“Go for the Jugular”: James Braun Reviews Campfires of the Dead and the Living by Peter Christopher

Campfires of the Dead: If you know you know.

Know the cult-like status this long-out-of-print book has achieved, with original copies running over a hundred bucks on Amazon—or otherwise elsewhere—as of this writing. Know too, maybe, these stories as written under the wing and teachings of Gordon Lish, with an all-in focus on the acoustics of sentences and sentences with torque and swerve, recursion and consecution, repetition that circumnavigates an object of the author’s rendering. Maybe Chuck Palahniuk, you know Campfires of the Dead through. Maybe Tom Spanbauer.

Knowing or not, having read or having not, here is what there is for knowing when it comes to the stories of Peter Christopher: what might rather be looked away from gets instead looked at more closely. To first take that first book of his, Campfires of the Dead, which appears second, after The Living, Christopher writes with shameless honesty of the world of the lost, the forgotten and dispossessed, the downtrodden, people mostly bodies most would step on the feet of as they walk on by. In “The Careerist,” a chicken-sexer, sometimes bow-hunter named Sarno relates the comical relationship between his best friend Billy Boillit and Sweet Miss Stringbean amid their almost happiness. In “Hungry in America,” Chet of Shadow Security speaks in a roundabout way of cheating on his wife with Sansaray, the lead singer of a band Chet provides security for. “Campfires of the Dead,” the title story of the collection, is far from Christopher’s best—yet it does well to get at what seems to me one of Peter Christopher’s obsessions: that of death and mortality. In “Campfires of the Dead,” the story is less a story and more a voyeuristic prayer, one that depicts a get-together celebration of the living, a gathering of a family one day dead but for now, alive. It is a time pined for, an evening desired and thereby captured, stilled. As his teacher Lish commanded his students to find their objects, death in itself is Peter Christopher’s object—what he always comes back to, to show how the dead remain with us. Peter Christopher, he writes of fear. But not with fear.

Or should I write wrote. Christopher wrote without fear. As of April 15, 2008, he is no longer with us. These stories, unearthed and published posthumously thanks to Andrew Wilt at 11:11 Press, are how he remains with us.

But about The Living. These newer stories possess a difference, a quality lesser-than that of Campfires of the Dead—these stories were written between 1990-2004, and written under the guidance of Harry Crews, another literary icon. Campfires of the Dead in itself was a bit of an anomaly—a one-time transcendence of language—impossible to replicate. Still there is much to admire in these later stories. In them you can still see the love for sentences, the attention towards recursive language, and still too, a cast of characters living at their lowest lows. “Lost Dogs,” the opening story of The Living and what is, in my opinion, the best story in this half of the collection, gives us Roland, a homeless scavenger who spends his days picking through dumpsters for leftovers, and whose surrealist language reflects his state of mind after the trauma of losing someone close to him. The following story “Fishing, With What I Have,” also refuses to look away from the necessary: “I once saw my father naked, crawling on the floor, eating what was left of the ashtrays …” Here again I am reminded of Chuck Palahniuk’s notion of “Fiction is not about looking good.”

Stylistically, Christopher always likened his own work to that of Barry Hannah’s (also a student of Lish). The stories in The Living maintain this stylistic propensity, enacting a tribute to Hannah’s work if ever there was one. Content-wise, Christopher’s story “Son of Man” follows Bass, a saxophone player among other homeless subway musicians, just as Hannah’s “Testimony of Pilot” tells the story of Quadberry, another saxophone player. Christopher’s “That Heavy Rider” contains a character whose mental state is stuck in the distant past: “My mind is the roan stolen from the prosperous railpack attorney James Tillman Ryan,” much like Hannah’s Ray. “Fishing, With What I Have,” ends in a similar way to Hannah’s story “Idaho” from Captain Maximus:

Christopher’s version: “I look down at what I have written, and I know that I am caught. I know that I am not getting away from any of it.”

Hannah’s: “I look down at my hand. It’s not a gun. It’s only a pencil. I am not going anywhere.”

