Keith Ridgway: “Goo Book”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Keith Ridgway’s “Goo Book” was first published in The New Yorker‘s April 11, 2011, issue.

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Over at Asylum, John Self has praised Keith Ridgway: “When I rule the world, the list of authors everyone must read (yes, you’d better start taking notes) will include Keith Ridgway.”  I’m sorry to say that, in this regard, I haven’t shown myself a worthy subject to John Self.  However, I was pleased to hear that Ridgway would be publishing a short story in The New Yorker, a portion of a new book, if sources are correct.

I came to this story with some thematic expectations, then, and was pleased but not surprised to see them come up.  I was not, however, prepared for the rest of the story, and I’m still trying to decide just how I felt about it as a whole. 

When the story begins, we meet our protagonist with some bruises.  He does not like violence, but something has happened.  We soon learn that he engages in petty theft, picking pockets the classic way.  We also see he has a bit of heart when he asks a young boy to return something of obvious sentimental value to his victim (but he kept the money). 

Then we meet someone special to him:

She was sitting up, dazed, staring at the water.  He kissed her and stroked her back, but she was too hot and she shrugged him off.  She picked up her things and they walked toward the road, and he hailed a taxi and they went home and she got in the shower and he gave her a few minutes, then he climbed in beside her and they stood together in the cool water and they held each other skin to skin, and he was the happiest he had ever been, again, and he had no worries, none, and he worried about that.

I wouldn’t have expected this petty criminal to be sentimental himself.  However, one day when his girlfriend is out, he stumbles upon one of her notebooks and, on a whim, writes some things down for her.

He left the notebook where it was, and he didn’t mention it.  And it wasn’t until about a week later that he noticed it again, and he flicked it open, and he saw his lines followed by lines from her.  She’d written words that she had never said.  He sat down.  He read them over and over for a long time.  Then he wrote a paragraph for her to find.

This back-and-forth is tender.  Except on rare occasions, they don’t speak of the notebook.  And what they write in the notebook are things they never say to each other.  Ridgway develops the notebook and the characters’ attachment to it excellently.

The story progresses in snippets.  Here there’s a bit with his girlfriend, and there we find out a bit more about his secret life, which is about to become much more secret when he gets a job as a driver and is expected to be deaf, dumb, and mute.  He can’t quite bring himself to believe that the people he’s involved with are dangerous.  Once, after they speak with a pronounced degree of toughness, he thinks “that was probably for his benefit.  That they’d done nothing other than have a chat or maybe shout at someone a bit.”

Soon, there is another element.  Two police officers find him and let him know they have tapes of his petty crimes.  They’ll be quiet about it; they simply want reports about his drives.  He won’t have to do anything.  One of the officers is named Hawthorn, and something secret begins to develop between them:

They looked at each other.  Hawthorn half blushed, up near the tops of his cheeks, like some invisible thing had just flicked his fingernails against his face.  He looked away.

Nothing happened for a while.  Then Hawthorn looked back at him.  Held his eyes.  For exactly the amount of time it takes for a look like that to become a look like that.

All of these lines develop clearly and split the protagonist as the tension (or paranoia) builds.

His mind was dividing.  Parts of it were roped off.  There were things he could say.  There were things he could not say but could write in the book.  And now there were things he could neither say nor write but only think, and they pressed up against the others like they wanted a fight.

Though the story comes to a nice end, in fact a very satisfying end, I’m still not sure I was entirely satisfied with the whole thing.  My suspicion is that any disappointment I feel is due to the nature of the excerpt.  What we have here is a small piece of a greater story, and I couldn’t help but leave feeling like it was missing some of that greater story to be, in and of itself, complete.

I’m interested, for sure.  Ridgway had me from beginning to end, and, though the style of the writing seemed to change (impressionistic beginning, run-on sentences in the middle, more conventional end), it all felt controlled and successful.  I hope that the full novel arrives someday.  At the very least I can say that, based on the promise of this piece, life under John Self’s rule might not be so bad.

15 thoughts on “Keith Ridgway: “Goo Book””

  1. Shelley says:

    Tender is good.

  2. Betsy says:

    When you say that Ridgway had you from beginning to end, Trevor, I have to agree. And also with Shelley – tender is good.

  3. I did read The Long Falling and quite liked it, although not as much as John Self did. So, yes, I am on the Ridgway bandwagon.

    And I very much appreciate this review, albeit for negative reasons. I have every intention of reading Ridgway’s next work, but I think excerpts should be identified as such (and I think your inclination ragarding this one is correct). So I think I will avoid reading it. I think it is time for the New Yorker to ‘fess up on excerpts and not present them as short stories –yes, I admit they now call them “fiction” not short stories, but lets at least give the reader the full picture. I have long been a fan, but I am starting to think that the “fiction” section is now more devoted to promotion than to the short story genre. Salinger, Cheever, Barthelme and many others were started here — now it seems to be a Distant Early Warning on forthcoming (frankly, n0t-very-good) novels. I am pretty sure that William Maxwell would be spinning in his grave.

    And, having admitted on my own blog that I am at risk of being the Curmdugeon from Canada, this may be the first real expression.

    And here is my bigger gripe, confirmed, I think, by looking at what they have published this year. New voices? Almost non-existent. Excerpts? Only too many.

    The last bastion of the American short story may be sinking as we read.

  4. John Self says:

    Fascinated to see your response to this, Trevor. I haven’t read it yet as I don’t have a sub to the New Yorker and the paper version will probably not land here until next week, but I am of course looking forward to it.

