read, and was relieved to learn that writing, too, was an art that could provide you some entrance to that fabled city, some reasons for being there.
But those reasons, in her thirty-fourth year, were beginning to dry up like the slowly evaporating water in her snow globe. Her mother died before Marianne made it to the city, and she was no longer so sure she was honoring her memory by living there. Yes, she'd been the recipient of various grants, had published a chapbook, and was working on a full-length manuscript of poems, but her career had not exactly taken off. She took her turns reading to dispiritingly small crowds at coffee shops; at the post–high school level, she could only get hired to teach remedial composition at vocational schools. Unlike her mother, who met Marianne's father, in town for an academic conference, in a seedy East Village bar, she had not found love. Or else — and maybe this was worse — she'd found it and had thrown it away.
Even her neighborhood, never the bustling, glittering, taxi-crowded place of her childhood imagination, was not what it had been when she moved there. She watched its best features disappear: the brutal but effective Russian aestheticians, the Italian bakeries where everything tasted of amaretto, the bocce courts with shuffling men in guayaberas and straw hats. Now androgynous twentysomethings walked their dogs across the bocce courts, whimsical boutiques lined even the dingiest blocks, and you were lucky to get a tepid facial for less than a hundred bucks. And yet the harshness of New York — heavy winter snows, hot summers, human feces on the subway — felt unabated to Marianne. But as long as she had her apartment, she told herself, she could stay.
Then one afternoon, in early August, she got the letter from her landlord that she'd long feared was coming. Her building was being turned into condos, which the current tenants could buy instead of rent. The landlord referred to the condo sales as an exciting opportunity, except in his haste or lack of English fluency, he'd written exiting opportunity. Which, given the anticipated cost of the condos (not mentioned in the letter), Marianne supposed it was.
On this very same day — at the very same moment, in fact, that she was learning of her impending homelessness — Eric called Marianne with his news. She'd come in from a walk in one hundred–degree heat, ripped open and read the letter, and heard the strident, old-fashioned ring of her telephone, four floors above. She ran to get it in case it was her landlord, calling to say that she could stay. She was breathing hard, holding the torn envelope and badly spelled letter in her hands, as she told Eric what it said.
"That's terrible," he agreed. "But you had to have known it was coming." He'd moved away from the city years ago, back to Charlotte, where he'd planned to make the advance on his two-book deal last as long as possible. But he'd gotten married instead — not to Marianne — and bought a ring and a house and had then gotten divorced and found himself teaching English at a high school hard up enough to hire someone without a license. The things that happened to him there — insults hurled like chairs, followed sometimes by actual chairs — eventually led him to sign on to the job in Dubai. He had yet to write the second book.
"I thought I had another year, at least," she said, scanning the letter again. She turned on the box fan in her kitchen window and took in a great, vibrating lungful of air. Would she ever find another apartment with a window that so perfectly fit a box fan? "It says I have to move out by September 15. That's fifteen days into my new lease. I already signed it. I was about to send it back. Doesn't that count — that I signed it?" "This is perfect, actually," Eric was saying over the roar. "Perfect timing."
"Thanks for your concern."
"No, really," he said. He explained things slowly, savoring the story like a person talking himself into something.
In July, a large brown envelope had come in the mail for him. Inside, Eric found a long, handwritten letter rubber-banded atop a thick stack of papers — the deed to a seaside Florida motel his great-aunt Frances closed down years ago.
Eric began to read from his aunt's letter, in a quavering drawl: "I always thought the property could be used for something more creative than a place for beach bums to watch television, which was all the imagination my late husband could muster. I'm too old to take this on, but I can finance it."
"Don't do the voice, Eric. The voice is weird."
He continued: "It would bring me the greatest pleasure to help my nephews begin what I'm sure would be a successful and personally rewarding business venture. She wants us to start a school, Marianne. A school for writing."
"Well, congratulations," Marianne said, peering again at the letter in her own hands. "I don't see how you turn a motel into a school, or what any of this has to do with my situation. Or, for that matter, how you and your brother will possibly run a school together."
Eric's brother, Mark, was an investment banker who'd moved from Charlotte to an apartment downtown, just a few blocks from Ground Zero. Marianne had met him exactly once, at a trader's bar with bras hanging from the ceiling.
"That's the thing, he's just helping with the business side. I told Frances I need help, obviously — teachers and an administrator to start off — and she's willing to invest." He paused. "She's willing to pay your salary. To run it."
"My salary? To run a school?"
"There are some details we have to work out — she wants it to be a place for Christian writers, but that's perfect, isn't it? It's what we always talked about."
"Eric, it's what we always joked about. There's a difference."
"I told her that you had this exact same idea years ago," he said. "That's why she wants you to be the administrator. The director."
This was the business they'd imagined together in grad school, after too many scotches for Eric and too many mojitos for Marianne: a low-residency master of fine arts program for evangelical Christians.
The idea first came to her after she'd gotten a scholarship to a workshop on formal poetry at a little college in Pennsylvania. Tuition was over two thousand dollars, and the workshop had attracted more than a few Christian poets, who'd flown in from all over the country. They'd been good workshop participants, polite and deferential, dutifully taking copious notes about their poems. Though they were better dressed and more formally educated than the evangelical Christians Marianne had grown up with, she recognized the same placid countenances: self-satisfaction masquerading as serenity. During a discussion of process, Marianne had been surprised and a little horrified to discover that many of them wrote more than one poem a day.
That was years ago, and the evangelicals, it seemed, had more and more to say. In Marianne's hometown, religious signs, haphazardly stenciled onto primer-painted plywood, began to appear by the roadside, along with political messages, mostly veiled threats against President Obama. Letters to the editor, which frequently invoked God, now took up two whole pages of their tiny weekly paper. In many parts of the country, it was okay now to question anything put forth by science — evolution, climate change, black holes — as an attack on God. And they had money: you could turn on any television set to see as much.
The motel was on the gulf, Eric was telling her, with a pool and a sculpture garden designed by his aunt. It was near Sarasota, a haven for artists of all kinds. What could be more inspirational to a community of inspirational writers?
"But that was a joke," Marianne said, twisting the coiled black phone cord around her arm. "A joke about taking money from Christians. Which I'm all about, but it was a joke."
"Think about it," Eric said. "You're getting kicked out of your apartment — where else will you go? You wouldn't have to teach."
"I'd have to teach Christians."
"For two weeks at a time!" he said. "And it wouldn't be Christians, necessarily. We could sell it as a place to work on inspirational writing."
"Inspirational writing." Marianne scraped a kitchen chair across the linoleum and sat down near the fan. She'd found the chair on the street and always meant to fix it up — paint the rusty legs a cheerful color, replace the cracked vinyl seat. It was absurd to think that someone with so little follow-through, someone who couldn't even do minor DIY projects or pay her bills on time, would be successful at running a school.
"Right," said Eric, apparently taking her silence for interest. "It's really popular right now, it has been for years. Especially the Christian market. And no one is capitalizing on that. We would be the first."
"Listen to you," she said. "Capitalize. Selling. We didn't go to school to learn to sell our work. I didn't, anyway. Clearly."
"I went to school because it was the best way to avoid ever having a real job, or so I thought," said Eric. "And so did you. You could finish 'The Ugly Bear List'— think about the inspiration you'd have."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Gulf"
Copyright © 2019 Belle Boggs.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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