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“Be God” by Michael McGriff


In “Be God,” Michael McGriff gives us an omniscient point-of-view that feels right in keeping with the title. Time moves in broad strokes for the first half of the piece but then, when the piece turns toward the ending, we feel the shift toward the present moment and the specificity of the narrator. This ability to manipulate the passing of time is wonderful and quite a challenge in such a short piece. It does seem like the POV of a god, or perhaps of a bird, at once on high but also carrying the ability to swoop down and see the world in detail.

In his Author’s Note, McGriff talks about the direct influence of Ken Kesey, and I was reminded as well of Denis Johnson’s exquisite novel Train Dreams, which also explores and bemoans the western expansion and manifest destiny. This seemed to us a perfect piece to publish on the Thanksgiving weekend: short, resonant, full of both celebration and longing. Enjoy.


Be God. Step way back for a second. Imagine this folded earth as bed sheets dropped in heaps onto the floor. Now stick a steep winter light off to the east. Call this a landscape. Tall shadows form across the peaks and troughs. Look closer—hard mineral waters flow across rocks and roots, through duff and brambles. Watch all the forks of the rivers, sloughs, and creeks empty in the bay, and the bay into the ocean whose gray voice all things must answer to. Line the coastline with sandstone, orange clay that breaks shovel handles, gnarled shore pines. At the back of it all, thousands upon thousands of Douglas firs moan in the wind. Let the fog burn off in the morning. Add all the shadows to the trees. Let moss choke the north side of all things. Fill it with Indians, deer, and elk. Bear and salmon. Kill most of them. Call the landscape the southern Oregon coast and watch the industrialists stride forth across the earth. Come rail trestles and tunnels. Come mills and shipyards. Mine coal, fill in the marshes, dredge shipping channels, chase the steelhead upriver. Name a street after yourself. If you have a motherland, name a river after some near-remembered village from the language of your past. If you’re like the rest of us, then just rise up out of the silt from some creek bed and start existing. Listen to the rain and sand divide and multiply in the moving parts of everything here. Reduction gears, shoulder sockets, steam donkeys. Call this The World’s Largest Lumber Port then strip the land so bare of trees that gunshots can be heard from one end of the county to the other. Watch the waterfront close down one mill at a time. Suspend the rail service. Cook some crystal. Tumble agates until they shine like salamander eyes and try selling them at the gun and gem show. Breed dogs. Sell puppies from a laundry basket near the cart return in the K-Mart parking lot. Where folks had bent to the toil of their industry, now stand patches of long, tough grass pushing through cement footprints that once shouldered buildings the size of trans-Pacific container ships. The docks sag under their own weight like a team of swayback horses on the edge of some dream the town is having about itself. The pilings bow their heads and slip into the waters like harbor seals. Water tables rise and fall through the almanacs. We get blood moons and snow moons and black moons, and everyone knows the best place to see them. Now go back to 1936 and commission Conde McCullough to build this mile-long steel bridge over the bay. Connect the North Spit to the North Bend. Paint it green. Admire its Gothic arches rising from the bedrock beneath the water. You’re God. You don’t even need to look through someone’s living room window at night to fuel your particular brand of separation from the world. You don’t need an excuse to wander off with a shotgun and no clothes on. You could go all small and hop right into someone’s blood and swim to the spawning waters of the human heart and start a little fire in one of the rooms there, stomping your foot and rocking in place like a mad banjo player hitting the high-lonesome. You can do whatever you want, but, like me, you keep driving over this bridge when you least expect it. Like me, you just bought the last of the D-cell batteries at Bi-Mart, a box of waterfowl shells, a few jugs of water, ten gallons of diesel, and the cheapest cans of tuna you could find at Sav-Mor. Watch me cross this bridge in 1999, a week before New Year’s Eve, into the town where I was born, as I wipe away the sweat on the inside of the windshield with the shop rag I keep behind the bench seat of my truck.


MICHAEL MCGRIFF’s recent books include the linked story collection Our Secret Life in the Movies (A Strange Object, 2014), which is co-authored with J.M. Tyree, and the poetry collections Early Hour (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) and Black Postcards (Willow Springs Books, 2017). His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Narrative, Poetry London, and elsewhere. He serves on the creative writing faculty at the University of Idaho.

Author’s Note

I’m in the middle of revamping (resuscitating?) a book of fiction. This book and its making have unfolded by way of the usual adjectives: messy and bewildering, to name a few. This book has been, most recently, a novel. But I never really called it that with much confidence (novel=air-quotes). In a prior failed form, it mirrored the exact time shifts in Per Peterson’s Out Stealing Horses. Currently, it’s what most resembles a book of vignettes, individually titled, linked by tone and place and speaker, but not necessarily by plot or linear thread. Through all this drudgery, one thing has remained a through-line, and it’s the piece here, “Be God.” It’s the first story in the book, and it establishes, I hope, a deep engagement with place and a mood of shiftiness and permeability. It feels, finally and importantly, like I wrote it. And now the rest of the book wants to feel that way, too. “Be God” is a purposeful echo of Ken Kesey’s opening imperative in Sometimes a Great Notion: “Look…” Look at this landscape until it becomes a character. I use the imperative as a way to hold up the self before a set of memories and histories, and to the perception and misperception of both. I have a lot of gods. Italo Calvino keeps finding his way to my nightstand, lurking about with Tove Jansson and Antonio Di Benedetto and Richard Brautigan. I listen to them listening to the world. “Be God” is some part of me listening to the place where I grew up, and answering back to those murky waters.


MICHAEL MCGRIFF’s recent books include the linked story collection Our Secret Life in the Movies (A Strange Object, 2014), which is co-authored with J.M. Tyree, and the poetry collections Early Hour (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) and Black Postcards (Willow Springs Books, 2017). His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Narrative, Poetry London, and elsewhere. He serves on the creative writing faculty at the University of Idaho.