I love Carson Pytell’s work. It reminds me of Charles Bukowski and Fredrich Exley. It reminds me of Kevin Ridgeway and John Fante. It reminds me of the kind of fiction that a lot of us were trying to do when I lived and worked in Long Beach. So many of us who studied under Gerry Locklin and Ray Zepeda were going after a kind of gritty realism, and some of us accomplished the spirit and tone. Others did not. I never did to the degree that I wanted to, and so I shifted to different kinds of writing. Pytell, however, is a kind of master of this type of writing, and his fiction collection, Willoughby, New York is powerful work, the kind that I was reaching for back in those days. His chapbook reaches the kind of humanity most of these writers are striving for as he often focuses on people’s worst days, their most embarrassing moments and how they live through them. He is a writer who isn’t afraid to show us not only how banal life can be and how insignificant we can be made to feel but also how to live through these moments with dignity.
The first story of the collection ‘In the North Country’ captures much of that power as a 21-year-old tries to have sex with a woman, both of whom have been placed into a facility for having attempted suicide. They sneak off to a bathroom, but when the woman finds that the protagonist was born with only one testicle, she reviles in disgust and even horror. She reveals a dark side of her character as she berates him for not being the perfect physical specimen, she’d hoped he was. He asks her what her problem is, and she replies: ‘My problem? I’m in here with a one ball wonder. You’re like seven feet tall, can’t you imagine what I was expecting?’ There is a callowness that Pytell is exploring and helping us to understand. He is taking us to that place of shallowness, showing us how to move on when confronted with these moments. Years later, the protagonist finds out that the girl he almost had sex with eventually succeeded in her suicide, and he is left trying to understand her, perhaps trying to understand his place in the horror of her life.
Getting to this place of moral, emotional, and intellectual ambiguity is one of things that I love about Pytell’s work, what he does as well as anyone I know. In ‘Where the Line Is,’ his protagonist discusses his ambivalence about death after having gone through the last rights and recovered. He describes what he sees as a funny scene when he is alone in his hospital room and his blood gets splattered around the room. ‘As for the poor nurse who walked in on the faux murder scene, the worse off custodian, I recall their faces better than my family’s. How could I not? I laughed silently, but visibly harder than I ever had.’ His protagonists are often detached in this way, watching their lives and trying to understand them but not caught up in a maudlin concern. They understand something about the nature of life and its absurdities, and they are showing how odd it is.
Although Pytell is part of that literary tradition I found and loved in Long Beach, he is making the work his own. It is not in imitation, and it is constantly powerful. I cannot recommend Willoughby, New York more highly.
John Brantingham 17th January 2023