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Campfires of the Dead – Peter Christopher

This book is probably the best example of these unfairly forgotten books and of a great writer few knew and who is no longer with us to share his words and sentences.

Peter Christopher was a Lish student from the Columbia U days (along with Amy Hempel, Christopher Coe and Anderson Ferrell), whose collection,Campfires of the Dead (1989) is as fine a first volume of short stories as any of the best being released today via the Flannery O’Connor Award, the AWP Awards,  Drue Heinz, Juniper, Dzanc, or the Iowa Short Fiction Award.  The fifteen stories were developed in Lish’s class and published in either The Quarterly or a special issue of StoryQuarterly that Lish edited.  We remember well, in 1989, finding this book in a Los Angeles store and getting giddy when reading it. Where did this whacky gfeat fun stuff come from? They are quirky stories about people in love and who hold out-of-the-ordinary jobs, such as the narrator of “The Careerist,” that opens:

Ever think what chicken-sexers think all day?

Well, this chicken-sexer thinks mostly him and me and Sweet Miss Stringbean. Make him Billy Bollitt, sometimes mill rat, most time drunk, my best friend.  Make me Sarno, chicken-sexer. Make Miss String Bean Billy’s sweetheart.

I think mostly of Billy and me and Sweet Miss Stringbean and working as a chicken-sexer and all…make that as a chicken-sexer all night. I work the night shift (17).

The flap copy reads: “Peter Christopher produces sentences that you would have to be three strong men and jump from behind to try to paraphrase—and even then you still couldn’t do it.” Lee K. Abbott provides a blurb, stating: “Move over, Barry Hannah, and make room for a deskmate with his own bent horn to toot!” Christopher does in fact seem to be influenced by Hannah’s style, evident in “India, When Your Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me, Pomp”:

It is thoughts of her doing the everyday that sets Pomp off.

It is Pomp, small-town lawyer, one-time Baptist, volunteer fire fighter, pork-and-beaner until the day I die whose insides seize up into morning-after when walking into the bank or the hardware store or the whatever and seeing someone with hair like her hair (107).

Compare this passage from Hannah’s Hey, Jack!:

Here was Jack, seventy-seven, once a war correspondent, once a sheriff in Kentucky, once a college professor of criminal science in Maryland, once a busted soybean and cattle man in Mississippi, now and owner of Jack’s Café, come back to sit down and spy at the town just as I was (41).

Christopher has been linked with former Lish student Tom Spanbauer; the two would often co-teach the “Dangerous Writing” class together. I have come across several blog and bulletin board entries about these classes, all positive.  Christopher seemed to have fallen off the publishing map after Campfires of the Dead, although he did win an NEA Fellowship and worked as a journalist.  In 1998, he was hired by Georgia State University’s English Department. In 2002, a new collection, The Living, was announced as forthcoming from Sandhills Press; it seems the small press never issued the book, or went defunct, because we cannot find a listing for either the press or the volume.  His obituary in the George Anne Daily mentions a second book, Lost Dogs and Other Stories, but we cannot find that listed anywhere, either (it could be a chapbook, a limited edition, or a private printing, if anyone knows, please comment below).

Christopher died in 2008 from complications of liver cancer, age 52.  His obituary notes:

While teaching class, Christopher often encouraged his students to write every day while listening to Mozart and to read his favorite authors, Barry Hannah and Amy Hempel.

See his wikipedia page.

In (at?) Unsaid 4, Carolyn Altman writes an essay about her memories of Christopher, stating, in part:

Peter Christopher was legendary. I’d missed the week at the beach, but I’d heard the tales and pondered the muscle man picture, first at Tom’s table and then in the years afterward when it hung on his refrigerator in a place of honor. I taught Pete’s collection Campfires of the Dead, using his stories to show how every word and gesture obtained.   Between his writing, the picture, and writing group anecdotes, I patched together a mill town hero who’d scored with seconds to go in the fourth, rowed crew for Columbia, earned a karate black belt, endured day jobs writing Golden Books and greeting cards, served as unofficial bodyguard to Gordon Lish and Padget Powell, was a drinking buddy to Harry Crews (who could protect himself), fought off the cancer that blinded him in one eye, and wrote stories that were the brush of a beard against a lover’s inner thigh—rough, thrilling and exquisitely tender.

