Reviewer: Nathan Leslie
Voltaire. Nietzsche. Kerouac. Peabody. The Richard Peabody Reader takes its cues from the well-known Penguin reader series and its associated knock-offs (if you attended college in the 90s like I did, these readers were ubiquitous), which compiled a best-of for classic authors. The Penguin series, of course, not only presented an author’s greatest hits, but also showed a career-length progression so that in reading a given author’s volume one could become well-versed in the oeuvre as a whole. The Richard Peabody Reader (TRPR) couldn’t have come at a better time for indie publishing, which (usually) needs a shot in the arm or two. Sales perennially lag, of course, and what better way to return to roots than for Alan Squire Publishing to present a great compilation of a Washington, D.C. literary luminary?
TRPR is a comprehensive and stuffed-to-the-brim volume featuring not only 425 pages of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction from the past five decades, but also an exhaustive author timeline (I learned a thing or three), a charming inset of black and white photos from “back in the day,” and an elegant introduction from longtime Washington Post book reviewer Michael Dirda (I’m hoping for more future reviews of oft-ignored indie books by Dirda and the Post though—don’t be a stranger, Mr. Dirda). Alan Squire Publishing and editor and compiler Lucinda Ebersole did it right. This is a top-notch production.
As for the work, it’s terrific and eclectic. Wisely, TRPR is divided into six relevant themes: sex and love, pop and culture, war and peace, home and families, reading and writing, and it ends with a tour-de-force novella as its capstone—“Sugar Mountain.” I especially enjoyed the “pop and culture” section in that, as usual, Peabody is particularly astute as an observer of music, film, and literature and is attuned to the three-dimensional world outside the Internet prism. Peabody’s poems are strong in this section (some of my favorite from the collection): “I’m in Love with the Morton Salt Girl,” “She Discovers Jazz,” “Another Stupid Haircut,” the impressive “Spaghetti Western Sestina,” and droll “Chimichanga.” All outstanding.
In “Fiji Water,” Peabody writes: “God only knows what’s in this water./ Byproducts of nuclear spillways or/ chemical plants? Something scary/ and straight out of James Bond?/ Or maybe just water from the dog’s dish?” I love the everyday paranoia here, the speaker suspicious of the “exotic fake name/ invented by some nefarious/company’s marketing department.” Peabody verbalizes here what most of us think.
Peabody also excels at list poems. For instance, “The Ten Most Misleading B Horror Movie Titles: A Found Poem” that details real movie titles with brief commentary:
10. Beast with a Million Eyes
And so on.
Along these lines, “Letters from the Editor” in the “reading and writing” section presents unintentionally uproarious critiques of various workshop stories. Satire rules here.
Ebersole also did a terrific job of selecting the fiction to best represent Peabody’s best of the best. There is a particular Peabody special featured here with “Flea Wars” and “It’s Always Raining on the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” for instance (a classic Peabody story title if there ever was one). I think of this Peabody sub-genre as train-wreck extravaganzas—everything that could go wrong does go wrong. These stories are hilariously miserable; spoiler alert: the fleas in “Flea Wars”—they win. As for “It’s Always Raining,” it’s impossible not to enjoy rubbernecking at the horrid night spent in the unctuous roadside motel. The snowball effect Peabody utilizes is a thing to behold. “Peppermint Schnapps,” on the other hand, is a devastating story of comeuppance—it manages to surprise the reader as much as the slimily clueless protagonist.
The “home and family” section is also quite compelling, as Peabody has a keen eye for parental and domestic details. Consider this from “Folding Laundry in my Dreams”: “The truth is I was proud of my folding abilities/ until one lover confessed with a shrug/ that she had always refolded every single item/ in the basket upon my leaving the room.” Or this from “Princess Daddy,” a work of flash fiction: “Twyla’s fingers are too tiny to manipulate the Disney clothing so it falls to me to dress the miniature doll for space travel.” This is Peabody at his best—tuned-in to the kooky world all around us. A kind of ironic innocence skulks about here.
Section five—“reading and writing”—starts off with another gem (the previously mentioned “Letters from the Editor”) and ends with the touching “Good Hope Road” (personal narrative trumps financial gain). Along the way TRPR also includes “Confessions of a Literary Editor,” in which Peabody writes: “Satire seems to be a lost art form, and we didn’t see enough well-crafted humor. No sports stories to speak of—for some reason, we don’t seem to attract them. Maybe writers save those for assaults on Roger Angell at the New Yorker, or other big slicks. Don’t know.” This is a great piece; how often do we hear truly drop-the-drawers candid thoughts on submissions from a top-notch editor? As for the insight regarding satire—it still seemingly holds true in 2015.
Living in the Washington, D.C. area as I do, I have to admit the prospect of writing this review was initially a bit daunting. Richard Peabody has served the literary community here in countless ways, often simultaneously—mentor, teacher, editor, cheerleader, co-reader, host, panelist, blurber, book seller, co-conspirator. Peabody is a kind of resident institution here, the bookish equivalent of Ben’s Chili Bowl. We’re lucky with TRPR to have an entire platter of literary half-smokes. And while the literary scene in our nation’s capital may or may not be what it once was, the almighty word continues to stream on in the form of Richard Peabody. Certainly The Richard Peabody Reader demands a broader audience for the author, and here’s hoping that Richard Peabody’s oeuvre isn’t ultimately confined to that patronizing term “regional.” TRPR can only help in that regard. Kudos to him for a dynamic literary career (live long and prosper), and here’s hoping that in 2035 I’ll be kicking back with The Richard Peabody Reader, part deux.