You may have seen Dean Paschal sitting alone at the Hi-Ho Lounge, his thick gray bangs brushed to one side as he scribbles in a notebook or on a sales receipt. He does that sort of thing. Or maybe you saw him at the Moonlight Cafe. That's where most of the pieces in his first collection of short stories, By the Light of the Jukebox (Ontario Review Press), were written. Then again, maybe you saw Paschal at the VA Medical Center, New Orleans. Maybe he treated you for chest pains or a burst appendix. As an emergency-room physician, he does that sort of thing, too. Right now, though, it's the writing that consumes him.
Although Jukebox may be one of the most promising works of fiction to come out of New Orleans in the past decade, the 51-year-old Paschal is reluctant to call himself a writer. He says writing is merely something he does, not the focus of his life. In his spare time, though, he has completed three unpublished novels, which he hopes will be rediscovered if the eight stories in Jukebox are well received. So far, at least, the outlook is good. Paschal has already found a powerful literary ally in the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, whose company, Ontario Review Press, published Jukebox. On the cover, Oates calls Paschal's stories "tender and demonic, heartrending and chilling," then adds this whopper: "No more disturbing first collection of American short stories has been published in decades."
Sitting still in a rocking chair in his Uptown apartment, Paschal says he isn't sure his stories are as disturbing as Oates says they are -- that what emerges as disturbing may, in fact, be unintentional. "People may be disturbed by some of the subject matter," he explains in the quiet Southern accent he earned while growing up in the small south Georgia town of Albany. "I am more concerned with the technical problems of getting a story done than calculating the absolute effect they have on people. I like for the machinery of each story to take over and drive to the natural ending as opposed to anything I thought up as the ending."
This so-called machinery has the ability to deliver readers to a twisted, hallucinatory world, where, in the case of the nihilistic "L' Annonciation," a man will likely shoot his lover just to make her happy; where, in "Sautéing the Platygast," a family will sample the evolutionary process by ingesting all the various organisms found in their backyard pond, and where, in the erotically charged "Moriya," a mechanically minded boy will examine a life-size robotic doll in ways he never thought possible. As creepy as it may seem, Dr. Paschal's machine has a heart and a soul.
Much like his reality, Paschal's fiction is populated by damaged characters longing for healing and compassion. Since he is often forced to set his emotions aside while mending a sick patient, much of his writing examines the paradox between how we act and how we feel. "I like to have one part of the story fighting the other," he says. Unlike many of today's writers, Paschal's detachment is not ironic; it is necessary.
For example, in the masterfully composed "Genesis," an ER surgeon works feverishly to save a hemorrhaging junkie's life, while secretly hoping the patient will die. It is not that the surgeon dislikes the junkie; it is simply because the man, now dying, has been warned repeatedly about his lifestyle and refused to do anything about it. "You are not completely disoriented at the moment," Paschal writes, "you are beginning to see what we have seen from the very first, that you may die right here, right now. This recognition on your part indeed gives some satisfaction. The terror in your eyes gives some satisfaction. You are the little bully, the tow-headed unmanageable brat, who has at last stuck his finger in the fan. The first emotion we must all deal with is a sort of glee."
New Orleans appears just once in By the Light of the Jukebox -- a delightful break on Paschal's part from many local writers who tend to employ the city as a literary crutch. Still, almost every story in the collection was inspired by observations made while living here.
After seeing a confused dog trapped in the middle of a busy Magazine Street intersection, Paschal was compelled to write "Death of a Street Dog," a sorrowful account of a canine coming to terms with his own dream deferred. "The humans are watching me," Paschal writes. "They have noticed me because I couldn't decide which corner to go to. Midway across the street, I changed my mind, then changed my mind again. They have noticed I have no collar and that there is hair missing from my shoulder. If I don't keep moving now, they will call the chamber. They have noticed me now, all of them. But not in a good way." Paschal said the real dog scrambled off afterward, but really never left him. "I never saw him again," he recalled, "but the moment resonated in my mind."
While the remarkable quality of the stories in Jukebox indicate he is a master at the craft, Paschal says he doesn't actually enjoy writing. "I don't look forward to doing it," he says. "I tend to put it off. I think there are a lot of writers that look forward to starting each day, but that's not how it is for me. It's an ordeal."
Perhaps it is another of Paschal's dog stories, "The Puppies," which best explains why he keeps at it. In the story, two puppies, both of whom died just after birth, are engaged in a postmortem conversation that takes place in a kitchen freezer. Odd as it may seem, the deceased dogs shed light on the regular insights Paschal may often have in the ER. "It was within us," one puppy says to the other. "It was there. It was in our hearts and lungs. The air and blood and the life, like in every living thing, we had it. But it slipped away, too fast for telling. Like every living thing that ever lived, it was there inside us. We felt it but there was nothing to hold to, no way to grab. And we lost it before we saw each other's face."
Maybe this is why Paschal writes. Maybe he is trying to remind us (and himself) of the value of lungs breathing, blood pumping and hearts pounding. Or perhaps he is simply paying homage to the longing and affection, the horror and the pain, that reside in everyone -- even the poker-face doctor. "I can see it now," one puppy says. "It was within us. Who would have guessed? Who would have possibly guessed?"
- Tracie Morris/Young Studio
- 'I like to have one part of the story fighting the other,' physician Dean Paschal says of the short stories in his critically acclaimed By the Light of the Jukebox.