She later married him and gave him a son, Colby. (We love life stories like this, they warm our heart of hearts, cute as a basketful of tender puppies.)

At an Emerging Writers Network post, David McLendon of (from? with?) Unsaid said:

…I have been reading Peter’s work for over twenty years. I return a few times yearly to his collection, Campfires of the Dead…. Do you know that collection? The reading experience of it is like smoking crack at the circus while the big top is on fire. The stories are so incredibly alive, almost unbearably so, and each time I read them it’s as if for the first time. But here’s the thing. Peter grew as a writer. While his later work is as strong and alive as his earlier, the stance is subtler, there are fewer structural acrobatics. But all of his pages are feats that can only be claimed by him. It’s a shame his debut collection is out of print. It’s perhaps a greater shame that his novel and second collection were never published. If there is any way I can help bring these books into print, I will. Peter Christopher’s stories are songs to be heard.

We were only able to find one online story at (in) a 2001 posting/webbing of failbetter.com. We reprint it here in case that link ever fails for the worse.

Flight

Peter Christopher

From the darkness, a bird’s whistle rouses him. He kneels in the mud and the leaves where he has slept. He lurches up alert, not bothering to brush the leaves from his prison coveralls. The weight of the pruning shears in a back pocket tugs down his coveralls.

He keeps to the woods until the light is enough that he sees he must make his break. He moves under the trees with young leaves turned yellow from the way the low reach of light shines through their leaf skin. He watches the leaves flutter. Birds hop from branch to branch. The birds are small, as fleeting as thoughts. Between branches, as if he has imagined it, he sees a house. The house, surrounded by plowed fields, stands starkly lit.

His work boots are muddied more. He walks as if in a dream he has already had, knowing again the weight of his boots, the quality of the light that is on him. Soon, he is walking up to a window at the side of the house.

A woman moves about the kitchen. He watches her sip from a glass. She talks to a child sitting at the table. She wipes the girl child’s lips.

Voices move him away from the window. He hears music, a cartoon gunshot, comic talk. He listens for other voices, for a man’s voice. He looks in the window to see if the woman and child have changed from the way they were, changed shapes, changed the words the woman speaks to the child in a language he does not understand. She speaks the language of the birds flitting in the trees, nesting words, soft, so soft.

When the voices change to a man’s voice saying there is the possibility of rain, he kneels and snips the telephone line. He pockets the pruning shears and quickly, angrily, walks around to the back of the house. He opens the screen door without knocking and walks into the kitchen.

“Who else is here?”

The woman and child look up at him.

“Look, I’m not kidding, who else is around?”

A voice from the television in the other room does the talking. He grabs her and feels how small she is under the loose flannel. She is little more than a child. Her bones feel hollow. She is another bird, who will flit away if he is not careful.

He shoves her ahead of himself into the other room. There is the television on the floor, cardboard boxes, a wooden chair. As if further proof of what she is, on a wall is a fan with painted, blood-red peacocks.

He pushes her upstairs.

In the first room there are toys scattered on the floor, on a child’s bed. He shoves her through this room and into the other bedroom. On top of a chest of drawers is a mirror. A mud man–his hair standing straight up–looks back. He looks from his reflection to the wooden boxes, the brush, the comb, lined up on the chest. The bed has a white bedspread. A man’s cloth slipper almost hides where the bedspread hangs to the floor.

“There is only you and the girl?”

She stares.

“I’m talking to you, Chinawoman, or whatever you are! Don’t act like you’re seeing your things for the first time! All this shit laid out, as if you was ready for somebody to come and take you and your’s off somewheres!”

“My husband will come,” she says without bird talk, wind words.

She looks out the window. He looks too. Far down the road, like another toy thrown at their feet, is a school.

“When’s he coming?”

Her eyes come back to his. He holds the shears at her eye as shiny black as a marble a boy would put in his mouth to clean. The shears snip so easily.

“Mama!” the child calls from downstairs.

She is almost past him when he has her arm, holds his face near her face. Her eyelids flitter.

When he does let go, he follows her downstairs and through the living room where he shuts off the television.

“I’m hungry,” he says to her and the child. “I’m hungry for a lot of things.”

