Nim Chimpsky, Vermont, and so on

This is probably going to be my last post for a couple of months — not like that’s an unusual pace for me, but I have a reason this time.  In just a few days I’m going to Costa Rica for two months to write a book that may or may not be set in the 18th century and may involve pirates.  Old-timey ones, with eyepatches, parrots, etc.  Meantime, I’m waiting out this hurricane in New York that I’m 90% sure is going to turn out to be all newsroom bluster; sort of a Y2K for the weather.

I had an amazing time at the Bread Loaf Writing Conference in Vermont earlier this month.  I met a lot of great friends, and heard a lot of great literature being read.  Also, I wrote an article about the recent documentary film Project Nim for Dissent Magazine.

And there’s more.  Two friends of mine have books coming out nowish: Stuart Nadler’s fantastic collection of stories, The Book of Life

and Justin Torres’ We the Animals.

Buy these books!  Read them!



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The Bloodiest Battle of the Civil War

I’m not even going to mention that it’s been almost two months since I posted anything on here.  I’m just going to say that The L Magazine just published one of my short stories and maybe if you want you could go read it.  It’s about childhood.  It’s also probably the most directly autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.


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I teach fiction classes for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, which is awesome.  For my last class in the current session I’m teaching, my regular return student, Anabel Graff, who’s also awesome, convinced the class to do the thing where everybody thinks of some weird word or phrase, and then everybody writes a little storylet involving all the words/phrases.  The words/phrases that had to be included were:


Car trouble

Agenbite of itwit

Barrel of hay

Cecilia Babbage


Here’s my piece.  It’s kind of funny, and I figured what the hell, I’ll post it on this blog.  Enjoy.  Or don’t.  Whatever.

The Whippersnapper

(Some Hideously Clichéd Situations Involving a Barrel of Hay, in the Tense of Present)

By Benjamin Hale


“God!” says Cecilia.  “I’ve never felt so alive!”

“Me too, baby,” says the barrel of hay.  “Me too.”

It is a torturously hot day.  The desert wobbles hazily with heat waves all around them.  Hopeful, presumptuous vultures reel in their gyres overhead.  They are sailing, fucking sailing, doing about ninety-five down Highway 35.  The backseat is loaded with Hefty bags stuffed full of hot cash, as they have just robbed Texas First National.  A messy job.  Shot two men dead in the getaway.  Figure they have about twenty-five minutes to pilot Cecilia’s now-late husband’s midnight-blue Caddy across the border before every pig in the Lone Star State picks up their scent on the radio.  The barrel of hay is at the wheel, Cecilia in shotgun with her bare feet kicked up on the dash, the wind winsomely whipping her hair into a flurry.  They are in a car, and they are in trouble.  Big trouble.  But somehow, she’s never felt this good in years.

Cecilia Babbage turns to the barrel of hay.  A few stray strands of hay are blowing out of the top of the barrel in the wind.  Goddamn, this barrel of hay is the sexiest thing she’s ever laid eyes on.  The ruggedness of the rough-hewn staves.  Even the barrel of hay’s flaws turn her on.  The multiple felony convictions.  The knothole in the barrel’s side, through which she can see clear through to the hay inside him.  The missing rivets in the hoops.  The bung hole.

“Barrel of hay,” she says.  “I love you.”


All told, agenbite of inwit has had better days.

“You’re fired, inwit,” said the boss, arms akimbo, belly sagging, cigar wet and fat between his chomping teeth.  “Clear your desk!”

Lousy stupid boss, agenbite of inwit grumbles miserably on his drive home.  Long commute.  Guess this is the last time we’ll have to do that.  The cardboard box half full of office supplies sitting on the passenger seat beside him bucks and rattles over the bumps, looking as pathetic and forlorn as agenbite of inwit feels.  Agenbite of inwit is not looking forward to explaining to the wife why exactly he’s arriving home in the middle of the day.

He parks the car in the garage, but does not get out right away.  Delaying the inevitable.  His head is a swarm of nasty thoughts.  Financial worries.  Debts.  Mortgage default.  Kids will be in college soon.  He rests his forehead against the steering wheel and listens to the feeble ticking of the engine cooling down.  Briefly, he catches himself wondering how long it would take to die of carbon monoxide poisoning.  He is a failure.

Regret.  Remorse.  These things practically define agenbite of inwit.

He takes the keys out of the ignition and enters the house.

Right away, something seems definitely not right.

“Hello?” he calls.  His voice echoes off the white walls.  “Cecilia, I have some bad news.”

Where the hell is she?

Going up the stairs, agenbite of inwit feels his feet growing slower and heavier with each step, as if gravity is condensing with his ascent.

He hears noises.  Coming from the bedroom.

Oh God.

The noises are unmistakable.

Agenbite of inwit stands in the hallway before the closed bedroom door.  For a long time.  Trying to decide what to do.  He knows the gist of the situation—but not the particulars.  Does he really want to see this?

Sick curiosity gets the better of him.

He opens the door.

The room is hot—moist with sex, as steamy and reeking as a rhino pen.  The windows are fogged.  His wife, Cecilia, née Babbage, is sprawled across the bed, on her hands and knees, her fingers clawing at the sheets as if for dear life, her face twisted into a grimace, an expression of ecstasy so intense it almost looks like a wince of pain—an expression he knows well, but has not seen in years.  Legs spread as wide as a four-lane freeway, she proffers herself, arching her ass into the air, while, kneeling behind her, a barrel of hay slams in and out of her like a jackhammer.  The bed wobbles and creaks, knocks against the wall.  Their wedding photo on the bedside table is lying on its face.

