Dan Mueller Reads with Former Student Charles McLeod

Christina Glessner is a 2nd year MFA student at the University of New Mexico, concentrating in fiction. She is Managing Editor elect for Blue Mesa Review.

On April 11, 2013, I had the pleasure of watching Dan Mueller and Charles McLeod read in Dane Smith Hall on the University of New Mexico’s campus.  Dan Mueller is the director of the creative writing program at the University of New Mexico and a faculty member at Queens University of Charlotte’s low-residency MFA program.  He won the Sewanee Fiction Prize for a short story collection, How Animals Mate, and most recently published Nights I Dreamed Of Hubert Humphrey out of Outpost 19 Books.  Charles McLeod (pronounced McCloud) published the novel American Weather and the short story collection National Treasures, also out of Outpost 19, and his work has appeared in such places as Conjunctions, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, and The Pushcart Prize series.

As the reading began, Dan Mueller welcomed everyone in the room, and made announcements and jokes.  He was laid-back and friendly in a way that brought the crowd together, welcomed us into his life and his world, and made our haphazard group – undergraduate and graduate students, aspiring writers, literature students, faculty, citizens of Albuquerque – feel immediately that we, together, were a part of something.  It’s easy to feel, from the moment Mueller speaks, that he cares deeply about people and the world around him, and this is reflected back on his work.  He is a writer who cares deeply about his characters, and this care is important.  Even the grittiest characters in his new collection have complex lives and emotions, layers and layers of complication, only made possible because of how open-minded and caring their writer is.

At this reading, specifically, Mueller read from a story called “Huntsville Rodeo, 1968.”  The story is about many things – it’s about a 7-year-old boy’s fascination with snakes, the more dangerous, the better, but it’s also about trust, family, hopelessness, and the decisions we make that impact those things.  This is not the first time I heard Dan read, and I’ve grown accustomed to paying attention to the way images work in his stories, the way a description could do more than give us a glimpse of setting, but could also expose something of character, of tone, and of place, all at the same time.  He read from the first half of the story, where readers are placed into a setting full of danger – a restricted zone on a military base set up to replicate conditions in Vietnam for training purposes.  Father and son come here together, the father wanting to teach the son something about trust, and the son wanting to explore.

Mueller stopped on a striking image of the father dangling upside down, his foot caught in a booby trap that pulled him into the air, dangling from a tree.  He was hardly fazed by this moment, spoke to and scolded his son while spinning in circles from the rope around his ankle.  “Look at me,” he warned his son.  “This could be you.”  Then he asked his son to pick up the lighter that had fallen out of his pocket and onto the ground.  His son “stood on his tiptoes, his thumb on the gas lever, and followed the flame past his father’s eyebrows and nose to the bright orange bead it made at the end of the cigarette” before they continued discussing.  I’m amazed at the patience Mueller has in these moments.  Their conversation is given pungency by the powerful images surrounding each moment of dialogue.  The conversation, while brief, lasted over four pages, and was punctuated by many images like this.

Charles McLeod read from the first story in National Treasures, “Edge Boys,” a story that experiments interestingly with POV, structure, and scope.  As McLeod began reading, I thought it was fascinating that he wrote in such a drastically different style than Muller.  Mueller’s work is very traditional, while McLeod’s is glaringly experimental.  In Mueller’s very first sentence (“The boy’s father followed two winding ruts through Texas prairie in which snakes flourished, the boy was certain.”), we immediately knew that there was a father and a son in this story, that the son’s point of view would be the focus, that this would take place in Texas, and we knew something of situation and tone, that this boy was intrigued by something dangerous.  From McLeod’s first sentence (“Bought in motel rooms, in public park bathrooms, the edge boys have highlighted their hair.”), we’re set up to enter a very different kind of story.  The lens begins very wide, with a focus not on one person or one relationship but on a group of boys called “the edge boys.”  There’s no specific place yet set up, and while we get perhaps some hint at situation, we’re not directed tonally, except to know the rhythm these sentences will fall into.

“The edge boys” aren’t a specific group of boys either.  They’re made somewhat specific by the fact that they’re gay boys who are trying to make it in these edge cities – but they could really be any boy in any “edge city.”  The scope is so wide that the narrative describes the kinds of things that gay boys in these types of cities might experience.  Sometimes the lens is widened even more, as we get descriptions of different kinds of edge cities, not tied to any characters, such as “And here the edge cities, the car-fervent boomburbs, Levittown’s sprawling kempt spawn, more jobs than bedrooms, the streets dead by evening…here Costa Mesa in LA’s choked basin, here Downer’s Grove and Ogden, Utah, here the midlevel skyscraper of mixed office/retail…”  For the first half of the story, this sort of lens stays consistent, where the scope in the story expands and contracts, but always stays very wide.  In the second half of the story, the lens narrows, suddenly, to a first person point of view.  I asked McLeod about scope in “Edge Boys” after the reading, and he said that he wanted to have a conversation about what it’s like in these edge cities but that he knew a story with such a wide scope couldn’t sustain itself forever.  This knowledge led to his decision to pull all of these universal experiences tightly into one first person point of view.

For an eighteen and a half page story, though, it’s amazing that McLeod was able to keep readers invested in his widely-scoped narrative for so long before the “I” came in.  I think this had to do with specificity, comedy, and rhythm.  Despite the wide scope, and the development of multiple scenarios that could play out with these boys, many of the details were very specific, sometimes prompting the audience to laugh.  For example, when McLeod writes, “The edge boys are gay.  The edge boys have girlfriends, meek girls with glasses or cheeks stained with acne, who hide their girth under loose batik skirts,” there are multiple kinds of girls these edge boys might date, but the specificity with which they’re described ties us closer to something concrete and is a bit funny.

It’s impossible not to also notice the rhythmic quality of McLeod’s sentences.  There is a lot of repetition, assonance, and consonance in his story, as well as some slant rhyme.  This speeds the reading up, so that readers are taken quickly through the first half, and are enchanted enough by the language not to feel annoyed at how long it takes to get somewhere truly specific.  “Edge Boys” was an informative story to hear read to understand the ways he’s using all of these techniques to drive us through a story that could have easily become boring in another writer’s hands.

After the reading, I began to think more about what connections might exist in Mueller and McLeod’s work.  There was a Q and A, and when asked what the “seed” was that started his story, McLeod said he was really interested in “those edge places, those edge cities,” where the story is set in (at first, no one particular city, but all “edge cities”).  Then he paused and said, “One can make the argument that everything runs through place in a story.”  And it was true that, despite how different Mueller and McLeod’s writing styles were, that place seemed to imbed itself into the characters in both of their stories, that their characters would not be the same if the world around them was any different.