The object of art is not to reproduce reality but to create a reality of the same intensity.

—Alberto Giacometti

I see every image, all the time, in a shifting way, and almost in shifting sequences, so that one can take it from more or less what is called ordinary figuration to a very, very far point.

—Francis Bacon

1.         And what credit is owed the thirsty mare, she of sixteen hands and nearly 1400 pounds, the largest, most imposing beast in the entourage, so broad across her ribs, in fact, that Colonel Weiss, organizer of the expedition, had offered a horse from his own stable, one slimmer and more agile and better suited to the steep climb out of the valley?[1]

            The colonel’s offer merited consideration.  After all, the man had served as quartermaster general for the patriot forces during the War of Independence, and he knew better than any white man the rocky trails they climbed and the tangle of branches and vines intent on erasing it.  This was Saint Anthony’s Wilderness, as the expeditioners knew it, though the Lenape riding out in front called it Towamensing, The Wild Place

            Their purposes were several.  The entourage included three of the governor’s geologists, for instance, along to map the overgrown hills, and several industrialists hoping for harvestable oak and walnut they could send downriver, to Philadelphia, to be carved into lumber and sold to the men responsible for the capital city’s sudden expansion. 

            Ginter’s inclusion was a kindness on the colonel’s part, an invitation extended to a simple miller for whom a bountiful autumn harvest meant an opportunity to expand.  A second mill was his ambition.  He had acquired the land and set to building.  Out here in Saint Anthony’s he hoped to find the conglomerate rock of quartz embedded in siliceous cement that made the best millstones. 

            He could not but feel himself small among such eminences, a nothing, a bumpkin.  Only the mare, glisteningly black, the immensity of its power visible in the carved lines of its musculature, in the fluid choreography of bunch and slip, suggested a case for his inclusion (and served, in turn, as the unspoken grounds on which Ginter refused the colonel’s nimbler mount).  “A thing like that,” the Colonel had told him an hour before Ginter paid and led the mare home.  They were leaning against the breeder’s fence and watching her graze apart from the dozen or so available alternatives when the colonel said, “A thing like that, with so much power inside it—a thing like that bears miserable depths.  If you don’t agree to purchase, you will never suffer what’s conceals.” 

            And so, when the mare, in accordance with her own stubborn will, abandoned the entourage for a swift-flowing stream, Ginter did not resist (and risk a comic display of futility).  Rather, he squared up his posture and arranged his features into an expression of seriousness, of calm, purposeful mastery[2].  After all, the mare sought only to slake her thirst, after which, according to her habit, she would hurry to rejoin the others on the trail. 

            The delay was Ginter’s.  There, a dozen yards from the mare’s chosen drinking spot, like an enormous bleached animal hunched on the riverbank, sat a boulder that, on its south face, was sun-reflective with quartz. 

            Ginter dismounted and examined the rock to find it was so:  an hour out of the valley and his mission was accomplished.  This was the rock he’d sought, in a boulder perhaps greater than his needs.  Although—and the feeling of satisfaction collapsed within him—he would have to beg another favor from the Colonel, a team of men and horses to bear the boulder back down the path. 

That is, unless the bed of black rock emerging from the forest edge to spread (evidently, though broad stretches were covered over by rock and gravel and moss) the width and length of the riverbank, the same bed of black rock upon which the boulder seemed to rest, confirmed rumors of hard coal embedded in this mountainside, in which case the Colonel’s assistance might be ledgered not as charity but investment.[3] [4]

2.         Anthracite (variously known as hard coal, crow coal, coffee coal, Kilkenny coal, black diamond coal) differs from bituminous coal in its hardness (2.75 – 3 on the Mohs scale), its relative density (1.2 – 1.4), and its greater purity, comprised as it is of a higher degree of fixed carbon and significantly less volatile matter, the result of which is an appreciably cleaner burn, that is, one productive of less visible smoke and airborne soot. 

