Justin Brouckaert's avatar

Justin Brouckaert

Lesson 1—Burn one ant colony with a magnifying glass. This will instill a false sense of deific omnipotence that will be important to lose once the Apocalypse has arrived and you are forced to scavenge on rare dog breeds.
Homework: Choose one faith to believe in.

From Alexander Lumans’s "Phys. Ed. 112 Syllabus: You and Your Apocalypse" in Booth 

Italo Calvino in The Paris Review

Italo Calvino in The Paris Review

THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT by Aimee Bender

                     

“‘Oh,’ he keeps saying over and over, ‘oh,’ and his eyes are closed in  concentration. When we sleep together, he holds me like he loves me. I’ve noticed this: when it’s the first date, and you fuck, the guy holds you much better than he does the next few times. The first date, you’re sort of the stand-in for whomever he loved last, before he fully realizes you’re not her, and so you get all this nice residue emotion. I felt cherished, tucked into his belly, like we’d known each other for years and I was his wonderful girl and we both slept great.”

From “Fell This Girl”

2014 Book #32: BREWSTER by Mark Slouka

                         

"We could change the world, rearrange the world, but that’s not how it felt, ever. Not in Brewster. How it felt was like somebody twice as strong as you had their hand around your throat. You could choke or fight."

2014 Book #31: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

                

”’Mother’s glass eye turned inward,’” Augustus began. As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.

2014: Book #28: GOLD BOY, EMERALD GIRL by Yiyun Li

  

"My father died less than a year after my mother, and against his wish I buried their urns next to each other. I visit them every year on my birthday, my only trip outside the district where I live and teach. My mother fell in love at an early age, my father late; they both fell for someone who would not return their love, yet in the end their story is the only love story I can claim, and I live as proof of that story, of one man’s offering to a woman from his meager existence, and of her returning it with her entire adult life."

From “Kindness”

You ask me if I know what I’ve taken from Detroit, but has anyone ever asked what Detroit took from me? What Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer and Scott Mitchell took from me? I used to love the game. I used to think I was capable of love. Son, you don’t know how easy it was for me to change direction. I was born to do this shit. And now look at me—look at how it all went to waste. By ’95 Wayne Fontes was feeding me a half flask of vodka before every game. It was the only way I could face them, all of the fans who thought I was their savior. The fans who thought I was an answer and forgot I was a man. And now you ask me if I regret the life I’ve lived? If I miss going back to that field, those people, who took from me everything I ever loved? Son, you don’t even know what you’re saying. You don’t even know who I am. All I ever wanted to do was run.

"Barry Sanders Speaks," Stymie

Writers Do It Best: Justin Brouckaert | Ploughshares

Big thanks to Andrew Ladd over at the Ploughshares blog for publishing my short essay on writing and basketball!

2014 Book #26: ONCE A RUNNER by John L. Parker, Jr.

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Last night I finished reading Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr. I reached a point around midnight where I had to commit to breezing through the last forty pages or save it for the next day, and of course I chose the former. It’s the type of book that ends on an extreme adrenaline high, one of the few books I’ve ever read that accurately captures the action of an athletic event. (So, of course, getting to sleep after that was fun.)

Once a Runner was something of a cult classic among runners, originally written in 1978 and sold out of the trunk of Parker’s car at road races. When I was a teenager, still at the height of my running career, it was still incredibly difficult to get a copy. It was in-between printing, or maybe it was before Scribner reissued the book. The book became a thing of legend, something passed down from coaches to runners, but it was never passed down to me. I asked my parents’ for it for Christmas, but of course they couldn’t find a copy for less than a hundred dollars.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had read this book at seventeen. I definitely don’t think I would have noticed the book’s flaws quite so much at that age. Maybe I would have dropped everything and started writing! Or maybe I would have gone out and tried to do something crazy, like sixty quarter-mile repeats. I know I would have loved it, either way.

My stance on it now is this: it’s certainly not the greatest novel ever written. The plot is a bit clunky and hokey, the prose is often a bit overdone, and there are some cheap tricks in terms of POV and narration that, by principle, turn me off. But it might just be the best book about running I’v ever read. Parker captures the training of a distance runner, the camaraderie of a distance runners, the complex relationship they have with pain. He uses the concepts “demons” and “the orb” to explain, perhaps as best as it can be explained, what drives someone like Cassidy to take on an obsession so seemingly joyless and grim. Parker is there to record the moments of poetry that come on a run, the anxiety, the doubt, the guilt. He writes races very well. He writes about what it means to be an elite runner, and he writes about it accurately, and that is enough for me to overlook the novel’s other flaws.

