When Pamela Painter read my story “Morphine Drip,” she noted the phrase, “all the comfort sin can provide,” and told me I should use that as a title someday. Right away, I knew that would be the title for my collection of short stories. I liked the phrase because it held questions: What kind of comfort does sin provide? Is the comfort of a sin ever truly a salve?
Sin is a loaded word, of course. I’m not talking about sin in the religious sense, although if you’ve once been religious, then God looms over your acts with a judging eye. The irony is that God—the Christian God, at least—is a sinner as well. He’s unstable, needy, brooding, violent, and sometimes desperate (not surprising since we’re made in his image). He is an angry lover, alternately worried about being spurned and vengefully punishing those who spurn him. God is the ultimate contradictory character, because, like us, he’s in search of becoming and sometimes behaves badly along the way.
And that is one definition of sin to me: sin is a necessary part of the search of becoming. As Emerson said, “That which we call sin in others is experiment for us.” One person’s sin is another person’s salvation because sin is a way to push the boundaries of life, whether they’re religious rules, societal conventions, or family expectations. Martin Luther defined sin as any departure from God, and that’s true because you’re not looking to God for answers but to yourself—so sin is part of your essential freedom. The worst sin might be defined not as a betrayal of a god, but as a betrayal of yourself.
That’s what my stories in All the Comfort Sin Can Provide form themselves around: people wrestling with who they are, who they want to be, and in this wrestling, they naturally slip (or fall). They lunge in pursuit of meaning and grace, or just the solace of pleasure, and they might hurt themselves or hurt others in those lunges, but to be a saint, you have to first be a sinner. As Jung said, inside of every alcoholic there’s a seeker who got on the wrong track.
To read novels is to engage in a lifelong inquiry into sin, so I put together this list of some of the books I’ve read over the years that have been instruction manuals of such lunges for me—and guides in the writing of this collection.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My introduction to sin in literature. Nietzsche declared God dead in the late 1800s, but Dostoyevsky was the first to dramatize a godless world with such a gritty, feverish pitch. I naively picked this book off of a library shelf as a fourteen-year-old because I was doing a research paper on crime. Little did I know that it would be an introduction to a lifetime of writing about characters wrestling with their consciences in an ill-defined world. As Raskolnikov said, “The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin.” We are born into a type of punishment that is inescapable because there is not the faintest promise of deliverance.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is one of those books that many writers try to imitate. I’ve tried to imitate it for more than twenty years, without success. Menacing. Absurd. Funny. Tender. Desultory. Hallucinatory. The eleven linked stories are a definition of careening waywardness. A drifter who we only know by his nickname “Fuckhead” staggers aimlessly through abortions and car crashes, drug deals and murder, finding himself finally in the first stages of a highly tentative recovery. As a reader, you’re as off balance as the stories. You wince while you’re laughing, then you wince at the fact you’re laughing. Johnson is a master of stripped-down prose that holds more than the math of its words. “I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck,” begins one story, revealing Fuckhead’s numbed sensibility that weighs beauty and horror the same way. But then a burst of poetry, a moment of numinous grace, will lace its way into the story in the oddest, off-kilter way as if to say that Jesus’s offspring just might be somewhere in the world, perhaps even shooting up next to you.
We the Animals by Justin Torres
We the Animals is a brilliantly compressed novel that is many things, often paradoxical. It’s short but feels big. It’s violent but feels lyrical. It’s a book about bonds that’s fraught with schisms. Three brothers move as one in the novel, in a pack, as if hunting together—for more food, more attention, more everything. Their parents started having babies as teenagers in Brooklyn, and they love and desire each other, but tenderness often turns tempestuous. The brothers’ ravenous searching leads to dramatic, and sometimes dangerous, places. Torres captures that rupture of need with percussive, demanding prose:
We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.
Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker seemed to always be staring at me with her intense eyes and latticework of tattoos and piercings when I moved to San Francisco in 1989. There weren’t billboards of her, but in my memory, it seems as if there were. She glared from the covers of her books with a punk-rock challenge in every bookstore I walked into. Her art wasn’t rarified but full of risk and desire, imperfect and reeling and questing and abrasive with truth-telling, challenging to self and society. She was an artist who distrusted safety, and that was just one lesson she taught me as a writer and as a person. “I found my voice was a reaction to all that voice stuff,” as Acker put it. She lived against and wrote against. Reading Acker is to inhabit the unbearable and to make it bearable with unspeakable words. “Perhaps if human desire is said out loud, the urban planes, the prisons, the architectural mirrors will take off, as airplanes do. The black planes will take off into the night air and the night winds, sliding past and behind each other, zooming, turning and turning in the redness of the winds, living, never to return,” she writes in Empire of the Senseless.