    In relation to our favourite curmudgeon’s comment, I should clarify that my understanding is that ‘Goo Book’ both is and is not an excerpt. It stands alone, but is part of a greater whole – a book (novel? collection of stories?) about the police officer Hawthorn and his colleague Child. This is discussed by Ridgway in the accompanying New Yorker Book Bench piece about his story.

    [B]y choosing to write about policemen and the cases they are working on, and then by not providing the procedural or (usually) a resolution, I do end up subverting, or disappointing, expectations. The two detectives are in all of the stories, though often as minor characters. I was interested in writing about story itself really. About our addiction to narrative. We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.

    So in that sense the feeling that Trevor gets of something missing is, I think, both inevitable and intentional.

    You can read another part of the book, ‘Rothko Eggs’ in the latest edition of Zoetrope All-Story magazine. The version on the Zoetrope site is poorly formatted with tiny crushed type, so I’ve used the Readability plug-in to produce a more pleasing format here.

  5. John Self says:

    Oh dear, and speaking of poor formatting, I have been hoist by my own petard. Do the needful, Trevor, eh?

  6. Trevor says:

    You bet, John, just after I look up “hoist by my own petard.” Is that a reference I’m missing?

  7. Trevor says:

    Ah, the only Shakespeare play I’ve read over five times and seen over a dozen. When I was learning Portuguese I would hear what was to me a new phrase, ask someone what it meant, and then suddenly hear it all over the place, realizing my brain just skipped over it the thousands of times I’d heard it before. Now I won’t forget and will get that much more from Hamlet. Your world rule, John, is looking better and better.

  8. Trevor says:

    Now, to respond to the substance above:

    I’m glad to get a better sense of what the final product is, and that explains the role of Hawthorn and Child, which was certainly one of the aspects that lent a richness to the story but that ultimately felt like it was missing something.

    As for The New Yorker publishing excerpts, and apparently mainly to promote, never was I more perturbed by this than when they published an awful nit of David Eggers’ attempt to write out Wherethe Wild Things Are (and ended up reducing its wonder). It was just poor and certainly there as a type of sneak peak or promotion.

    It is disappointing, and surely we’re missing some phenomenal short story writers to make room for novelists who don’t know how to write short stories (I am not putting Ridgway in this basket). But I’m not sure where Maxwell would stand, Kevin. An excerpt from So Long, See You Tomorrow was published first I’m the magazine.

  9. Yoicks. I’ve been hoisted on my own petard on the Maxwell reference.

  10. Thomas G says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Kevin. I think Deborah Treisman (and the other fiction editors at TNY) have really don’t an awful job the past several years–with a few exceptions, of course. Can’t wait ’til she’s out of there.

  11. Thomas G says:

    *really done

  12. John Self says:

    novelists who don’t know how to write short stories (I am not putting Ridgway in this basket)

    Indeed not! In fact Ridgway might be close to the opposite. He has published one book of stories, a novella (a long story), a novel which began as a short story (Animals, which might be the one of his that would appeal most to you, Trevor), and now these stories-as-part-of-something-bigger. And there’s his novel The Parts, whose very title suggests lots of elements.

  13. Betsy says:

    Thanks for the link to “Rothko’s Eggs”, John. I really enjoyed it. The story’s exploration of a teenager’s intent interest in abstract art v realistic art was a fascinating surround for her equally intent awareness of all she doesn’t know about the truth of her family and friends. It is as if she is drawn to abstract art’s empty spaces for the way it (safely) mirrors her (painful) reality. Reading this story together with “Goo Book”, I was struck with how I was drawn to “Goo Book” precisely because I don’t know what the couple in this story had actually written in their notebook – except that it was all the things they couldn’t say aloud. What was in that good book? I mull that over and over – the possibility of such a book and what it would say. These two Ridgway stories both have a heartbeat.

    On the topic of whether or not excerpts work as stories: I struggled with the Wallace “story” some weeks ago. To compare the way the two authors struck me in these two excerpts: Wallace’s piece struck me as more puzzle than pulse, whereas Ridgway’s had that heartbeat. Part of the heartbeat is Ridgway’s exploration of that very real gap between what we know and what we don’t know about the people around us, and how keen our yearning to truly know them. So the one author really worked for me, and the other one was a struggle. I question, ultimately, whether it is the type of courage they employ – Wallace is constructing something logical out of the nightmare that life can be; Ridgway is riding a wave. These are two completely different reading experiences, despite both being excerpts. That Ridgway’s piece is actually a part of a story collection is a telling piece. Trevor, that Wallace’s “story” was more your characterized “sneak peak or promotion” seems very real. Ridgway’s stories just captured me, however, sneak peak or not.

  14. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on “Rothko’s Eggs,” Betsy. I have started that story, but I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet. I’m glad to hear it is also strong!

    As for the Wallace story, I agree. Though, I must fess up: I have the new Wallace book, and I’m looking forward to delving in, complete or not.

  15. Tim says:

    Glad to see so much discussion of this story. I found it enjoyable just for the story, but also in the exploration of character. As Trevor mentioned, the driver is supposed to be deaf, blind, and mute. Every job he does requires being in the background whether as the driver, a pickpocket, or a police informant. He’s a minor character thrust onto stage. He has no real ambition besides being with his girlfriend and making some money. What he offers the reader is a view into Mishazzo and the detectives. In some ways it reminds me of the Savage Detectives by Bolaño, with most of the book being from the point of view of minor characters talking about Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima.

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