Sam at the Gun Show

December 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

gunsWhile the nation mourns and questions, here is a replay of a Brevity classic:

Sam at the Gun Show

by Greg Bottoms

The kid I stand next to at the gun show and ask about pistols—which ones he likes, what he’d buy if he could, if he were eighteen—starts telling me about firecrackers.  I’ve been watching him buzz all around the place, table to table, picking up guns, putting them down, visibly annoying some of the vendors.  He’s maybe sixteen, with a smattering of cystic acne along his jaw and neck, big red carbuncles that make me remember the almost suffocating embarrassment I felt over my own bad skin when I was his age.  He wears baggy jeans and a yellow parka zipped up to the neck (an attempt to hide his bad skin, I think).  His hair is down over his eyes, black, shiny, almost wet-looking. 

We’re at Expoland, a giant “for rent” warehouse a few miles from my home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, a place that hosts everything from quilting fairs and livestock auctions to Christian revivals and gun shows.  It’s eight a.m.  I walked here through the gray morning, over fields, along a gravel road, breathing mist.  I don’t own guns and don’t plan to buy any.  But I like to walk when it’s quiet; I’m curious; and there was a sign—“Biggest Gun Show of the Year”—so I paid five bucks to the old man in camouflage at the front door to see what exactly a gun show was like.  The place, approximately the size of half a football field, with maybe thirty- or forty-foot high ceilings, is nearly empty—twenty or thirty vendors, maybe fifteen men (all white) drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and browsing.  And then there’s this kid.  His name is Sam. 

I don’t know how he and I arrived at the firecracker story.  There was no getting here, no one-idea-leading-to-the-next.  He’s just talking because I asked him something and I seem willing to listen.

He says that one time, when he was ten, his grandfather, who owns a farm near here, wouldn’t let him ride the four wheelers that everybody else, everybody older, got to ride. He was too small, his grandfather said, and the four-wheeler would roll over on him in some far field, over some distant rise, and they’d find him broken or dead.  All of his cousins and brothers were there on this day.  It was the fourth of July.  It was a big party.  A bonfire was blazing because they had a bunch of trash they needed to burn. Anyway, everybody was taking turns riding the four wheelers except him and his little baby cousin.  He got “real real mad, you know,” and he wanted to show his grandfather that he wasn’t any damn baby.  So he took all of the firecrackers they were going to set off in a few hours after dinner, a whole “shitload of firecrackers”—maybe a hundred different kinds—and he threw them, all of them, into the bonfire.  They started shooting all over the place, up into the sky and toward the house and the big barn and out over the fields and some of them shot straight out of the fire at face-level, like bullets or something. Everybody was ducking and screaming and “freaking the fuck out,” and he loved it, loved watching it, because it was so funny and he’d gotten their attention.  He was sorry that some hay in the barn caught fire, sure.  And he was sorry that his older brother Donald beat him nearly senseless right there in the dirt and no one tried to stop it, but other than these minor things this seems to be a fond memory for him, a defining personal myth.

His eyes are distant, drugged-looking.

“Do you have any guns,” I ask.

“Shit,” he says.  “I got like four guns—two hunting rifles and two pistols.  My brother’s here somewhere and he’s going to buy another pistol, a Glock.  Then he’ll probably give me one of his old guns for my birthday or something.  People give me my guns.  I’d like to have that gun”—he points to a $550 antique Smith & Wesson—“but I ain’t got no $550.”    

 He sees his brother, a plump blond guy in a goatee and football jersey, and walks away without saying anything, shrinking across the room like someone’s future nightmare.

Greg Bottoms is the author of Angelhead, a memoir, and Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks, a collection of essays and stories.

Finding a Story in the Facts: Greg Bottoms

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

How do you shape a compelling story from nothing but old newspaper articles and dry facts? Greg Bottoms, author of the memoir Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent into Madness, and numerous Brevity essays (1, 2, 3, 4),  gives us his thoughts on the challenge, followed by examples of the technique:

My current writing project is a series of biographical/documentary essays on dead, self-taught religious artists in the United States.  The way I am putting these pieces together in many ways has arisen out of discussions from a couple of classes I teach at the University of Vermont–“Doing Documentary” and “Writing about the Arts.”  In these courses, students sometimes dig up a cache of source material and information on their topics.  If they can use interviews, they will.  But what do you do, they ask, when you’re sitting at a desk with nothing but some short articles from magazines or museum catalogs (sometimes very poorly written ones), a few cursory newspaper pieces, some photos and images of the person or their work, and maybe an obituary or two?  All these fragments, they say.  Facts, facts, and more facts but what’s the story?  How can I make something out this?

Here, I tell them, is where they as writers, as makers of meaning, come in.  Why are they interested in the person or topic?  Their questions, at least implicitly, must become the driving force of the essay.  Their search for deeper meaning in the life or the work of another artist can be the quest (here I’ll pause and confess to them that I read police procedurals–particularly older European ones–pretty much one after the other because they constantly reconfigure this essential, often thwarted, human quest for meaning in chaos).  Reality is the raw material, but real writers reshape reality so that the deepest possible meanings, at least according to them, are clarified.  Facts are important, and not to be altered, but subjectivity and, yes, their personal search for truth is the glue that will hold the writing together.

In my collection-in-progress, which is called “Patron Saint of Thrown-Away Things:  And Other Portraits from the Margins of American Art and Faith,” I’m using a fragmentary, numbered structure, which made the most sense to me for the material and also mirrored my process of jump-cut at my desk:  What did I highlight in that newspaper article?  What was that exact date (it must be here somewhere)? Let me look one more time at what he is wearing in that old photo.  Finally, in these essays I’m letting my conjecture and speculation happen, but I am very mindful of alerting the reader when I am doing this, which leads to more “maybe,” “it seems,” “perhaps,” and “I imagine” than is perhaps totally felicitous.  But so be it.  These essays are not, obviously, THE TRUTH, which they can’t be; they are, I hope, an open and honest and accurate and intelligent quest for truth, which, my students usually conclude, is the only option we really have.

Here is a radio documentary made from the title essay (requires RealPlayer):

Here is my most recent essay at the religion magazine Killing the Buddha:

Huddle, Kupperman, Purpura, and More …

September 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Fall 2010 issue, Brevity 34, is hot off the digital press and ready for your immediate inspection.  The crisp new issue contains exquisite brief essays from David Huddle, Kim Dana Kupperman, Lia Purpura, Joshua Wheeler, Jonathan Starke, Susanne Antonetta, Dani Johannesen, Robert G. Cowser, Carol Guess, Greg Bottoms, Deana Benjamin, and Lisa Ohlen Harris.

Also two new craft essays, an interview with Pulitzer prize-winning writer Thomas French, author of Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives, and five brief book review essays.

Kristin L. Ware rounds out the issue with her striking black and white photography.

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