The Diary of Anaïs Nin by Anaïs Nin
I discovered Anaïs Nin as a twenty-two-year-old who had just embarked on being a writer, which is the perfect time to discover Anais Nin because she presents a world full of artistic and erotic possibility in her journals. She beckons you into the forbidden, her diary a place of respite from the malaise of her life and the vehicle through which she kept her fantasies of being loved alive. Nin was the first of her kind, and like anyone who is the first of their kind, she was celebrated, reviled, and misunderstood. In a time when she was censored, she chronicled her interior life, the “uncensored dream, the free unconscious,” and in its intimate details, its interiority, you feel her lifting the veil of her thoughts with each sentence and “proceeding from the dream.” As a small-town Midwestern writer brought up on Hemingway and Raymond Carver, Nin introduced me to a more exotic life with her sexual escapades with Henry Miller and her encounters with mysterious artistic figures like Antonin Artaud and Djuna Barnes. To write so passionately about the nature of self and to flout societal norms by following the pulse of her passions—this was a recipe for how to live and write to me. Nin has now been snatched and reduced by internet memes, but I experienced her when reading her still felt like a dare. We need authors to feel as if they’re a dare. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom,” she writes.
Luster by Raven Leilani
I often write about adultery, so I often wonder if adultery is exhausted as a dramatic subject. It’s easy to say we’re living in a puritanical age—when sex has been watered down on the page, when the rules of political correctness have entered the bedroom—but Luster, by Raven Leilani, counters all of that. Luster is an adultery novel that is also a class novel that is also a race novel that is also a novel about misogyny, ambition, malaise, youth, recklessness, the search for self… and wearing a swimsuit for days on end when you’re too dispirited to wash your underwear (we’ve all been there, right?). The main character, a Black woman in her twenties named Edie, is the “office slut” in a publishing company, watching porn at work, wanting to be an artist but not being an artist, and having an affair with an older white man who is in an open marriage. There’s sex. A lot of scenes that might make you uncomfortable. Daring and wonderful writing. Ennui laced with horniness. Darkness. And no easy answers.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reads like a memoir, but it’s really a prose poem that just happens to be a novel, the story building through rhythm and repetition, arresting images and piquant lyricism. It’s also a letter, written from the narrator Little Dog to his mother, an effort to tell her who he is and what he has experienced as a Vietnamese immigrant in the US, even though she is unable to read it. It’s about the chasm between people—the chasm we reach across, both with language and with touch, which Vuong explores so vividly and sensually and surprisingly, especially in the sex scenes between Little Dog and his first lover, a white boy named Trevor who he meets during a job picking tobacco. Violence tinges or defines every relationship in the book, and when Little Dog submits to Trevor’s brusque sexual demands, he thinks, “Violence was already mundane to me, was what I knew, ultimately, of love.” With Trevor, Little Dog repeats and interrogates his submission to his mother’s blows. “What do you call the animal that, finding the hunter, offers itself to be eaten? A martyr? A weakling?” When Trevor dies from an overdose, Little Dog looks at Trevor’s Facebook page, where Trevor’s father has written, “I’m broken in two,” and he thinks, “Now I’m broken into.” This book broke into me, and broke me in two.
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
I was introduced to David Wojnarowicz through this gritty, lyrical, damning book, an autobiography-cum-essay collection published in 1991, shortly before he died of AIDS. I read the book before I knew anything about his gritty, lyrical, damning visual art, which he was more renowned for. He was a refugee from a violent family, a former street kid and teen hustler, and everything he created was spawned by his wounds, the streets he inhabited, and being a gay man in a homophobic and violent world. Close to the Knives is a memoir of disintegration, as he called it, alluding both to its cut-up structure and to the transient, splintered world it maps. Life on the streets was a nightmare, but also a place of sensual freedom. Much of his most beautiful writing is about cruising on the abandoned Chelsea piers. “So simple,” he writes, “the appearance of night in a room full of strangers, the maze of hallways wandered as in films, the fracturing of bodies from darkness into light, sounds of plane engines easing into the distance.” Being an outsider gave Wojnarowicz an arresting honesty, and he used the most intimate of experiences as a window into his rage with the damning ways political systems work to exclude and silence the unwanted.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
I’d just been dumped in the dramatic manner that only a twenty-two-year-old can be when I discovered this book. My salve, as unhealthy as it might have been, was to immerse myself in tragic novels with characters careening through the fiery hells of rejection. The more self-destructive, the better. The best in this genre turned out to be Under the Volcano, which tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul in Mexico who tries to reunite with his estranged wife when she returns on the Day of the Dead in 1938. The novel is many things at once: It’s harrowing and lyrical and tangled. It’s religious and mystical and political. Its fervid writing, sodden by Lowry’s own extreme alcoholism and the many mezcals Firmin lifts to right himself, teems with symbolism and literary references. In the vertiginous swirl of it all, one line of graffiti centers the story: “No se puede vivir sin amar” (“One cannot live without love”). The line weaves its way not only through Firmin’s lunging soul, but into the story of an era when fascism was emerging, when much of the world was splitting apart into the depths of its own sin, its own evil.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
