Should you ever find yourself in Scheherazade’s predicament of having to tell a great tale every night or be killed the next day, don’t despair. Instead grab a copy of Michael Hopping’s new collection of short stories and you’ll be assured at least twelve more days of life. All but one of its stories are enchantingly great, with four wondrous masterpieces scattered throughout.
The book’s title, MacTiernan’s Bottle, is also the name of the first masterpiece. This story will captivate every WNC artist who’s ever worked odd jobs to support their creativity, or agonized over the heartbreaking question of whether to give up their art or not. The character Jewett, a frustrated-artist-turned-fresco expert, arrogantly answers that question: “For an artist in thrall to vision, asking `Why Bother?’ is gratuitous self-flagellation.”
Filled with such biting insights, the story is ostensibly about a rural WNC, resort-renovating crew who stumble upon an immense, portentous fresco hidden behind a wall. They obsess about it at the resorts pub whose denizens are “members of the cohort whose TV dreams of free love were screwed by Ronald Reagan and the threat of HIV. Instead of joining the capitalist horde, they and their friends had boarded counterculture evac helicopters, carrying little else with them into exile but bongs, cynicism and the consolation of classic rock.” The story gallops trough many layers of such high-caliber analysis, much of which is about the various barriers an artist has to scale.
From Guerilla Cooking to Vasectomized Valor
Part of the genius of Hopping’s book is the astounding range of narrators, plots and settings. After “MacTiernan,” he whisks us to a Chekhovian, Russian winter through the eyes of a young peasant woman being courted and criticized by a legless, aristocratic revolutionary. Then, in “Every Curry Tells a Story,” we enjoy the finer points of make-do cooking as a vehicle for exploring a young girl’s love-hate relationship with her Dad. Her anger arises from his commutes between her mother in their Charlottesville, Va. home, and his business — and wife — in Belgium.
Back in the WNC mountains, “Grass” is a ten-pager stuffed to overflowing with poignant insights about a strained, but happy-enough marriage made palatable by hilarious encounters with a cantankerous lawnmower. Narrator Ray lessens many Mom’s qualms about their children’s Internet addiction when he notes that his son’s online cruising “may be safer than the `34 Terralane hotrod I bought after I got out [of the Navy]. He’s less likely to sober up and find himself married.” Ray’s wife Althea also narrates and she cuts through the mower humor with painful gems like: “I’ve been bargaining down ever since [Ray’s affair]. At some point, everyday life takes on a hospice atmosphere.”
The second masterpiece is entitled “Sphinx.” It spins a heart-healing cocoon out of a child’s brutal parents, a pair of sphinx-moth caterpillars and the world of freedom beyond good and evil. The resilient young narrator redeems the horror with spunky resistance to diabolical punishments that are usually violent, but also include ordeals such as having to copy the book of Genesis long hand. When the ninth chapter included Noah celebrating “the end of the flood by getting drunk and naked in his tent … Dad couldn’t explain it and commuted my sentence.” But then comes the devastating realization: “The longer I thought about it the more frightened I became of the people who called themselves my parents … [They were] ready as any English warden to strike me from the rolls … Strange to say, the flash of understanding brought with it a sense of calm.”
[A disclaimer: I, too, am a fiction writer, and at this point in Hopping’s book I was fighting jealousy over how great a storyteller he is. I’ve vaguely known Hopping over the years as an affable, ex-psychiatrist turned struggling writer and hyper-activist. I also had tried to read his first novel, Meet Me In Paradise, but was either tired of religious farces at the time, not intrigued, or feeling competitive. So I was not predisposed to appreciate. But now I had to admit that Hopping’s command of engaging, highly-original plot and convincing, sparkling dialogue, was magnificent. And he could flow from abstract stream-of-consciousness to 3-D high-tension drama with a dexterity I may never attain. But at the same time I was itching to start writing a story myself, inspired by the obvious joy with which Hopping presents the many faces of the human condition.]
The third masterpiece, “Complications,” is comic genius about struggling couple running the Ritz K-9 Spa whose wife has contracted — instead of Sartre’s God longings — a “baby-shaped hole” in her soul. Her poor husband is absolutely opposed to having kids, but he tries to save the marriage by getting a vasectomy on the sly. My stifling laughter erupted into raging laughter when he decides a veterinarian would be the cheapest choice for the operation. Yet Hopping is still able to get political zingers such as: “Overpopulation isn’t confined to dogs and cats. Excess people wind up in cages too. We just don’t euthanize them.”
