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The Canals of Mars

Gary Fincke

Publication Year: 2010

The Canals of Mars is a memoir that explores and ponders "weakness," which in Gary Fincke's family was the catch-all term for every possible human flaw-physical, psychological, or spiritual. Fincke grew up near Pittsburgh during the 1950s and 1960s, raised by blue-collar parents for whom the problems that beset people-from alcoholism to nearsightedness to asthma to fear of heights-were nothing but weaknesses.
     In a highly engaging style, Fincke meditates on the disappointments he suffered-in his body, his mind, his work-because he was convinced that he had to be "perfect." Anything less than perfection was weakness and no one, he understood from an early age, wants to be weak.
     Six of the chapters in the book have been cited in Best American Essays. The chapter that provides the book's title, The Canals of Mars, won a Pushcart Prize and was included in The Pushcart Book of Essays: The Best Essays from a Quarter Century of the Pushcart Prize.

Published by: Michigan State University Press


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pp. vii-viii


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The Ass-End of Everything

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pp. 3-10

We drive for almost an hour, taking each of the through roads, looking for where The Prince, my grandfather, lived for nearly fifteen years in a sort of halfway house between a dissolved marriage and the charity home where he spent the last two decades of his life. We cross and then recross the Pennsylvania Turnpike, so I know we’re close because I remember my father pointing and saying how that ...

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The Plagues

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pp. 11-20

It was pig’s feet and liverwurst, olive loaf and summer sausage, three-bean salad and deviled eggs—all of it, even at ten o’clock on a Saturday night, preceded by a prayer that blessed our food and the wisdom of God that “passes all understanding.” Always. The earliest Saturday night get-together with relatives that I ...

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Home Remedies

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pp. 21-30

She had faith in what she prepared herself, tangible things to gargle or swallow or lay upon the skin, and when I complained, asking how they could work better than drugstore remedies, she said, “These things come from the old country. They’ve always worked.” I swallowed and gargled, but I had my doubts. Boric acid in hot water was a frequent remedy, the potency ...

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The Canals of Mars

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pp. 31-38

When Mrs. Sowers, during the first week of sixth grade, showed us the canals of Mars, she traced the straight lines of them with the rubber tip of a wooden pointer. “Think of the Erie Canal,” she said, holding the stick against the poster-sized map of Mars. “Better yet, think of the Panama and the Suez,” she added, starting a list we ...

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Look Both Ways

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pp. 39-50

The next spring, a boy named Jimmy Scharf dropped a pop-up lofted in an easy arc between first and second base during a recess softball game. “Butterfingers,” Charles Trout burbled, happy to be standing safely on first base instead of trudging back toward teammates who were anxiously listening, down two runs, for the bell that would say they’d lost. ...

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The Theory of Dog Shit

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pp. 51-58

Old man Krause was one of those neighbors we thought we hated. Because he came outside to curse at us when a foul ball rolled into his yard. Because he’d hidden behind his shrubbery once and leapt out to pounce on a rolling softball, refusing to return it ...


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God of Our Fathers

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pp. 61-70

Gottlob Lang, my grandfather, is locked out of his house. He tries each of the three doors and the four rear windows at street level, returns to the front porch and the door to the kitchen, where he knows his five children are sitting with his wife, her father, and two of her brothers; but he refuses to pound or threaten to break it down or shatter the glass on any one ...

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The Faces of Christ

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pp. 71-76

I sat in the audience, once, while a professor explained the Shroud of Turin to a hundred senior citizens. He had slides and sources. He waved a wand of light to trace the face of Jesus in case someone didn’t see it. “Look,” he said, “the eyes, the curve of lips exactly the same as in the pictures you know of Christ.” ...

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Say It

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pp. 77-88

Church came first. God, then family—and my father was often furious with my failure to keep things holy. Silence was warm-up for worship. Sitting straight. And staying that way for an hour. He told and retold the story of his father’s hand on his thigh, the tourniquet that clotted movement during church in order ...

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The Technology of Paradise

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pp. 89-94

Any Sunday morning, eight forty-five, from 1958 to 1963—my father sits in his Chevrolet station wagon with the engine running, my mother beside him, my sister in the back seat. I’m half dressed in my room, slowly buttoning my white shirt and hoping this will be the week he backs out of the driveway and leaves without me. ...


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Clemente Stuff

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pp. 97-108

My wife smiles. She knows this story, how I scraped my arm playing with Keith Osborne, and because he was three years older, believed him when he said, “You’ll be OK,” after he ran water over it and covered the worst abrasions with Band-Aids so we could run back outside to chase a rubber ball we slammed against ...

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The Handmade Court

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pp. 109-118

Building a tennis court was a dream I shared with my father. Constructing it ourselves was his dream alone. But it seemed so easy, standing beside him in the middle of June near the edge of the twenty acres of land he’d just bought as an investment in his distant retirement that I estimated ...

