Of course you want this man to tell you a story.
Richard Buckner has been recognized as a talented songwriter for nearly twenty years now. In that vein, he’s evolved from the more straightforward, story-songs at the heart of his debut, Bloomed, to a set of cryptic and poetic tendencies that still suggest a story is lurking somewhere between the lines. But ferreting out the particulars feels less urgent with each listen to albums like Dents and Shells and Our Blood, where so much is happening musically and emotionally.
It’s helpful to understand where this places Buckner in terms of relative fame. I remember a performance when he talked between songs about going to a protest with Sally Timms and having the urge to say, “Don’t you know who we are? We sell hundreds of records!” No doubt he was exaggerating – Merge wouldn’t keep him on the roster if things were that grim – but he does drive a battered pickup, one with hundreds of thousands of miles on it, across the country on tour. He carries his own gear and performs in small enough venues that it’s not out of the question to see him at the bar before a show. This is not a lucrative enterprise I’m describing, and it’s no doubt wearying. There were rumors a couple of years ago that he’d given up music and taken a 9-5 job. Apparently he did drive a forklift for a while, and worked as a teacher for a period as well. Somewhere in there was talk that he had plans to write fiction, an appealing prospect to many of his fans, myself included, especially after the tour journal he kept a couple of years ago. The fiction didn’t pan out, due in part to his realization that it wasn’t the best form for him.
Then months later, out of nowhere, he shared a short story, “Your Directions,” on his site. It’s written in the second person and reminded me a bit of Ablutions, Patrick DeWitt’s first novel, though that could just be the POV and the booze involved. There’s plenty to recommend “Your Directions” apart from the fact that Buckner wrote it. There’s an almost palpable sense of self-consciousness, of watching people watching you, at every turn:
Inside The Post Office there’ll be a long, cane-shaped line to the counter. In fact, it’ll be all the way to the door, so wait outside, looking in at the line until it moves. When a customer leaves and the door opens up, slip inside behind the last in line, but immediately focus on the greeting card display against the wall, taking off your sunglasses and fake-reading as if you’ve been there for a while in an attempt at seeming as though you’re not the new last guy; that you’re one of them, just deep in your world.
It’s a painfully awkward posture, rendered so convincingly that it prompts sympathy, an impression only strengthened by moments like this: “Hand the envelope over and answer the perishable/hazardous question. Say ‘nice day’ or something and then get out before you say the wrong thing or the right thing in the wrong way.” Better still is the observation later, remembering service at a pizza place, that “Once, as they handed you your take-out, they looked at you with disdain like you had an erect nipple of shit on the tip of your nose.”
There’s no epiphany here, no great change in this individual from the start of the story to the finish. There’s also no sense of lack for that, given the quality of writing as the end nears with the narrator sitting in a bar: “Every once in a while a small plastic blue chip will appear in front you. It means that someone has bought a round. It doesn’t mean they like you or even want to talk to you, but it would just be sort of weird, maybe, if they didn’t include everyone. Or, maybe not. They’ll talk to the person sitting on the other side of you at the bar like you’re a ghost. They’ll talk right through you.”
It’s unclear what all this means in terms of whether Buckner is back to writing fiction, and what his goal is if he’s started back. He does have a new album, Surrounded, due out in September. In the meantime, this is a tantalizing glimpse of Buckner the writer, working in an unaccustomed form.
– John McIntyre