            The first shipment of commercially mined anthracite was sent down the Susquehanna River in 1808, eighteen years after Ginter and Weiss set their operation into motion and the same year in which a newly designed open grate fireplace made anthracite viable for home heating as well as industrial use.  In the months and years that followed, deposits were found up and down the Susquehanna Valley, and a number of rival enterprises were established.  By 1917, Pennsylvania mines were producing 100 million tons a year, and new technologies addressed anthracite’s most difficult (and most market-inhibiting) problem, the difficulty of igniting it, so that in rapidly increasing numbers American smelting furnaces had begun to use anthracite exclusively.   

Consider the economic impact.  Case:  the city of Scranton, in 1840 a landscape of farmers’ fields and grange halls organized as the borough of Skunk Hallow.  By 1880 it was host to a population of 154,000, and was counted among the most modern of American cities.

While the most productive mining operations were located to the north and south, Scranton became the anthracite region’s transportation hub, the center of a crisscrossing network of rail lines[5] over which coal was shipped across the Northeast, as far west as Cleveland, and south all the way to Charleston.  It also became home to one of the posher shopping districts in the nation, the seven north-to-south blocks comprising Lackawanna Avenue.  Manhattan’s affluent, shielded by parasols and wide-brimmed hats, rode the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad to spend an afternoon shopping Scranton’s boutiques and then the evening dining at the Casey Inn Hotel, where as late as 1937 one ate with real silverware and dabbed one’s lips with real linen napkins, a Depression era rarity even in New York.  The city’s aura of prosperity and gentility, indeed of the arrival of the great American future, was expressed in Scranton’s moniker, The Electric City, a self-designation celebrating the first-in-the-nation citywide installation of electric street lights, a project that began in 1880, just months after Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for his improved electric light bulbs, and, further, in the image of Phoebe Snow, the fictional young New York socialite created by Earnest Elmo Calkins to advertise the benefits of traveling on the Lackawanna line.  Her delicate features and lacy white dress became one of the most recognizable advertising mascots at the late 19th century.  She knew as well as anyone that travel by rail was notoriously hard on a passenger’s clothes, soiling them with soot that bellowed out from engines powered by bituminous coal.  But anthracite’s clean burn permitted Phoebe to dress entirely in white as she rode into or out of Scranton: 

Says Phoebe Snow:

“The miners know

That to hard coal

my fame I owe.

For my delight

In wearing white

Is due alone

To anthracite.”

3.         The post-meridian whistle heaves an airy sigh, and at once the men slide down from chutes angled steep into the rock.  They gather from the floor what belongs to them—pick, shovel, lunch pail; shed layers of wool and heavy denim; drill, powder, fuses—and climb the gangplank to the cage that hauls them back to the surface.  There, the sunlight (deceptively bright through a velvety overcast) pains their eyes, and they are disgorged onto the rutted streets.[6]

In all, two hundred or more in loose bands of eight or ten brought up together in the cage.  Stiff-backed, stone-legged, they come down from the breakers and past the first of the company houses.[7]  Coal dust has abraded their throats and clogged their sinuses.  It is caked in the creases of their necks and joints and is gritty between their teeth.  It blackens their faces so completely that the appearance of color—the white of their eyes, for instance, or a tongue emerging to wet dry lips, or the lips slumping into a soft, wetly pink grimace of fatigue and bodily pain—is sudden and strange, too vivid, too animal.[8]  Their hands, blackened and arthritic, hang limp at their hips.[9]    

Or see this:  the potholes and wheel ruts gouged into the street are puddled with rainwater, and as the miners step over and around them, they present a series of reflected tableaus: the depleted sky intruded upon by the figures of men as black and featureless as silhouettes.  Occasionally they present a man who in his exhaustion has neglected to extinguish his headlamp, and, as the man nears and passes by, the water’s surface distorts the wavering light, magnifying and then reducing it, reflecting its tremble weakly back to itself.

4.         Yes, naturally, there was violence, these company towns (patches, as they’re called) having been divided along contentious lines. 