Just as we see Hannah’s influence in Christopher’s prose, the stories in The Living appear to be influenced by another entity: the work of Denis Johnson. At times, The Living feels reminiscent of Jesus’ Son (the former having been written between 1990-2004, the latter having been published in 1992), such as in the title story, “The Living,” in which Christopher writes: “Not too long ago on the subway train, a skinny guy wearing a hospital name bracelet …” a nod to Johnson’s story “Out on Bail,” where several characters of the same nature are found drinking in a bar, The Vine. In the same story (Christopher’s), an ending dreamlike image of raining fetuses provides a callback to an object mentioned earlier in the story, the narrator’s now-dead best friend’s snowglobe—and in the end, when the narrator says what he says, “I could see their mouths opening greedily for the sweet, hot milk of life, and I was no longer afraid,” we get the sense of rebirth and retribution, two things I believe Christopher believed in as much as Denis Johnson did. Perhaps Christopher was seeking some sort of kinship with Johnson in his work. Perhaps Johnson’s work—both in content and in style—spoke to something Christopher also wished to speak to. The Living continues in this manner of conversing with Johnson’s work, with instances of falling asleep while driving, peeping through windows on the innocent, a woman who once took a bullet through the cheek …

Peter Christopher, Denis Johnson, Barry Hannah. They all live on and through each other, as they should. Every writer stands on the shoulders of other writers. It should be said here that, regardless of any outward influence, Christopher’s prose manifests its own wild autonomy. A stylistic genius, his work beats to its own broken cadence, writing as if singing in a culvert.

But what else Peter Christopher leaves us with, wants us to know: how we live on through our objects. A flamingo planted on top of a gravestone, a list of lasts (last meals) in “Hunger,” the snowglobe from “The Living.” Death as an object Peter Christopher lives on through. You will also find in these pages parts of Christopher’s everyday, a newspaper clipping that tells of a fire he was involved in, receipts from his grocery shopping, a library overdue notice for $273.75 for William Tester’s book Darling (another out-of-print book from a student of Lish; a book that, from my reading, also deserves another chance), real-life momentos of the living myth of Peter Christopher.

Peter Christopher wrote sentences unlike any other. Once a teacher, he taught his students to pick through the broken glass of their own sentences, to discover, as Jack Gilbert (student of Lish) says, “The language to which we alone are native.” Though known to have taught at Georgia Southern University, he also often came to Portland, Oregon, to teach Dangerous Writing alongside Tom Spanbauer (student of Lish), a version of minimalism that encourages writers to speak from a place of truth, to go to the afraid place inside them in order to transcend their fears. Christopher and Spanbauer vouched for the idea of fiction as thinly veiled memoir, the literary genre of Roman à clef, and in this way, we see intimations of Christopher’s life within his collection. In “Lost Dogs”: “Do you remember the time Tom had to move out from his brick hole on the Lower East Side and we moved him in the middle of the night so the landlord wouldn’t … please …” And in the final story of The Living, “The Visitor”: “… when I look in a mirror at my eye eaten by cancer …” Peter Christopher’s eye was eaten by cancer.

To read Peter Christopher is to see how the potentials of language far surpass what limitations we may have already set for it. To read these stories is to carve into our hearts what fiction can really do. And though gone, still his words, his teachings, live on. To this day Chuck Palahniuk teaches how Peter Christopher taught him the concept of “Hiding the I.” To this day I hear Christopher’s words as I write, what I have only known and heard secondhand, these whispering drones of the dead …

Peter Christopher saying in my ear: “Anything can happen now that everything has.”

Saying: “Live. Thrive.”

He who says to you, “Go for the jugular.”

Campfires of the Dead and the Living, by Peter Christopher. Minneapolis, Minnesota: 11:11 Press, September 2022. 266 pages. $14.95 paper.

James Braun’s work has appeared and is forthcoming in Fiction International, DIAGRAM, Sequestrum, Minnesota Review, Laurel Review, Bayou Magazine, and elsewhere. James is currently a first-year MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

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