Art? Or Secretions of Scar Tissue
The one story that wouldn’t have saved Scheherazade’s life from King Shahryar’s deadly criticism is the Steinbeckian “Thirty-Eighth Parallel.” It’s a severe downer about a drunken Korean War veteran already drowned by military morality, now freezing to death in the decadent U.S., all while enduring horrifying hallucinations. It does relentlessly remind us that war is not hazy, honorable heck but pure, brutal hell.
I’d also not tell Shahryar the ending to “I’ll run you to the sea, she said.” It turns an otherwise ecstatic, erotic mountain hike into “gratuitous, self-flagellation.” And though “Relic of War” is mainly Hopping showing off by proving he can entertain you while stuck in a wet, cold dark cave, it would still buy you another day of life.
In addition to the short stories, Hopping peeks from behind the vast variety of masks to reveal his intensely erudite intellect in an afterward essay: “Literature as Magic Theatre.” From Luther to Buber, Nietzsche to Sontag, he thrillingly traces humanity’s spiritual journey from “pantheism to pan-atheism.” This journey has involved the “revenge of the intellect on art,” and our drive to “distrust mysteries and reward solutions … with the visceral jolts of satisfaction we call epiphanies.” However, never fear, Hopping catapults to the defense of spiritual mystery and numinous meaning by claiming we “are the absolute monarchs of our [personal] subjective universe,” as well as the democratic dictators of the perceptual models necessary for societal transcendence. While brilliant, the essay could have used some of Gertrude Stein’s spartan editing to make this intellectual rose more accessibly fragrant.
But these criticisms are mere quibbles that could only anger a myopic misanthropist. Hopping gleefully escapes the bloody nihilism of “The Thirty-Eighth Parallel” into the cyber- and airspace of the next story, “Avatar.” It’s a hilarious and gorgeous flirtation between an environmentalist who fantasizes summoning “an actual manatee to court” and an ICU nurse whose “customers dined intravenously.” “Snakebit” is catnip for all those who’ve feared WNC’s timber rattlers, while “Music of the Spheres” is a dramedy masterpiece. It’s about the “Kop a Platitude” greeting-card store whose owners plan to tap the “soon-to-be deceased market.”
The story combines quantum physics, the dying of a sexy ex-husband and nonattached romantic love. Kate, the woman receiving this unconditional love realizes that “yoga, meditation and assorted pagan practices had not prepared her for a lover who proclaimed such equanimity. It sounded beatific but she suspected it was bullshit.” Whereas beatific Brad makes a convincing case that it’s real, claiming: “He realized that the communion he craved with life was already his; only a straightjacket of beliefs kept him from knowing it. The more beliefs he suspended, the richer his experience.” And: “What we are to each other may be the only force strong enough to raise existence above the level of intolerable cruelty.” The story almost has as much depth as the title story …
…but not quite. As McTiernan’s Bottle lazily and electrically proceeds, we crash through yet another of its many layers, discovering that the hidden fresco was painted by a major artist. This leads to the renowned art critic who, before deconstructing Klimt, reminisces about that great Mexican fresco painter: “As an aspiring young artist … I sneaked into the RCA Building to watch Diego Rivera paint “Man at the Crossroads.” I treasure the fragment I salvaged when Nelson Rockefeller had it destroyed. Rivera had incomparable talent but I came to hate his guts. The unauthorized addition of Lenin’s portrait to the piece was, in fact, the communist slap Rockefeller took it for. An act of irresponsible flamboyance.”
And though our exploration of the found fresco is scarily breathtaking, the climax of the story comes during a visit to the deep woods and the house of the work crew’s aging hippie electrician, Thang. He has “a high performance mind with a fried guidance system.” His never-completed art project included his whimsical “earthship” home that has been thirty years in the re-making. Says the narrator brutally: “It isn’t chic to interpret his rockpile as a monumental secretion of scar tissue, but I do.” Launching me into yet another revelry about attending sometimes brilliant, sometimes painfully therapeutic, poetry slams. Then to questioning all my writing efforts as mere acting-out — as endless self-therapy.
But McTiernan’s therapist creator has definitely completed his own self-analysis. Far from acting out, his short stories are great gifts to American literature by a mature mind and writer. Perhaps it’s time for Asheville’s short-story master O’Henry to scoot over and make room for M. Hopping.
Bill Branyon is a freelance historian whose latest book is Liberating Liberals: a synthesis of Nietzsche and Jesus, Vonnegut and Marx (Groucho, not Karl).