            In a typical case they featured a wooded median between parallel streets, the lower, home to immigrant laborers in their company houses painted red, and the upper, lined with the tall, whitewashed Victorian homes of Welsh, English, and sometimes German company managers, men who left their offices a half hour before the afternoon whistle called the others up from below and from whose dinner tables one would hear the stomp and lunch-pail-against-pickaxe clang of men marching home along the lower street.  Hear their wives, stern-faced beneath their head scarves, call to the filthy children in mushy foreign tongues.  Hear the inevitable Saturday evening ruckus:  the miserable singing (those mushy sounds again, wavering and alarmingly flat on the high notes) and the fights between men (who complained of the exhausting labor and the brutal hours but rose in the evenings to drink American whiskey and bust each other’s’ jaws).  Hear the concert of cocks’ crows at first dawn.

            They arrived in waves, these new immigrants—the Irish first, soon the Italians, then the Poles; finally, the Lithuanians and the Serbs—all of them pliant and hard-working until their English improved and the injuries and deaths began to mount.  In time, they organized resistance that was swiftly annihilated.  The Irish relied on the Molly McGuire terrorists to make their case, but a dozen hangings put a quick-enough end to them.  More persistent were the Italians and, above all, the Serbs, whose regard for their own lives was such that they would sit on powder kegs and blow themselves to bloody bits in hopes of making the same point about wages and conditions that had been made for decades.  Yet, as long as they were willing to go on living, these Serbs were desperate enough to make energetic strikebreakers, replacing newly unionized labors at half the wage.

            The most brutal repression and retribution was carried out by Pinkertons and the Coal and Iron Police, who spared no Christian virtue.  In especially difficult cases—in 1870, 1897, 1902—they were supported by the Pennsylvania National Guard. 

            In the photographs of labor strikes, one sees, over and over again, those swarthy, mushy-mouthed immigrants, faces bifurcated by bushy mustaches, marching unarmed in their tattered Sunday suits toward the upper street[10].  Out of view are the white men with rifles raised, ready to open fire.  In Lattimer, Pennsylvania—Friday September 10, 1897—70 marchers were shot in a matter of several minutes, all of them in the back.[11]

5.         Among my earliest memories are dinners at the Casey Inn Hotel, the white napkins, the black-tied wait staff, the adults’ tedious lingering over coffee, the persistent smell of damp coming up through the vents, my mother excusing herself from the table to go blow her dripping nose.  By 1980 the building would join the ranks of the abandoned, and after a decade’s effort to find a buyer, it was finally demolished. 

            The Casey Inn was a favorite of my paternal grandmother, named Georgette after her white-bearded grandfather, one of those upper street company managers whose watch hung at the end of an elegant gold chain.  In her mind, the Casey retained its glamour, indeed it still glimmered with an intimation of a great, prosperous future just coming into view, but even she could not be persuaded to walk the once elegant blocks of Lackawanna Avenue, which had become home to vagrants, headshops, jizz-reeking adult cinemas, abandoned and boarded up store fronts.  Once, while standing outside my father’s office, an apparently homeless man approached me to recite a block-by-block account of what could still be found on Lackawanna, a list that included a topless doughnut shop.  I was unclear, at nine or ten years old, whether the servers were topless or the doughnuts were.  Either way, my father, when I asked, had never heard of such a place, and I’ve found no one else to confirm its existence.  But even now, on the afternoon of a day in which I walked the upper half of Lackawanna, watching my step to avoid broken glass and passing carefully through a throng of angry Rinaldis and Litvaks and Cavetellis chanting “Hillary Lies, Americans Die,” it seems plausible.

6.         All she wanted, she said, was a house.  After all, why should the mother of so successful a man be asked to live like she did? 

            This was my grandmother Georgette, and of course, she had a house already, the one whose wooden floors and dusty attic and lingering coal smoke smells I had loved (I’m told) before I could walk, the one she had shared with her husband, my grandfather, until his death a year before my birth.  What she never quite said is that she wanted my father to buy her a new one appointed with the latest appliances, with thick, colorful carpets, with a modern gas furnace in the stead of the squat and sooted coal-burner that filled her rooms with its acrid smell. 