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In the Bakery

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pp. 119-124

When I was in seventh grade, I stole things from stores. Second-hand. A lot of seventh graders shoplifted. Sometimes I stood an aisle’s length away and watched them slip stuff inside their jackets, but I never touched one item. Other kids were eager to steal. A few of them, incredibly, were willing to ...

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Union Grades

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pp. 125-134

The first day I worked at the Heinz factory, near the end of the mandatory physical, I suddenly went cold and clammy. I started to stand, and a few seconds later, I found out I’d fainted when I snapped back to consciousness with the nurse screaming in my ear because I was sprawled on top of her ...

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The Theory of Stinks

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pp. 135-144

Frank Funovitz was throwing a rubber ball out the second-story window to the high school girl who lived beside the elementary school we were cleaning. “Look at that ass,” Funovitz said, so I nodded like I thought he expected me to. Her name was Doris, he’d told me, and she lobbed the ball up ...

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Useful Things

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pp. 145-146

My mother reused my father’s bakery bags. I carried my lunch in those bags, folded them, and brought them home for another use. Things were kept, according to my mother, because you could never tell when they might prove useful. All nails and screws. Every rubber band ...


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Going Inside

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pp. 149-156

The Prince, nearly every night, drank at the DOH. The social hall, according to my mother. The Hory-Gory, according to my grandmother—a name I was sure, even as a child, was a euphemism, something like gee-whiz or heck or dang. There was a time when my grade-school friends and I tried ...

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Subsidence, Mine Fire, Bypass, Golf

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pp. 157-160

My father tells me to turn up Spencer Lane, the first time I’ve taken this road in thirty years. “Why?” I think of asking, but he’s sitting up so straight I know I don’t have long to wait. “Look,” he says, after we make two right turns. The street is blocked by sawhorses with blinking lights. “Subsidence,” he says, ...

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pp. 161-170

Aunt Margaret and my mother and my Uncle Karl are long dead, but my father, at eighty-eight, continues to remind me about the evils of “the drink.” “I’ve never taken a sip,” he manages to work into our talks, even after fifty years of repetition, following that declaration with a look that says, “And you should stop”—each of those verbal and visual prompts accompanied by a ...

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Night Vision

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pp. 171-180

Last night I woke, saw nothing, and knew it was my Bill Nelson dream, the one where he makes change in the perpetual dark, handling each coin in his black purse until he’s satisfied which ones accurately pay for his rolls. As soon as I’m awake, the dream, as it should, turns to memory—the times when I imagined Bill Nelson, the blind customer I delivered baked goods to, would cheat ...

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Labored Breathing

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pp. 181-190

When I read about Aretaeus and his medical colleagues, the dark settles like an unshakable superstition. I nod assent to this ancient observation of evening’s threat. More than twenty years into full-blown asthma, I’ve suffered four or five attacks per year in daylight, one per week in the dark. Circadian rhythms are the cycles our bodies go through over a twenty-four-hour period. We’re tuned to a daily clock; we’re cycled for strength and memory, ...

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pp. 191-200

In every one of my childhood comic books, the drop-from-heights victims always did more than merely fall. They needed to have an expression of absolute terror as their arms spread wide in panic, and they were always looking up at whoever was still standing at the edge of a cliff or the roof of a skyscraper or ...


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My Father Told Me

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pp. 203-212

For three weeks, each time I’ve called my father, no one has answered. I’ve allowed the phone to ring twenty times. I’ve counted because I want to be certain I can tell him how far I’ve gone to account for his near-deafness, his arthritis. How long I’ve waited in case he was outside trying to fumble his house ...

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The Piecework of Writing

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pp. 213-216

One evening, when I was eleven years old, my mother wrote down everything I said, smiling as my sentences, spoken faster and faster, sped into a stutter of stupid phrases I machine-gunned out to keep her from recording every word. Minutes later, those fast-talk fragments made me ...

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pp. 217-222

By myself, late in the summer, I walk to the cemetery nearest my house, and for a moment, because I’ve traveled two miles into the country and I approach on foot, I look over my shoulder like an amateur vandal come to spray-paint the monuments. The single-lane cemetery road winds up a small rise toward ...

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Looking Again: An Epilogue

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pp. 223-230

When my uncle, a son of The Prince, discovered I was writing about my grandfather, he sent me a long, handwritten letter that detailed “the good” in his father. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “your contact with Gottlob was in the later years of his life.” He listed the jobs The Prince had held, including foreman at the Steel Spring Company (“a position of responsibility”), saying nothing, like my other uncle, ...


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pp. 231-232

E-ISBN-13: 9781609172114
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870138805

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • Fincke, Gary -- Childhood and youth.
  • Authors, American -- 20th century -- Biography.
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