Normally I post a single quote from the books I read, but there are too many in Once a Runner that hit me hard, that made me miss the insanity of high mileage. So here are a few beautiful quotes:

Cassidy, when asked, “What’s the point?”

"It’s a simply choice: we can all be good boys and wear our letter sweaters around and get our little degrees and find some nice girl to settle, you know, down with…take up what a friend of ours calls the hearty challenges of lawn care…Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scaled dogs, put records out of reach! Make the stands gasp as we blow into an unearthly kick from three hundred yards out! We can become God’s own messengers delivering the dreaded scrolls! We can race dark Satan till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straightaway!…They’ll speak our names in hushed tones, ‘Those guys are animals,’ they’ll say! We can lay it on the line, bust a gut, show them a clean pair of heels. We can sprint the turn on a spring breeze and feel the winter leave our feet!…We can, by God, let our demons loose and just wail on!

On gauging distance and energy in a race

"A runner is a miser, spending the pennies of his energy with great stinginess, constantly wanting to know how much he has spend and how much longer he will be expected to pay. He wants to be broke at precisely the moment he no longer needs his coin."

The end of a very long, very beautiful passage on how a “true” competitive runner endures pain

"The true competitive runner, simmering in his own existential juices, endured his melancholia the only way he knew how: gently, together with those few others who also endured it, yet very much alone. He ran because it grounded him in basics. There was both life and death in it; it was unadulterated by media hype, trivial cares, political meddling. He suspected it kept him from that most real variety of schizophrenia that the republic was then sprouting like mushrooms on a stump.

Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.”

Cassidy in the first set of his interval workout

"They began. The first two or three always seemed somehow especially bad. Actually that was misleading. They seemed sluggish because the body was shocked by such a sudden demand for sustained speed. The heart rate shot up to the hummingbird levels it would have to maintain for some time. The legs became prematurely heavy, and the central nervous system sent up the message that such punishment cannot be endured. But the central nervous system is overridden, of course, the runner knowing far better by now than his own synapses what his body can and cannot be expected to do. The runner deals nearly deadly in such absolutes of physical limitations that the nonrunner confronts only in dire situations. Fleeing from an armed killer or deadly animal, a layman will soon find the frightening limits that even stark terror will not overcome. The runner knows such boundaries like he knows the sidewalks of his own neighborhoods."

Cassidy in the last set of his interval workout

"All of this availed Quenton Cassidy not at all. His deeply ingrained conditioning and his mahogany-hard legs merely allowed I’m to push himself that much more. He had the mental ability to literally run himself right into the ground like Sambo’s tiger: He knew that Bruce Denton expected him to do exactly that, and, just as each repetition made the next seem more and more impossible, he knew that without question he would do it. There was no refuge in injury, his body could not be injured in this way. There was no refuge in mercy, there was nothing to forgive and no one to issue dispensation. And at last he saw: there was no refuge in cowardice, because he was not afraid. There was no alternative, it just had to be done.”

Cassidy on the night before his final race

"Cassidy walked on past the finish line, across which someone would hold the taut yarn and blink as the runners flashed by. IT was sell more than twenty-four hours away, but standing there in the calm anonymous night five yards past the familiar white post, Quentin Cassidy knew at that instant the depth of his frenzied yearning to feel the soft white strand weaken and separate against his heaving chest.

The demons were now in control; it no longer made him afraid.”

Just before the race

"Cassidy’s heart tried to leap out through his thin taut skin and hop into his wet hands. But outwardly it was all very calm, very serene, just as alway,s and it seemed to last a tiny forever, just like that, a snapshot of them all there on the curved parabola of a starting line eight giant hearts attached to eight pairs or bellows like lungs mounted on eight pairs of supercharged stilts. They were poised there on the edge of some howling vortex they had run ten thousand miles to get to. Now they had to run one more."

2014 Book #25: EFFACEMENT by Elizabeth Arnold

                            

"To appear, to shine

is to be a face.

Effacement’s closer to death, the face

wingless,

nothing but a wing.”

From “Monster”