            That house, her house, bought with the help of a gift (not quite a dowry) from her father in celebration of her marriage, was an old upper street house at the end (on the southwest corner lot) of the very block she’d grown up on:  three stories, gingerbread ornamentation around the upper windows, always appearing freshly whitewashed.  It boasted a porch that wrapped around the west-facing side with a view of the sunset through pine trees.  My father and his brother had grown up there, in a town whose supporting concerns had closed up and moved on when my father was four and from which he and my uncle were bussed nearly sixty miles (along a route that stopped all of three times to pick up kids who, like them, were lonely stragglers in all-but-abandoned patches) to school.[12] 

It was in that house, not long after her sons had begun those interminable bus rides, that she sought to engineer their futures, to set them on parallel courses leading away from reliance on a coal-built economy.  (Though that is too generous a characterization.  Her eyes, as always, were on her own rising status and financial gain, and her sons, who had always feared her, understood as much.)  That Christmas, when my father was eight and his brother six, she gave them each a Hummel figurine, my father’s in the image of a turn-of-the-century doctor, not unlike the one whose company-provided offices had stood at the end of the upper street:  a spike-haired lad in what appeared more overcoat than lab coat, stethoscope tucked into the breast pocket, and a younger boy, presumably sick or injured, lying prone and apparently unconscious at his feet.  For my uncle, a dentist donning his own winterish white coat, glasses pushed up into his hair, a disproportionately large container (a powder keg?) of powdered aspirin under his arm. 

Of her sons, only my father followed the prescribed path, becoming a surgeon, and having returned from his residency in Boston to start a practice of his own, he was duty-bound, his mother insisted, to provide for her old age.[13] 

7.         Donnie Williams was not a friend.  A friend was one whose approval and respect I craved. 

Donnie was a fat kid, with a fat kid’s puffed up, quick-to-redden face and a slow, listing, sole-scraping way of getting about.   

            On the bus home from school he sat in the front, directly behind the driver, to save himself an unsteady walk up the aisle, the driver braking, the bus trembling and swaying with animal unsteadiness, cruel classmates (mea culpa) watching him with mocking grins.

            The bus did not deliver him to his house, as it delivered me to the edge of my driveway, but rather to the open mouth of a dark concrete tunnel, a railroad underpass (since paved over) that cut through a narrow rise of rock.  It was engraved at the apex of its arch with the year of its construction, 1913. 

            The one time he invited me over after school, Donnie led me through that tunnel and along an unpaved, uphill road he struggled to climb.  We walked without talking among the other kids dropped at Donnie’s stop, boys and girls with grim, dirty faces, as worn-looking and grayish as their teeth.  We passed shy, mostly dilapidated company houses (the company itself was long gone), their front porches sagging, their gray or white paint faded and peeling from an under-layer of brick red, their windows shutter-less and filmed over.  Far atop the hill, glimpsed black and dully reflective through a cluster of winter trees, sprawled the biggest culm dump I’d ever seen.  In my childish awe, I declared it “as big as a house.”

            “Bigger,” Donnie assured me, and certainly it was bigger than Donnie’s house, which was boxy and slightly tilted, one side having settled more deeply into the earth than the other.  The house was surrounded by a chest-high chain-link fence that had once penned in a dog, though the dog had died years ago.  Donnie remembered its name, Hammer, and that his mother (deceased) had hated it, but could tell me almost nothing else about it.

            Inside, in front of the TV, in the living room’s only chair, sat Donnie’s father.  I knew him to be out of work, but he wore heavy boots and a collared shirt from a company uniform of some kind, dark blue and stained with what I took to be motor oil.  His name, Bill Jr., was embroidered above the breast pocket. 

