Pick up that now iconic spring 1981 issue of Feast—iconic because it’s the one with two poems by Barack Obama—and read Chuck Jensvold’s story, “When it Leaves.” You’d think he was poised to be the next Raymond Carver. Everyone talks about Chuck like he was Hemingway—the “noir Hemingway of the surf,” as David Maraniss called him in his 2012 biography of Obama. But to me he was Carver. Elegant and spare. Droll and gritty. Down on his luck.
It was just a beach-break. And after that it was just a snap sound I heard but the leash broke clean all-right and the bloody board gets me while I’m still in the air and it gets me nice…
It’s a gut-punch of a story. A guy goes surfing, gets sliced by his board, one cheek hanging loose like an open taco. He gets stitched up at the hospital. Then he wanders. Drinks Wild Turkey. Gets in fights. Goes to a party where he sees a Dalmatian open a beer and drink it. It was a classic to watch but I’m not saying that dog didn’t spill a lot either.
It’s stunning to consider that Chuck wrote this when he was in his twenties. Where did it come from, I wonder all these years later? This story seems to have sprung from a different Chuck than the one I knew, but then, he didn’t like to talk about himself much. He came to Occidental by way of landlocked places like Colorado and Arizona and now that I think about it, he’s one of the last people I can see on a surfboard. Probably that’s because I knew him in a freeze-frame sliver of time that was heat and smog and low-slung bungalows and the angst of being young and close to broke while aspiring to lead literary lives.
After college, Chuck wrote stories, sent them out, worked on a screenplay. He surely wrote far more than I know, but nothing ever clicked in the traditional publishing way that meant he could call himself a writer and cash a paycheck of sorts. The publishing world is as cruel as it is fickle. That he couldn’t get published doesn’t mean he couldn’t write better than the rest of us.
He joined the Marines after drifting a bit. He edited base newspapers, so at least he was working with words. He came out of the Marines and drifted some more. He painted a moody scene of a soldier leaning on a car outside the Hat Rack Motel. It hangs on my wall.
She starts telling me about this time thing being all wrong and she tells me about it about as well as a movie would, that one we both saw at different times.
I tell her about the guy who threw his clock out the window to see time fly and that I can howl at the moon as good as any Arizona coyote.
Our time thing was off for sure, me and Chuck. There was the night he showed up at my door in his red MG, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He said we should run away, just get in his car and drive up the 101. I asked for 24 hours to consider. I walked around Los Angeles the next day. I remember a festival of some sort downtown, overpasses and underpasses, and I walked and I walked. I looked for some guiding principle. I’m not a religious person, but ultimately I seized on Chuck’s gift for the written word.
I told Chuck that he needed to write. That writing was paramount to whatever it was we were feeling. That he should channel the feeling thing into the writing thing. That we should both stay put.
I tried for the Pacific. I was there to be there. I paddled. Then it was time to stop. I lay off the coast, on the board, trapped where I wanted to be trapped, wanting to be trapped where I was, between the Pacific and her fog, her breath, her breathing. Up and roll, down and roll. Up and roll, down and roll: she couldn’t take me.
Afterward, I started getting cold, and went in.
Unpublished, even a highly talented writer can turn into a train wreck. There was alcohol. There were phone calls in the middle of the night. He went from writing like Raymond Carver to being a character in a Raymond Carver story. We lost touch in the later years, but I heard that he might have set himself right. If he’d kept on we’d be reading him between covers right now, lining up at bookstores to hear him speak.
Sometimes I think that I like to read Carver because I can’t read Chuck.
Susan Keselenko Coll graduated from Occidental in 1981. At Oxy, she was a friend of Chuck Jensvold’s and an aspiring writer. She is the author of five novels, most recently The Stager. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in a variety of publications including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
‘When It Leaves’
‘Knock and Play’
‘After the Trash Is Out’
Five Writing Contests
Plays and screenplays
Lake Los Angeles