“I was sent home early from school for not letting Billy Pushkin drink water after I made him eat one stick of white chalk and one stick of yellow.”
So begins “Dogs,” a story in Circumnavigation, the 1997 debut story collection of Steve Lattimore. I randomly picked up a copy of this Houghton Mifflin book (an uncorrected proof) at a time when I was developing a large appetite for contemporary lit and had recognized a pattern of fluid economy in the writers I admired.
In the mid-nineties, I craved to write like Lattimore, a poor man’s Raymond Carver, but everyday my scribblings of verse and dialogue proved that I didn’t have the requisite focus, patience, or discipline to become a craftsman of narrative. I owned and operated a used bookstore—and covered murder trials up the street at the county courthouse to help keep the lights on. I wrote fiction more like Bukowski than Carver and knew squat about the assembly line of creatives sharpening their paring knives at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
I was an academy outsider. Lattimore—a writer my own age!—wrote fiction that had appeared in American Short Fiction and was forthcoming in Harper’s Magazine. He was everything I wasn’t. He was a “peer” whose publication credits and accolades had helped land him a two-year Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University where he taught.
And yet his stories—his odd, precocious characters and seriocomic, unpredictable endings—spoke to me like the present-day commandments of Moses authored by George Saunders and Lorrie Moore.
Did Steve Lattimore ever publish another book? I haven’t a clue, but his debut story collection remains a clinic for readers and writers alike.
I tracked down Steve on LinkedIn and shared my recollection. Here’s his response:
Wow, Dan. I’m overwhelmed. Thank you so much. I’m so glad to know that something I wrote meant something to someone. You know, I was an academy outsider too, until I wasn’t. I came through Fresno State, where I graduated by the skin of my teeth. When I got to Iowa I saw that most others had come from Ivy League schools and insidery schools like Sarah Lawrence and Williams and shit like that. I’d definitely infiltrated foreign territory. Ditto Stanford, where I didn’t actually teach; I think my publicist at Houghton got that idea somewhere and started including it in my press kit, which I’m embarrassed to have had. It’s just stupid how far my little book of short stories carried me. I just retired from 20 years of teaching at Webster U. in St. Louis, a gig I’m so grateful to have had but couldn’t wait to leave. I just don’t belong with academics. Fortunately Webster had a shitload of jazz musicians and other artsy types that were also outsidery in the academy. I never did publish another book, by the way. I wrote a long and terrible novel that Houghton rightly and thankfully rejected, then I spent two decades as a fake writer teaching others to write, which thankfully I was actually pretty good at. Almost my entire cadre of friends are former students. Last month my wife and I moved to Oregon for a change of scenery. Went Oregon fly fishing for the first time today. I never remember that fly fishing is fucking hard and sucks. The Rogue River almost ate me for lunch. Anyway, thanks for reaching out, Dan. If you’re ever in Southern Oregon, you’ve got an invitation and a friend.
Photo by Abdulla Al Muhairi, used and adapted under CC.