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Robert Bingham:
Lightning on the Sun
Robert Bingham
  Lightning on the Sun  
Robert Bingham    
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an excerpt



  The word nearly everyone uses when describing Rob Bingham's fiction is dark. This never seemed quite right to me. It might be a fair adjective for some of the things that happen in the lives of Rob's characters, but not, to my mind, a fair description of the stories themselves. While I wouldn't characterize his writing as light, the darkness was always something I noticed a little later, after I recovered from the dazzlement of his acute observations, his wicked humor, and his ferocious honesty. Rob may have asked his reader to face some pretty grim truths, but he did so with extraordinary craft and originality.

This came clear to me the first time I spoke to him, on the telephone in the summer of 1996. His literary agent's submission of the collection Pure Slaughter Value had generated quite a bit of interest among editors around town, and Rob decided he wanted to interview the three top bidders. (I think we all assumed Rob's background made the size of the advance a less deciding factor than it might have been for another writer.) When my turn came, I did a mediocre job of selling myself and my publishing house, and had pretty well written off my chances of publishing the book, until Rob asked me point-blank which story was my favorite. Without really thinking, I said, "'The Fixers.'" Rob said a lot of people had voiced objections to that story, but that he liked it too.

"The Fixers" is the story of a yuppie advertising executive prepared to give up his marriage over an affair with a reckless junkie. A journalist who lives in the same building wants to feature the woman as the centerpiece of an article he's writing. The article is published. The woman dies. End of story.

Dark, maybe. But the art with which this story was told--its elegiac tone, its bristling humor--took my breath away. The yuppie's amoral resignation, the woman's angry lassitude, and the journalist's cynical opportunism are dark constructs, but are rendered with such sharp clarity and grace that they enlighten us. Rob showed us people making bad choices, or no choices, and neither glorified nor condemned them. His depiction of characters gazing into the void speaks to us about our own substance.

There is tremendous humor, too, in Rob's writing, and if you missed it on the page, Rob could find it for you in person. Few writers can read their work aloud as effectively as we read it to ourselves, but Rob was a virtuoso interpreter of his stories, able to completely disarm his listeners with his preppy badboy demeanor and deadpan delivery. One memorable night at the Knitting Factory, he brought down the house highlighting the social conventions and character nuances in "I'm Talking About Another House," a story whose basic emotional tenor recalls the rueful sting of "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut." People nearly laughed themselves out of their seats, yet still heard the story's sad theme--which, I have no doubt, was exactly Rob's intention.

I only knew Rob as well as an editor gets to know an author in the course of publishing one book, but I liked him a lot. He was funny and smart and generous. He collected Vietnam-era Zippo lighters (this I learned when he gave me one, after our art director impulsively and serendipitously laid his own Zippo on the copier glass, creating the dead-on cover image for Pure Slaughter Value) and was plain nuts for the band Pavement (the story "Plus One"--ostensibly a tale about finagling tickets to a rock concert, but in fact a deftly ironic minuet of class distinction and incipient middle age--is dedicated to Stephen Malkmus.) He had a healthy sense of humor about himself and his work, and he never stopped writing.

What Rob Bingham might have gone on to achieve, no one can say. He left us a story collection and a novel. Some dark stuff, sure. But I say let's celebrate his brilliance.



--Bruce Tracy
 
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  Photo of Robert Bingham copyright © Steven MacGillivray

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