Slap, slap, slap, slap, go the glistening globes of her sweaty ass against the coarse wooden slats of the barrel of hay.

“Oh, Cecilia,” says the barrel of hay.

“Oh, barrel of hay,” says Cecilia.  “Yes, yes!  Harder, harder!”

And then the barrel of hay looks up, and notices agenbite of inwit standing in the doorway.

Agenbite of inwit cannot believe his eyes.

How could she?


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Filed under Christopher Hitchens, evolution, Literature, Morality, Nerds, Power, Religion, Sex, Writing

Back in the Saddle

I know it’s been about a billion years since I’ve posted anything on this blog.  But I’m back in the saddle again.

I have a few items of news.  First of all, I had the tremendous honor of interviewing Frans de Waal, a brilliant guy and sort of a personal hero of mine, for Religion Dispatches.  He discusses veneer theory, social/moral behavior in animals, and other stuff that I’m obsessed with.

Also, I wrote a short essay about Psalm 8 for Harper’s Magazine (the cover piece in the June issue, which just came out!).  It’s about the 400 year anniversary of the King James Bible: a round robin of sorts of essays and poems about various parts of the KJV.  The other pieces are by John Banville, Charles Baxter, Dan Chiasson, Paul Guest, Howard Jacobson and Marilynne Robinson, which is a whale of a lineup.

And that ain’t all!   I have a longish short story in Volume 56 of the spectacular literary journal Conjunctions, which also just hit the stands.  Also in the issue is an amazing story by my good friend Alexandra Kleeman, who also recently published a story in the Paris Review, and who I challenge you to not a little fall in love with while watching her cover Prince on her ukelele:

Alexandra’s story is The Brief History of Weather.  Mine is titled The Minus World, which you may recognize is a Super Mario Bros. reference:

Not only have I known Alexandra for about nine years (we both hail from Boulder, Colorado), but we are both reading from Conjunctions:56: Terra Incognita: The Voyage Issue at its release party at Book Court in Brooklyn this Friday evening at 7, along with Peter Straub and Tim Horvath, with Susan Daitch emceeing.  I insist you come.  Plus I think there’ll be booze, if you’re into that.

And finally, everyone should immediately go out and buy Anna North’s book, America Pacifica, which comes out today, I believe.  It’s fucking awesome.

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Filed under Frans de Waal, Literature, Monkeys, Morality, Music, Nerds, Religion, Sex, Writing

What’s this orangutan doing underwater?

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Filed under Apes, evolution, Literature, Morality, Nerds, Sex

Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

#3758: listen to me read from my book at The Tattered Cover!

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Filed under Apes, Environmentalism, evolution, Literature, Morality, Nerds, primatology, Religion, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Twelve Books, Writing


After what feels like several weeks on planes, I’m finally back home for a little downtime, and figured I should post something on this blog that I update with a religious frequency of about every never.  In recent weeks, I had the great pleasure to read at some amazing bookstores: The Tattered Cover in Denver, The Boulder Book Store in my hometown, Boulder, Colorado (and there were so many people from my past in attendance at that one that it almost, weirdly, felt like a wedding or something — all my high school teachers! — Bill Burns, Susan Hellie-Jacobs, Russell Croop, Bob Larue, Sue Max, Janet Orton…), then another homecoming of sorts in Iowa City, where I read at Prairie Lights, which of course felt like a veritable rite of passage of sorts…  Then Chicago, Anderson’s in Naperville, and then an event supporting the journal run by my friends Adam Whitney Nichols and Samantha Hinds, Fortnight Journal (do check it out — Adam and Samantha are incredibly impassioned folks, and it’s a very cool thing they’re doing; and not just because I’ll be contributing some essays and other stuff to the next quarter of the journal; and I’m honored to be involved with anything in any way associated with Patti Smith


Now, after a visit to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, by which I mean San Francisco, where I read at the fantastic bookstore Book Passage in Marin County, I’m back in action in New York.  Or at least sitting around drinking coffee and struggling out from under a pile of unanswered emails and thinking about cleaning my sordidly messy apartment.

But for more plugs.  I’m giving a couple of readings here in New York next week, to which, if you live here or near here, you should come.  The first is at the official two-year anniversary of the Franklin Park Reading Series, officiated by Penina Roth, at Franklin Park in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  It starts at 8, on Monday the 14th.  I’m reading with Jami Attenberg, Susan Shapiro, Ophira Eisenberg and Moshe Schulman, and I promise  it’ll be a trip and a half.

And that ain’t all!

On Thursday, March 17th — that’s St. Patrick’s Day, honoring the rich heritage of my Irish ancestors, who left the Emerald Isle because they were starving, having run out of potatoes (See?  ) — I’m reading at Pete’s Candy Store, in my own northside Brooklyn stomping grounds, along with J Milligan.  You should absolutely come to that and do a few Irish Car Bombs with me and the ghost of Flann O’Brien, who may be making a secret celebrity guest appearance.

That’s the news.  Goodnight and good luck.

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Filed under Apes, evolution, Flann O'Brien, Literature, Nerds, Sex, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Writing