            He struck me at once as a kind and generous man who was happy for Donnie to have brought home a friend.  He offered us cheese sandwiches and cans of root beer, and when we accepted neither, he offered me his chair.  The offer, made as he rose on stiff, unaccommodating legs, loosed a feeling of sorrow that rose through my gut and caught in my chest, and when Donnie rejected him with a familiarly contemptuous shake of his head, I was relieved and followed him upstairs to his room. 

             Donnie’s room hosted an unmade bed and a braided oval rug, blue-ish and threadbare and juice-stained, and nothing else, no posters or books or toys, and I felt the sorrow clog my lungs again. 

I said, “What do you do for fun?” 

And Donnie answered, “Come on, I’ll show you.”

            He led me down a back staircase (to avoid the embarrassment of his father, I understood) and through the side yard and around the house until we’d rejoined the road.   From atop the hill came the sound of children’s voices in high excitement, and I knew where we were going.

            There, at the base of the giant culm dump—two, maybe three stories tall, I’d say; in any case a height that required me to tilt my head back and shield my eyes from the sun if I hoped to see the action atop it—were all the boys the bus had dropped at Donnie’s stop, plus maybe a dozen others, most of them older than we were, who had come from I-don’t-know-where, and when they saw Donnie arrive with me in tow, their faces were revealed as masks of thrill and awe and dread[14], and they were, generally, more interested in Donnie than in the match taking place above us: a pair of boys fighting to get hands on each other, to get, in fact, a firm enough, reliable enough grip on the other’s shoulders or limbs or waist that they could fling their foe down the long, steep slope of its sides.

            I was grateful not to be invited to join the game.  But I worried for Donnie.  As we watched one of the boys tackle the other, the two of them, entwined, beginning to roll down the slope together before one of them—the smaller, more insignificant but nimbler of the two—pitched the other ahead of him, winning, it would seem, I heard Donnie endure the same kind of teasing he suffered at school, casual jokes about his weight, about the impossibility of any of the taunters heaving Donnie down the hill, about the bitter unfairness of his joining their game.  He answered each taunt with an aw shucks deflection, feigning humility and good naturedly conceding that yeah, sure, they were right; it certainly was unfair.  Very, very unfair.

            Until it was his turn to take to the hill.  Crouched low, he surmounted that immense accumulation of waste with a swiftness and balance that (I still sometimes believe) might have been something from a dream.  And upon it, his arms wrapped around his opponent, his face livid from exertion, he was brutal, sending one challenger after another down the hill, the discarded chunks of coal shifting beneath the weight of their tumbling bodies, sighing a series of soft, comforting, shushing sounds, so that I could imagine the vanquished, limp and silent, as asleep, or already dead, their jeans and t-shirts and faces gathering black all the way to the bottom. 

8.         That summer, at my mother’s insistence, I signed up for an art camp held in the basement of a Catholic church (Saint Stanislaw’s) that I had never attended.  There, three artists—one printmaker, one painter, and an illustrator whose quaintly off-beat depictions of the region we shared sometimes adorned the cover of the New Yorker—smoked cigarettes and drank iced tea that smelled of vodka while their four students, me and three girls I didn’t know and can’t remember, were set loose with blocks of wood into which we carved dishonest self-portraits.  The girls’, as I recall, featured cartoonish girl-faces haloed by rings of bluntly drawn flowers or set in proximity to blockish horses.  Though I was rail thin—I grew to five-foot-seven before I weighed 100 pounds—mine featured an enormous unlikeness (huge in the limbs, the hips, the neck; an entire body composed of soft, generous waves) standing arms raised, victorious, atop (what only I recognized as) a towering pile of coal pieces. 

            Once the images had been carved into the block, the idea was to roll ink across them and then fasten the images to sheets of special paper.  But I’d gotten an idea.  One of the artists, the printmaker, I think, let me borrow his Zippo lighter, and I used it to char the edges of the lines I’d carved.  I wanted the black to bleed soot-like through the ink and onto the page, leaving a trace of something used up and coal-like to define the edges of my not-me face and torso and legs.[15] 

            Predictably, I burned my fingers, blackened my fingernails, failed to leave a useful mark on the wood.  But I was undeterred.  I deepened the carved lines of the portrait, rolled up scraps of paper, lit them, and held them at an angle to the image until one of the artists scolded me with urgent breathlessness, steaming my face with her alcoholic exhalations. 

