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Go to War, Jen Michalski

April 14, 2013

At the CityLit Festival, Saturday, April 13, Jen Michalski read from her forthcoming novel The Tide King, about Stanley Polenksy, a Polish-American from Baltimore, whose mother gives him an herb that promises eternal life as he heads off to World War II. Most of what Michalski read depicts the relationship of Polensky and another Private named Calvin Johnson as they get to know each other in the army, and ultimately march through an endless forest, lost behind the lines. Michalski’s language has taken on even greater vividness and clarity and her war passages are reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay at its best.

Here is the meeting of Stanley and Johnson (the excerpt she read is available here as “Go to War, Stanley Polensky”):

They carried what they could carry. Most men carried two pairs of socks in their helmets, K rations in their pockets, their letters and cigarettes in their vests. That queer little private, Stanley Polensky also carried a book, and it was not the Bible.

“Polensky, throw that thing away.” With the nose of his carbine Calvin Johnson, also a private, poked him in the small of his back, where a children’s book, Tom Swift and His Planet Stone, was tucked in his pants, under his shirt. “No wonder you can’t get any.”

“At least I can read.” Polensky flipped him the bird over his shoulder. They were in a line, two men across, stretching for miles from Cerami on their way to Troina. Stanley Polensky was a boy who, back in Ohio, Johnson would have given the full order to. He would have nailed him with a football where he sat in the bleachers, reading a book. He would have spitballed him from the back of class or given him a wedgie in the locker room after track. Polensky cried in his bunk at night for their first week at Fort Benning, wrote long letters to his mother the way others wrote to their girls.

Or here Michalsi describes their meals:

Every day, they had scrambled eggs and ham, biscuits, coffee, and four cigarettes for breakfast; cheese, biscuits, hard candy, and cigarettes for lunch; and a ham and veal loaf, biscuits, hard candies, and cigarettes for dinner.

And finally this most spectacular passage:

“Right now, I would eat anything,” Stanley shivered. He shivered when he was awake and he shivered when he was dreaming. His breath staccatoed with shivers. He shivered when he peed and he shivered when he shat and he shivered when he shivered. Stanley would eat his shivers, if he could, but they would probably give him diarrhea, he thought, like everything else.

Michalski’s recent collection of novellas (which I review here), also released this year, bring remarkably different voices to the page, and yet, the rhythmic control and precision of the language and the sweeping and yet intimate plot of this preview of Tide King are even more assured and virtuosic–and also more natural and less labored. It’s likely that this book will finally make Michalski known to the wider world–in a big way. Seriously, if I weren’t entirely averse to all attempts to predict the future, I would say this book will be huge. But there’s no accounting for people’s tastes, so I will say instead, with some certainty, that it will be important.