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Lon Otto: Flash Writer From the ’70’s

Here is a Lon Otto flash:

A Very Short Story

A man is at a party with his former lover and her new husband.  She is in one part of the room with her husband, talking with some old friends.  He is a little way off, telling a story.  And then he starts making a peculiar kittenish, rhythmical crying sound, then continues with his story.

She and her husband do not look at each other.  It is the sound she makes while making love.  He does not pay any attention to them.  The story is not about her; it is just that the woman in his story makes the same sound in bed as she makes.  There is a certain tension in the room.

Welcome to the word of Lon Otto. Zany, impulsive, unforgiving. In college I read Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order (a book on writing and reading poetry and fiction) and there I chanced upon this short. All the electrodes in my body seemed to stand and say, What? and Yes! simultaneously. It was the expression I was after, though I didn’t know it at the time, and I immediately found Lon Otto’s first book, A Nest of Hooks.

In ‘A Very Short Story’ we have a hint something is askew but no explanation. Except for ‘peculiar kittenish’ the words are plain and unadorned. Talk of making love, listening, watching, ignoring—this is the aftermath of a failed relationship. The “certain tension” is everywhere. We don’t know if the man is lying about his story, it seems too fantastical. He knows they are there and indirectly he is passing a knife through the new couple, though they are on the other side of the room.

Another story from this collection that stood out (aided by the fact of my hometown making an appearance in the title) was ‘The Milwaukee Poets.’ Under 1000 words, its narrator, a professor, takes a morning bus ride to get some errands done before teaching. Soon a “somehow familiar” young man gets on and says to the narrator, ‘“What do you think about the Milwaukee Poets?”

“What Milwaukee poets?” I asked. To my knowledge, I didn’t know any poets in or from Milwaukee, much less have any thoughts about them.

Identity confusion ensues and the young man thinks he’s another teacher at the same school, or does he? Later, standing on a bridge ruminating about the encounter, the narrator says, “Though I had heard his voice many times, I had never before met him face to face, and it was that that had upset me. For years he has been calling me on the phone, pretending that I am someone else, usually someone I do not even know.”

This mystery, this pandemonium has stayed and soaked itself into my writing. How can life go down these tracks when everything we’ve been trained to believe tells us otherwise? This fiction plumbs the improvisational, the everyday that is beyond mere anecdote. Our souls sing when nothing is prepared. We surprise ourselves and others when we deliver as (in the words of King Lear), “unaccommodated man.”

A bread murderer, Costa Rican sloths arguing about covering their shit in the forest. Otto’s  a wonderful, playful world full of laughs, confusion and heartbreak. Causality falls away in these stories and we are unhinged, afloat. Anything can happen and everything does.

A Nest of Hooks is available from the University of Iowa and Cover Me, another set of stories, is available from Coffee House Press.

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8 thoughts on “Lon Otto: Flash Writer From the ’70’s

  1. Hey. When I read “A Very Short Story” I remembered it from somewhere, but couldn’t place it. And then you mentioned Dobyn’s book, and it came together. I’d read that book a while ago too.

    I’d love to see some more reflections on unsung flash heroes.

  2. I had a workshop with Lon Otto about five or six years ago. Don’t hear many folks talking about him or A Nest of Hooks these days. Nice post. Good to see his name spreading through the interwebs.

  3. Both are excellent books. Did a lot of wandering through library stacks looking in bound collections of literary journals, and used book stores in 1988 and 1989 in Ann Arbor and don’t remember how I stumbled upon Otto’s writing, but did and found both collections.

    Glad to hear he’s still out there teaching his craft.

  4. Adding to what Christopher Higgs and others wrote: it’s so great to see people digging Lon’s work and A Nest of Hooks in particular (which continues to amaze). I had the good fortune to study under him as an undergraduate, and all the qualities he had as a teacher–generous, challenging, sharply observant, ethical–were the very ones that made him so fun to know as a person.

    One of his craft talks at Iowa is posted on the web in podcast form, in case anyone is curious for additional links:

    Avoiding Literary Thin Ice

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