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Jul 28, 2015

Poe Ballantine, recording angel of the American underbelly

Poe Ballantine is a great blues writer: he can make you laugh while his heart is breaking.

W H Chong — Culture Mulcher

W H Chong

Culture Mulcher

Guidelines for Mountain Lion Safety
Poe Ballantine
Transit Lounge Publishing, rrp $29.95

Poe Ballantine may be one of the finest chroniclers of the American underclass, but he’s even better than that — he can write the blues.

Ballantine can make you laugh while his heart is breaking. His voice, soulful and deep, has a particular tone and directness of speech that makes the reader want to befriend him, makes you want to trust him — in return for entrusting you with the stories of his life.

Guidelines for Mountain Lion Safety is a new collection of autobiographical pieces previously published in The Sun (North Carolina, USA) and enterprisingly put together by Transit Lounge Publishing in Yarraville, Victoria (in a stylish package by designer Peter Lo). Here, Ballantine writes across the years of: his desire for personal transcendence, the itinerant wanderings of a young writer unknowingly living through his future material, the wild swings of youth.

You have to pay your dues to sing the blues

It took years of discarded manuscripts — epic political satires, among others — for Ballantine to see what he was here to write: it was all around and behind him. The hardscrabble lives, the losers of the system, moneyless bohemia, the wifebeaters and the abused children, drunks and madmen. The lost girls, broken boys. The mistaken paradise of the tropics and self-reliance. The menial jobs: he still works as a janitor at a school.

His stories draw on people nearby, especially those closest to him — family, old friends, his (eventual) wife and child. Friendship with an author can be  perilous. One of the defining qualities of Ballantine’s work is ruthless truthtelling.

I’ve also been reading David Foster Wallace’s posthumous collection, Both Flesh and Not. DFW was seven years Ballantine’s junior and infinitely more famous than his obscure fellow writer. It is full of his distinctions: prolix and abstract, ingenious and dazzling, encyclopedic and digressive. (In his mid-twenties, in 1998, he anatomises with precocious sizzle his contemporaries in Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.) Later he wrote to Don DeLillo: ‘I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do.’

You get the feeling that Poe Ballantine never found it so easy to write. He records various attempts at literature and writing courses, quitting them from lack of interest. (Page 60: ‘Many of these professors are published writers. They have to know more about literature and its contraction that I do. They’ve read more books that I ever will . . . They teach it for Christ’s sake. I don’t know why their work should be so often passive and dull.’)  In contrast to DFW, Ballantine’s essays are concise (but not minimalist), naturalistic, emotional and  understated. Most of all, Ballantine tells his many stories with the compelling textures of a gritty life, fully mapped with where he is, who he’s with and why he is running away. You have to pay your dues to sing your blues.

Second paragraph from the devastating “Under the Moonflower Tree”:
I’ve known Dolores Wilde since she was five and I was eight. Now she is fifteen, and my constant thoughts about her are in danger of putting me in the same category as Stepdaddy. She wears sunglasses and ignores me, except that, just as she finishes, she turns her head in my direction, and the sun catches on the rims of her shades, producing a defiant flash.

Ballantine is a romantic. Enumerating his differences with his wife (“Thousand Peso Suit”) he writes: ‘She considers my writing time a folly and often reminds me that “we have no money,” which I don’t regard at all as a problem.’

His wonderful book, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere — quasi detective story, small town portrait, memoir of his time in Chadron, Nebraska — was one of my favourite reads of 2014. This new collection has been sequenced to make a coherent and satisfying whole, and is already one of my favourite books of 2015. Ballantine is one of the great narrator-characters, fully aware of his grievous flaws as a human being, son, boyfriend, friend and partner. But in recording his own and the lives and flaws of those around him he is, in Bob Dylan’s title, bringing it all back home. And Poe Ballantine turns out to be the most generous host in town.

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