            Under threat, I abandoned my innovations but not the work itself.  The artists suggested revisions, many of them simple and obvious (“The figure should look more like you”) and some technical, involving attitudes of precision and the effects of unconsidered angles, all beyond my abilities and my interest.  In the end, I got what I wanted, or something close to it, pressed to the page in matte black ink. 

            “What the hell is this?” my father said about it.  He stood alongside the kitchen table, where the print lay, having just come home from a string of patients and surgeries, and unwilling to stoop close enough to admire my vision and craftsmanship, saw only a man standing atop a mountain of coal.

            “Ignore him,” my mother said to me, soothingly.  “His mother is driving him crazy.  She wants, she wants, she wants—all she does is want.” 

            And to my father she said, “It’s just a picture.”

            “It’s not just a picture,” he said, spearing the massive culm dump with his fingertip.  “It’s a bunch of lies.  Lies lies lies.  It’s—  Haven’t I worked all my life, all my life, to save us—to save you, me, him—from exactly this?  From exactly this?” 

[1] Clearly this is not a scene of crucifixion, but as Francis Bacon said of his painting called “Crucifixion”: “Well, of course, you’re working then about your own feelings and sensations, really.  You might say it’s almost nearer to a self-portrait...”  Asked: “The crucifixion, then, is—what?  The armature of expression?” he answered without hesitation, “Yes.”

[2] I cannot help but imagine how Max Beckman might have rendered this moment, how, more precisely, a painter who feared the body, what he called “this horribly convulsing monster of vitality,” would, as he described one goal of his early self-portraits, “get my hands on it ... and cage it up in sharp lines and surfaces.”  Or, further, how he might evoke a kind of “peripheral vision ... to warn of things about to happen.”

[3] Here I suffer two keen temptations: 

First, how elegant it would be to claim that Ginter had swapped his black mare for his new black discovery, one that offered, in radically compressed form, a power and beauty much greater than any horse.  A power and beauty worth a hundred such horses.  But I’m not here to contemplate the operations of his psyche; nor to provide it a pleasing symmetry.  All I can tell you (per Ginter’s journal) is that upon confirmation that he had in fact found a very rich vein of anthracite coal he ordered the horse exterminated. 

And second, I imagine what Ginter’s mind’s eye must have glimpsed when, in the heat of a blacksmith’s furnace, the rock was confirmed to be coal:  its latent power set explosively free in the image of the mountainside awash in flame, in the fury of a great and all-consuming fire.  Such enormous beauty, he must have thought (I think)—aware of terror, the cutting edge of sublimity, slicing him open—in conflagration. 

[4] Mark Rothko: “You think my paintings are calm, like windows in some cathedral?  You should look again.  I’m the most violent of all the American painters.  Behind those colors there hides the final cataclysm.”

[5] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: “We say that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed… Time and Space died yesterday.  We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”

[6] In 1969, Paramount Pictures choose the nearly abandoned town of Eckley, Pennsylvania, which still appeared almost exactly as it had a hundred years earlier, to shoot Martin Ritt’s film The Molly McGuires, about a secret organization of mostly Irish miners who in the 1860s and 70s rebelled against their employer’s exploitive practices by, among other things, violently sabotaging the company’s facilities and infrastructure.  The film’s opening sequence, which runs nearly fifteen minutes without a word of dialogue, and which ends with a gorgeous fireball erupting from the black mouth of the mine, dramatizes the miners’ weary end-of-the-workday routine vividly enough (despite being set to a cartoonishly silly score by Henry Mancini) that even now, three and a half decades after I first saw the film (in a crumbling downtown movie theater, the funnel of projected light cutting through a haze of dust so thick that I could not stop from sneezing), my imagination remains heavily dependent upon its images, as if infected.

