Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Chance meeting leads to author's flowering

I could very easily have brushed off Sam Stahl, a North Port resident who recently published "Three Satisfictions," a collection of novellas.

Stahl, an older, balding man who wears glasses and favors long, collarless white shirts, stopped me one day at the door of the North Port Sun.

“Hey, aren't you the book columnist fellow?” he asked.

Journalists know that the results aren’t usually pleasant when a passerby identifies them. From political polemics to personal put-downs, the buttonholer is almost guaranteed to have some sort of invective to deliver.

But Stahl appeared to be a nice enough guy. Besides, I don't brush people off. So I responded in the affirmative. It turned out that Stahl was a frustrated author, who several decades ago had written a series of novellas. The stories were creative and reflective retellings of experiences that ranged from partying with expatriates in Spain to arguing religion with true believers in a New York skyscraper.

Stahl came of age during the hedonistic days of the late 50s and 60s, when the consequences of our actions were still far beyond the horizon. I‘m relatively younger (relative is supremely operative here), yet I recognized the characters in his novels as candidates for Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, or the cool, amoral men and women portrayed in movies of the era such as "La Dolce Vita" or “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.”

Those characters, like Stahl's, seldom considered consequences as they careered through life in search of the next piece of soft flesh or stiff gin and tonic--"shaken, not stirred."

Stahl has a rough style that's initially off-putting. As I first read through his manuscript, I applied a pencil liberally until it hit me: Sam Stahl writes the way people think, in staccato bursts of disconnected ideas punctuated by periods of coherent introspection. Punctuation is the key here. Stahl's sentences are sometimes grammatically incorrect, punctuated or broken by a character's pause for breath or Stahl's tight negotiations of a plot's sinuous curves.

I realized that I was trampling Stahl's gritty voice by attempting to make it conform to common usage. When read as a sort of dialect, his dialogue and narration spring to life, accurately reflecting the mood changes of the characters with the alacrity of a sharp crew tacking at the slightest breeze.

The characters' crisp cadence is matched by the speed with which Stahl manipulates them, driving them from scene to scene with a brio reminiscent of those long-gone "Go-Go" days.

Those thoughts informed my words the next time I saw Stahl. His material was dated, I said, but in a way that would resonate with anyone from that era. Stahl writes of a time long gone, an era in which skirts grew shorter as the war in Vietnam grew longer. Today, questioning authority comes as readily to the body public as sneezing. But in those days many conventions, from those of grammar to those of greater import, such as those governing morality or politics, were giving way as authority was being questioned in ways that still bear consequences almost half a century later.

I told him his work was pretty good, and that he should get published. But Stahl is in his 80s. I told him he'd probably be long gone before he was able to make it through the rounds of New York agents and publishing houses in search of a contract.

Instead, I suggested, why not self-publish? At the time, I had yet to plunge myself into the world of small publishing. But I had written about it, and given enough advice about it, to know where to guide Stahl.

I referred him to Carol Mahler, of the Peace River Center for Writers, and Jim and Linda Salisbury of Tabby House Press.

Months later, Stahl came into the office to present me with a copy of "Three Satisfictions," a collection of three novellas.

He writes the way men and women wrote about men and women, before political correctness rendered much of what truly occupies the minds of the two sexes not permissible for publication.

His work brings to mind Kate Chopin or Ernest Hemingway, two writers who pushed the bounds of convention in accurately relating how men and women thought about themselves and those around them. His commentaries on the perpetual encounters between Venus and Mars may shock some, but so does a straight dose of honesty. Anyone who invests time in this work will harvest an honest appreciation of what makes our sexes chart such disparate yet converging courses.

Here's an example, as Touch, the heel of "Corridas in the Rain," the first of three novellas in Stahl's book, opens negotiations with some lusty prey:

"Entering empty Bar Central, there she was, Liz Laughton, seated all by herself, showing in her eyes, as from some private momentum or booze, how glad she was to see him.

"And how are things with my Touchiepooh, tonight?"

"They just hugely improved."

"Touch, look at you. I've never seen you so high."

"Or you so lovely."

"You were missing at the Necker thing."

"You didn't take me."

"Johnny and Trilby were there," she said. "They're such a nice couple. He busts his buttons trying not to show it. Oh, Touch, don't begrudge Johnny something nice."

"There are compensations," he said.


"The wife of one of the finest men I know."

Her look then, her booze thing, had slipped, being suddenly coy.

"Would you have me different than what I am?" he said.

"My favorite big bear."

"Let's do a private investigation. My place?"

Touch is as smooth as butter. And just as substantial.

Stahl's characters, in his fine, rough work, seldom come to grips with the consequences of their actions. And, if Stahl had not determined to follow his destiny, albeit several decades removed, those same characters would have fought and loved in obscurity.

James M. Abraham, a syndicated book columnist, can be reached at jabrajot@hotmail.com.

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