Small Plates

an excerpt from

Our Secret Life in the Movies

by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

Editor’s Note

When Rebecca, Nevan, and I first set out our goals for Midnight Breakfast, we all agreed that supporting and promoting small presses and other independent literary institutions would be a central tenet of the magazine. Thus Small Plates was born, but really we started putting this tenet into practice with Lauren O’Neal’s Issue Zero interview with A Strange Object cofounder, Callie Collins. A Strange Object was still very new on the scene, but they’d already experienced some great success with their debut book, Kelly Luce’s incredible short story collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail; and were gearing up for the release of their second, Nicholas Grider’s haunting Misadventure. It was an impressively assured one-two punch that immediately established Collins and cofounder Jill Meyers as publishers of innovative, high-caliber fiction. Our Secret Life in the Movies, their third book, keeps that reputation alive and well.

Our Secret Life in the Movies is a collection of short fiction by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree with a pop culture twist: the book was born out of the authors’ scheme to watch every film in the Criterion Collection’s catalog and to chase each film with a story apiece. The stories carry their cinematic inspirations buried deep in their DNA, but, like the lost children that occupy the center of so many of them, they reject the histories of their ancestors to take on a shared life of their own. The pattern that emerges is one of growing up in blue-collar America in the 80s, when the best escape from the terror of life that boys like McGriff and Tyree had was a trip to the video store.


McGriff and Tyree are both masters of the flash form, and some stories, like the two below, are only a paragraph long. Even in those paragraphs, McGriff and Tyree conjure whole worlds, whole histories into being. I inhaled this book. I relished each gem of a story and marvelled at the multi-faceted prism that was being revealed to me as I progressed, but I simply couldn’t stop. Every page held a new sentence that made me shake my head in jealousy. Every story ended far sooner than I wanted but also at exactly the right moment. And so I found myself jolted back to reality as my train pulled into my stop, wondering every time if I could just read one more page before the doors cut me off.

— F. Taylor Pavlik, Senior Editor


BOXCARS

\ After George Washington by David Gordon Green \

Now, the railroad tracks are what I notice most when I return home. Not the tracks themselves, but the absences they carry — no more engines, engineers, noises of boxcars slamming into each other, the angle of early winter light throwing steel shadows across the bay. As a kid, leaning my head against the sweaty passenger-side window of my father’s half-ton Chevy, my brothers strapped down under the same seat belt, I would look at the boxcars lined up in the rail yard and think of them as elephants, trunk to tail, making their way through the ancient landscape, the bay like a mirage trailing at their sides. The hitching together, heaving through the entire county full of chips, logs, beams from Northwest Bridge Company, the stories that belonged to men and women whose bodies were occasionally freighted from one end of the state to another. Bodies without work permits, addicts, drunk high-school kids come down from the valley to slum through the rhythms of the rural American night. Dead bodies, dumped bodies, bodies alive with fear, bodies of elation, bodies that should have known better. A one-day notice in the Bay River Gazette, then the ten-mile stretch of industrial waterfront was closed. The dumb fact of it — the money dried up, the railway shut down, and grass, miles and miles of grass, began to push its way through gravel and decades of herbicide, push and push, proud shadows grown tall and swaying in the wind. The exact weight of what used to be, what you knew to be true, had come to rely on, pound per pound and ton per ton, translated into a negative space of an equal weight sinking into your chest, like a pylon pushed through layers of muck and silt down into the bedrock. In the paper, on AM talk radio, at the State Capitol, the regulators blamed the deregulators, the state the county, the county the wood beams collapsing in the rail tunnels, the loggers the environmentalists, and the end-of-days folks blamed our perpetual slipping from grace.


SELF-ASSEMBLY

\ After George Washington by David Gordon Green \

For my birthday, my little brother gave me three dead batteries, which he had wrapped up in a mess of newspaper and masking tape. My grandfather gave me a self-assembly kit for making a small telescope. When I tried to put the telescope together without adult supervision, I managed to smear glue on the reflector. Everything looked like a greasy thumbprint on a windshield. The first time I used the telescope during the day, I realized the world was upside-down because I had screwed something in the wrong way around. I used the telescope to spy on my brother as he played with his friends down by the tracks. The inverted image made them float as they passed the soccer ball through the dandelions in the beaten-down parking lot or put their ears to the rails to feel the vibrations before the booming advent of a train. They picked and ate the wild rhubarb that grew along the easement. I was a loner who liked to watch discarded bottles shatter or spin away from the freight cars as they passed. I thought about tying the telescope to the tracks. I started to wonder what would derail a train. A chunk of concrete? Our gas-filled lawnmower? A human body? I snuck through our neighbor’s marijuana patch, sniffing the plants that towered over me. I started setting fires, burning little piles of dead leaves, old newspapers, shreds of pornography discovered in an abandoned trailer. A witch with a bulbous shifting face sometimes drifted in the trees outside my bedroom window at night, just watching me. I would aim my telescope past her and watch the surface of the moon, which looked strangely like the skin of a burn victim. The witch didn’t look sinister, but I got the sense that she was a little bit concerned about the way I was growing up.

Michael McGriff’s books include Home Burial, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection; Dismantling the Hills; a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola; and an edition of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire. He is a former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and his work has been recognized with a Lannan Literary Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

J. M. Tyree is the author of BFI Film Classics: Salesman, and the coauthor, with Ben Walters, of BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski, from the British Film Institute. His writing on cinema has been published in Sight & Sound, The Believer, and Film Quarterly. A former Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, he currently works as an associate editor of New England Review.

These stories are excerpted from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree and appear courtesy of A Strange Object.

Interested in having an excerpt from your upcoming book featured on Small Plates? Please feel free to drop us a line at rebecca@midnightbreakfast.com and let us know!

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