[7] These houses:  identically flat-faced and painted brick red, the cheapest available pigment and the only available in the company store.

[8] Horribly convulsing monsters of vitality.

[9] John Berger, an early hero of mine, warns against the laziness that reduces (an image of) the human body to rhetoric: “The forms have been borrowed from Michelangelo, Rodin, and their lesser imitators (Balzac?  Zola?).  And they have been borrowed for their piecemeal effect.  It is significant that when this flaw invariably involves a hand or head, the most naturally expressive parts of the human body.  The weakness derives from an impatience to establish [the artist’s] point of view through the work instead of in it.”  A more mature artist, I take him to say, relies on vehicles of expression other than—beyond—the hands and heads. 

[10] “There is no longer any beauty except the struggle.  Any work of art that lacks a sense of aggression can never be a masterpiece.”—Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

[11] While living in Brooklyn in the early 1990s I followed Milosevic’s atrocities in the Balkans closely, endeavoring to link his contribution at end of the century back to Sarajevo’s role in its opening, and to aid my contemplations I took weekly trips to the Museum of Modern Art, where I stood before Francis Bacon’s paintings.  In some notebook or other (though I’m unable to find it now), I copied down what Bacon had said about his interest in the violence a sneeze does to the face of the sneezer.  I’ve found the notebook in which I scribbled this: “We are born with a scream; we come into life with a scream, and maybe love is a mosquito net between the fear of living and the fear of death. That was one of my real obsessions. The men I painted were all in extreme situations, and the scream is a transcription of their pain,” but not the other.  A shame.  I was arrested by Bacon’s observations about the sneeze, and by the idea that the singular violence of the 20th century might be felt in Bacon’s depiction of one.

[12] Though the industry had continued to boom through the Depression, the years during and immediately following the Second World War witnessed an astonishing collapse in demand, complicated by the final depletion of many century-old mines.  In the middle decade of the twentieth century, those company-built patches folded one right after another, or else their owners simply emptied the banks they’d created and fled, leaving behind those who had depended on them.  In their wake, dance halls and schools and retail businesses closed; only churches and bars, their floors still thick with sawdust, remained.  To my mind, Richard Hugo’s poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”—“You might come here on a whim./Say your life broke down, the last good kiss/you had was years ago”—comes closer than any of the contemporaneous writings or subsequent book-length histories to conjuring the forsaken atmosphere that still defines those places.

[13] In what she understood as an act of Satanically provoked willfulness (I mean this literally; though she was uncertain about the existence of God, she harbored no doubts about Satan or his close proximity), my uncle left dental school to marry a woman she had forbidden him to see.  Two years later, my grandmother refused to attend their wedding, and soon after, my uncle has told me, he and my father, having drunk too much to maintain their inhibitions, discussed hiring someone to kill her:  that, as they wanted to believe, would sever their ties to coal country once and for all.  As for triggermen, they had options. They knew plenty of violent people desperate for money, and I picture these people as wasted as Grunewald’s ravaged and suffering Christs.

[14] Those faces, mean and narrow, pimpled and bruised, smudged across their cheeks and foreheads with grimy, black fingerprints, made a very powerful impression on me, though I saw them only once.  And then, decades later, I ducked out of a conference I was attending in Los Angeles in favor of an afternoon at the Getty, and there they were again, crossing the foreground of James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels.”  Ensor, in an assault on the pretty pointillist style popular among his contemporaries, used palette knives, spatulas and other blunt-ended tools to apply patches of color he then carved (often with the pointed butt end of his brushes) into grotesque and expressive shape.   

[15] Alberto Giacometti: “In every work of art the subject is primordial, whether the artist knows it or not. The measure of the formal qualities is only a sign of the measure of the artist’s obsession with his subject; the form is always in proportion to the obsession.”

William Black‘s short stories have appeared in Threepenny Review, The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, and previously in Tupelo Quarterly. His collection, In the Vally of the Kings, won the 2019 George Garrett Fiction Prize.