He stands at the open refrigerator, eating what he comes to as he comes to it: a black beet, a bunch of long onions, something yellow he drinks, a quartered head of lettuce, a bag of cough drops, a seedy orange, milk he drinks from the carton. He goes through the cabinets and eats a box of crackers. When he is done swallowing, he puts the shears down. He pushes her so her back is against the counter. He lifts her nightgown, throws it over her head so she stands shrouded, a little orange tree covered against the cold. Maybe the orange came from her small breasts, her slight branches, the tree she is that she will change back into as in the old stories.

She trembles as if against the cold. Less of her is hidden from him now, not her golden skin, not her downy hair.

The child watches him when he puts a hand on the soft skin of the woman’s belly. He holds his hand there, draws his face closer to her warm breath blowing out the flannel softness. He feels the heat from her belly walk up his arm and into his shoulder, fill his chest, fill him until he too breathes out.

He pulls the nightgown down from over her head. He picks up the child, tugs her up, her legs hanging limp, like he is pulling something green and rooted from the ground. The child turns her face away from his muddy beard. Her hair is like the woman’s hair, cut straight all around so that her hair moves like the fringe of a silk dress, or grass in the wind.

Carrying the child over his shoulder, he is out the back door. The woman hurries after them. When she catches up, they walk the dirt road. A crow, flying high above, caws, as if to kin. From that height, they appear as paper dolls scissored from a book of cutouts, a child’s dream of walking.

When they come to the school with the windows boarded over, they walk in the shade of trees, the first shade since leaving the house that now looks no bigger than when he first saw the house through the branches of other trees. Behind the school, past the rusting tall swings, they cross the ball field. Fading signs on the outfield fence tell them how NOTHING RUNS LIKE A DEERE, MILK DOES A BODY GOOD, WILLIS HOME INSURANCE–ALWAYS A HIT! The grass of the ball field is so new, so green, he could sit and eat it, slowly, himself a deer, with the two quiet ones watching him crop the tender grass giving him what he needs.


He brings them to the batting cage. Inside the cage, among the weeds, are rotting rags. Netting, ripped and tangled, loops down. He lowers the child to standing, helps her and the woman through a hole in the wire into the cage.

Birds flush up from the weeds in the cage. The birds flap close to the woman and child, fly out where the wire opens. One bird snags a wing, hangs. What was once a bird, now a curve of wing bone, a claw, hangs in the netting. The woman and child watch the living bird twitch, tangle itself more. He goes to the bird, puts his face close, blows. Feathers furrow, darker feathers show underneath. The bird stills, blinks. The bird’s eyes are rings within golden rings the color of the woman’s skin.

He pulls the bird from the snarl of netting. He smoothes the feathers, puts the wing back into place. The bird heats his hand. He feels the bird’s heart–the small beating, like what was at the throat of the woman when she stood in the kitchen with her nightgown over her head–and he throws the bird up into flight.

The bird whirs about his head, then flies to the trees along the road.

The sky looks empty.

He pulls the woman and child from the cage, hurries them to the playground. Seating the child in a swing,

making sure her little hands are holding the chains, he pushes the child from behind. Her hair lifts, falls.

He gets on a swing. He toes off from the scuffed clay, points his feet. He gains height. His arms work as he pulls harder. He moves faster, higher. The old swing shrieks him higher and higher, his feet now over his head, kicking at the sun.

From that height, he sees the woman and the child walking together under the far trees, their slipping away from him as his own life has–and that is the moment he lets go, throwing himself higher, farther, into the light that will burn him clean.

If ever there was a Lish writer who should have a book reprinted today, Peter Christopher holds the poster.  Or perhaps publishing what he left behind in the folders is due. Anyone out there got the gumption for this consumption, to re-ignite this campfire for the living?

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4 responses »

  1. Just found out today that he passed away. He meant a lot to me as a guide and friend. A beautiful writer.

    Reply
  2. Pete's Dragon

    You mention Carolyn Altman’s essay from Unsaid Magazine Issue 4; Also in that issue, there are two stories of Peter Christopher’s entitled “Lifting, Rising” and “Ready”. Neither story is actually from his published collection you’re referring to here. Both can be read online at said Unsaid Magazine.

    http://www.unsaidmagazine.com

    Reply
  3. He actually taught at Georgia Southern University, not Georgia State…a big difference. He meant a lot to his students. I was one of them.

    Reply

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