The only sound in the room was the mellifluous lilt of Miss Pinot’s voice as she read to her second grade class. As we listened, we drifted through a late afternoon languor that would soon give way to leaving noises and a clanging dismissal bell. I can’t remember anything that the Bobbsey Twins ever did, but I can still feel the sense of immersion, of rapt concentration and leaning-forward intensity, a longing to live inside the entangling contours of story.
Growing up in a row house neighborhood in Glenolden, Delaware Country, not far from the Philadelphia city line, the second son in a Catholic family with a strong blue collar heritage, I played sports, had friends, went to school, watched television and stayed out of trouble. My wonderful parents raised me and my ten siblings—six sisters and four brothers—on my father’s salary as a machinist at the Atlantic Richfield oil refinery in South Philly. Living in a crowded house, I learned basic values associated with sharing, caring, bathroom lines and noisy suppertimes. During these growing-up years, I also had a refuge, a bubble inside the commotion of our common life, the space in my mind where I went to read, not to get away but to get to. What I first remember feeling in Miss Pinot’s classroom later fed my hunger for a continuing stream of Hardy Boy mystery books and brought me back, over and over, to a cavalcade of exciting lawless doings—frequently involving the un-bloody crime of smuggling—taking place within and beyond the not-so-idyllic environs of Bayport. I was right there when Frank or Joe Hardy got lost in a cave, trapped in a decaying house, marooned in the wilderness, or chased by burly thugs toward the dock where—hopefully—our launch—the Sleuth—still lay moored. There were also the high-tech shenanigans of Tom Swift, the twisted, What-Me-Worry mayhem of Mad magazine and even some cross-over reconnoiters into the land of Nancy Drew mysteries. I knew what day of the month Superman, Batman, The Justice League of America and The Fantastic Four comic books hit the newsstand in the Cedarwood Shopping Center pharmacy.
By the time I got to college, my love for immersive reading led me to wonder if I could make a living from reading. Consequently, I became an English major at Notre Dame and an English graduate student at UConn. Eventually, I had to stop taking courses and not only get through written and oral exams but also a doctoral dissertation. After I received my degree, I got lucky and found good teaching jobs, first at Marquette University, where the Milwaukee winters out-froze anything South Bend or Storrs had to offer, and then four years later at Salisbury State on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I got closer to family and Philadelphia, where I could drive a half hour to the Ocean City beach, and where I could experience mostly temperate winters. Coming to Salisbury was an especially fortunate move. It was there I met my wife. During a life-bending, six-year stretch, we welcomed our four children—a daughter and three sons—into the house.
I am currently professor of English at Salisbury University, where I teach American literature, the short story and novel as genres, and literary writing. My work as a teacher and writer derives, at root, from the deep, meditative pleasures that come from the act of re-reading and the associated (less pleasurable) energies that impel scholarly research and writing. Over the years, I have published scholarly essays, chapters and reviews mostly concerning writers I love to re-read—among them Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Washington Harris and J. D. Salinger. I have published scholarly books on Melville’s philosophical adaptations in his novels and on the evolution of Salinger’s short fiction. For the past fifteen or so years, I have been working on a book on the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown.
Among the many benefits of university teaching is the built-in, always-there opportunity to step beyond the boundaries of one’s area of specialization and try other things. What can go wrong? As a sort of counterweight to the hefty pull of scholarly research and writing (and to some extent as a spiritual, therapeutic antidote), I got into writing short stories and then I got into writing literary essays in the creative non-fiction mode. My stories were either made up entirely or were linked in image, action or character with something I did, saw or heard about. One story came out of a partially blurry old family photo I saw in the hallway of a house I stayed at while in Jacksonville to give a lecture at the University of North Florida on anarchistic humor. One story reconceives Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” as a trolley ride into the wilds of West Philadelphia. Another story explores fictive intensities of the sort one finds in Flannery O’Connor’s work, where the everyday and the horrific come into collision. In my literary essays, I tend to work from my life, from memoir moments that can be reconceived in narrative forms that often lead to discursive explorations involving issues of related cultural import. Among these published pieces are essays on scars, on the dynamics of re-reading, on the place that is Hell, on the tribal roots of the sports culture, on my experiences with Catholic grade school nuns, and on how and why the work of J. K. Rowling and her seven Harry Potter novels is superior to the genius of Marcel Proust and his seven exasperating novels that make up Remembrance of Things Past. I am currently trying to write a literary essay in the memoir mode on my experiences reading the Hardy Boys. If completed, the essay will be called “Back to Bayport.”
I am being tentative regarding “Back to Bayport” because I have found that my stories and essays usually take a long time to finish, partly because I am in no hurry and have other things going on, partly because I find that first drafts are very difficult to complete. I have started stories and essays that did not make it through a completed first draft, stories and essays that have lost steam and simply evaporated. Nevertheless, I have found that the slow first draft, however frustrating, remains a necessary element of an emergent compositional process that opens the way to the deep pleasures of revision. I take a lot of time with revision. What’s the hurry? Fortunately, the hardest work is done. There remains the invigorating problem of figuring out what needs to stay, what needs to be added, and what needs to go, of finding the right word instead of the almost right word, of working out the best inflections and the most suitable syntactic rhythms. As a writer, my overriding purpose is to make my scholarly pieces, stories and literary essays as fully realized as possible, so that when these pieces are finished, they will in their own ways exemplify the best I can do and be as ready as possible to meet the just demands of receptive, companionable readers.
To this end, The Critical List will be published by Regal House Publishing. The stories in this collection, originally appearing separately in literary magazines, will now have an ordered, sequenced second life. These twelve stories depict people ensnared in action-centered narratives. Some stories dramatize conflicted moments for people on the edge—a jailbird under house arrest; a would-be teenage parricide; a former philosophy professor, now homeless, mind blown, living in the subway underground. Some stories have an offbeat quality. In three stories, there may, or may not, be ghosts interacting with people. All stories are about real-life people, who are caught up in unusual circumstances and seeking repose, clarification or some new direction.