I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
In the early 1970s, when Michael Jackson first came on the scene, the idea of a professional beer critic must have seemed absurd. You didn’t need a professional, after all, to help you choose between one pale, fizzy lager and another. They all got you equally drunk.Since that time, beer culture in the United States has undergone a revolution. The 1980s saw the introduction of the first microbreweries and brewpubs and by the end of the 20th century, beer had become a full blown phenomenon, with thousands of varieties made in the U.S. alone, and thousands more being imported from countries, such as England, where once proud traditions – which had been momentarily subsumed in seas of tasteless, golden suds – were reinvigorated by the burgeoning movement.Jackson, or “the Beer Hunter” as he was widely known, was the father of that movement. He devoted much of his life to the grand tradition of beer, traveling the world to chronicle beer culture, and arguing fiercely for beer’s due as a great, and greatly underappreciated, cultural achievement.Jackson was the sine qua non of beer writing. Borrowing heavily from the traditions of wine criticism, he developed a lexicon that was uniquely beer. His comparisons of the flavor of a Belgian lambic to “wet horse blankets,” among other unorthodox descriptions, became the secret lingo by which beer lovers knew each other. He made it okay to take beer seriously, and his writing provided the critical framework for a generation of writers, making way for everything from glossy beer magazines to the New York Times’ popular column “The Pour.”Jackson’s books remain both a pleasure and a valuable guide. From his workman-like and essential Beer Companion: The World’s Great Beer Styles, to his more colorful assessments of world beer culture in The New World Guide to Beer, and a variety of magazines and newspapers from the Guardian to Playboy, Jackson’s writing was notable for its vivid, use of language and dry wit.In his last, sadly prescient column, for the beer magazine, All About Beer, Jackson discussed his struggles with Parkinsons and took a moment to meditate on the death of the New Yorker’s jazz critic Whitney BalliettI am wondering how [Whitney] is coping with being offered a position Upstairs when all decent jazz clubs (not to mention drinking dens) are in the Other Place.Hopefully, Jackson hasn’t found the selection too bad.Bonus Link: Jackson’s blog
Not having really read anything that David Halberstam wrote, I cannot write a good-faith eulogy of the man, nor engage in anything deeper than a surface discussion of his books. But because what I have read about Halberstam has painted him as a great journalistic voice of 20th century America, and because I have recently been barking about journalists and their books, it is appropriate to acknowledge Halberstam’s unfortunate death Monday with some choice words.Two aspects of Halberstam’s written work resonate with me: his war correspondence and his interest in sports, specifically baseball. Halberstam wrote an acclaimed book about America’s journey down the road to Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. This road was built by a few American power brokers and followed by many American GIs, and though we did finally find the off-ramp, the road we are on today offers similar views of an ugly countryside for those who have not fallen asleep at the back of the bus.On a more personal level, I have a vivid memory of being a young kid sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed as my Dad read aloud from a book by David Halberstam called Summer of ’49. A book about a different sort of journey, Summer of ’49 chronicles the legendary pennant race that year between two little baseball teams: The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The reader will learn that Joe DiMaggio had a brother, Dominick, who could play ball (though for the Sox), that Ted Williams hit like a hawk-eyed lumberjack, and that this particular race for first place was arguably the greatest in the vaunted History Of Baseball – and also represented a coming of age for the game in post-WWII America.There is something to the notion of sports as a balm for citizens suffering from war fatigue. They are soldiers abroad gathered in a tent in the desert somewhere to watch the Super Bowl on television, and they are children bypassing front page headlines in favor of the sports section, and the box scores of games that they were forbidden to watch because of woefully premature bed times. Sporting events bring people together in celebration of achievement, rather than in protest of failure, and are thus both a distraction from the duty of citizens as witnesses to history, no matter how grim, and at the same time real and not insignificant demonstrations of the values of a free society, complete with overpriced cotton candy, and (today) overpriced athletes. Athletic competition, so often couched in terms of battle when described, transcends violence. It is an elevated and, I would argue, rather sophisticated form of human interaction.David Halberstam will be recognized as a writer who occupied territory where these two cultural phenomena, sports and war – with seemingly endless parallel lines of history – could be said to intersect.