The Savage Detectives is about so many things, but above all, it’s about the beautiful and chaotic poetic search for truth in a city that mirrors that beautiful and chaotic poetic search, Mexico City in the mid-1970s, where Roberto Bolaño was an avant-garde poet full of mad quests. Like much of his work, the novel is autobiographical, its first section narrated in the form of a diary by a seventeen-year-old poet named Juan García Madero, who tells of his erotic and poetic adventures among a gang of literary guerillas who have named themselves the “Visceral Realists.” The Visceral Realists steal books, write, read, drink, have sex, and burn with all of the mad energy young poets are supposed to. The group is led by the Chilean Arturo Belano (an alter ego of Bolaño) and the Mexican Ulises Lima, a cavorting duo searching for a 1920s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero, throughout the novel. We read Bolaño to inhabit his psyche. He immerses us in the pulses of Mexico City and what it feels like to be so excited by literature and possibility and all of the raucous, daring, questing, loving energy that drives a young artist. I traveled back to my own very hopeful writerly days that were inspired by Rimbaud’s dictum to “ravage the senses,” recognizing my earnest and sometimes embarrassing striving in passages such as, “Depressed all day, but writing and reading like a steam engine,” or “Then I read William Burroughs until dawn.” Every young artist has been there. But the novel, despite its playful postmodernism, its series of spinning monologues that mirror the polyphonous, spinning lives of young, bohemian artists, is also melancholic because all of those hopes of youth will be extinguished.
So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith
Since I co-founded 100 Word Story, I have a special affection for the short-short, and Leesa Cross-Smith is a master of the form. There are forty-two short stories in this collection, some told through email, text exchanges, plays, and recipes. Teenage girls sneak out to meet boyfriends. High school friends kiss all night as they binge-watch Winona Ryder movies. Cross-Smith captures life and the wild lunges to live it fully with a lush, sensuous eye. Such shorts challenge those who want cohesive, complete narratives, but a story like “You Should Love the Right Things” is plenty for me. It reads, in its entirety: “Not how it hurts when you press down on a yellowish-blue, purple-black bruise, but the feeling you get when you lift up. Let go.” When I read that story, I thought about it all day, as if trying to solve a Zen koan. It’s just a moment, but it’s so much more, too: I see a character grappling with complicated desire. I see a character pushing the boundaries of life in pursuit of meaning and grace. I see how pleasure is never just pleasure.
Now We’re Getting Somewhere by Kim Addonizio
There are many ways to read Kim Addonizio, but many have misread her by seeing her as a confessional poet because of the way she bares all on the page—sex and booze, and all of the joys and pains of sex and booze, and more. But the sin on the page is part of larger ideas, a performance that works with the confessional mode, which is not necessarily literal confession. In her poem, “Confessional Poetry,” from her newest collection Now We’re Getting There, she deconstructs the confessional mode by comparing writing to such things as “sewing rhinestones on your traumas so you can wear them to a pain festival” and “beating a piñata selfie with a pink rubber bat so you can pet the demons that fall out.” She explores how the confessional is a genre to work within by tying risqué sex to high-minded intellectual theory to the self-indulgence of social media in a single brushstroke that brilliantly critiques the label of “confessional poet” on several levels: “Right now I’m getting fingered in a museum bathroom during a Cindy / Sherman exhibit / while discussing Susan Sontag’s “The Pornographic Imagination” / & live streaming it on Instagram / Why don’t you follow me.” To follow Addonizio is be enlivened by the daring personal revelation of a confession while also experiencing her poetry on a stage of ideas. For all sin is performed in the end, whether it’s to ourselves or others. Dramatizing our lowest and most questionable moments as human beings is what an artist is in service to—to speak the unspeakable. I like to think God would be proud.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Grant’s new story collection, All the Comfort Sin Can Provide, out now from Black Lawrence Press! – Ed.
All the Comfort Sin Can Provide by Grant Faulkner
With raw, lyrical ferocity, All the Comfort Sin Can Provide delves into the beguiling salve that sin can promise—tracing those hidden places most of us are afraid to acknowledge. In this collection of brutally unsentimental short stories, Grant Faulkner chronicles dreamers, addicts, and lost souls who have trusted too much in wayward love, the perilous balm of substances, or the unchecked hungers of others, but who are determined to find salvation in their odd definitions of transcendence. Taking us from hot Arizona highways to cold Iowa hotel rooms, from the freedoms of the backwoods of New Mexico to the damnations of slick New York City law firms, Faulkner creates a shard-sharp mosaic of desire that careens off the page—honest, cutting, and wise.