Stephanie Deutsch, a writer and critic living in Washington, D.C., was a first year graduate student in Soviet Union Area Studies at Harvard in 1970 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She had spent the previous year living in Moscow. This essay is an update of an appreciation written ten years ago for the Washington Times’s “Lost Word” column dedicated to second looks at classic works. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at 89.My copy of Cancer Ward is a well-worn relic from the 1970s, when a paperback book cost $1.50 and Solzhenitsyn was the must-read author of the moment. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and when I bought the novel it had been through fifteen printings in three years. A quote on the back cover calls it “a literary event of the first magnitude… by Russia’s greatest living prose writer.”The book reprints the author’s 1967 letters to the Congress of Soviet Writers and the Union of Writers of the USSR complaining of the “no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, that our literature has endured for decades,” and insisting that his work “be published without delay.” Who could foresee then that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died he would no longer be much read, either here or in his native land. The one-time Vermont recluse returned to Russia but there, as here, his fervor and his writing are out of fashion.Just as a voguish book can disappoint, though, Cancer Ward remains compelling. While the title hints at symbolism and death, the straightforward story is vibrantly and affirmatively about life. Mr. Solzhenitsyn does see cancer as a fitting metaphor for his society’s ghastly flaws, but he is also telling a literal story about physical illness. He himself was a survivor not just of front-line combat with the Red Army, Stalinist prison camps, forced labor and exile in his own country, but also of real illness. A recurrence of his rare stomach cancer was treated with radiation in the spring of 1954 at a hospital in Tashkent.This is where the novel brings together a lively cast of characters. The protagonist is Oleg Kostoglotov, a big, dark-haired man in his 30s, a former political prisoner and internal exile. He’s a land surveyor with unslakable curiosity about everything: “…although he’d never missed a chance to scoff at education in general, he’s always used his eyes and ears to pick up the smallest thing that might broaden his own.” He likes people, too, especially as he feels life returning after his near death and successful radiation therapy.Kostoglotov’s nemesis in the ward is Rusanov, a self-satisfied bureaucrat, a Party member whose life work has been in “personnel records administration… Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was… The actual direction life took was decided without loud publicity, calmly in quiet offices, by two or three people who understood one another, or by dulcet telephone calls. The stream of real life ran on in the secret papers that lay deep in the briefcases of Rusanov and his colleagues.” This work gives Rusanov an inflated sense of his own importance and caution and pettiness that are the opposite of Kostoglotov’s exuberant good nature.Ludmila Afanasyevena Dontsova is the head of the hospital’s radiology department, a brilliant clinician who hesitates to use her diagnostic skills on the pain she feels in her own stomach. We see her not just in the hospital but on her way home from work, grabbing a seat on a streetcar: “…the was the first thought apart from the hospital that began to transform her from an oracle of human destinies into a simple passenger on a trolley jostled like anyone else… At every stop and with every shop that flashed by the window, Ludmila Afanasyevna’s thought turned more and more to her housework and her home. Home was her responsibility and hers alone because what can you expect from men? Her husband and son, whenever she went to Moscow for a conference, would leave the dishes unwashed for a whole week. It wasn’t that they wanted to keep them for her to do, they just saw no sense in this repetitive, endlessly self-renewing work.”Kostoglotov’s life in prison and exile has kept him isolated from women for years so his joy at returning health is mingled with wonder at the chance to be with members of the opposite sex. He flirts wildly with the high-spirited night nurse, Zoya; he feels deep sympathy with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors. “For a man like Oleg, who had to be permanently suspicious and watchful, it was the greatest pleasure in the world to be able to trust, to give himself to trust. And he trusted this woman, this gentle, ethereal creature. He knew she’d move softly, thinking out her every action and that she wouldn’t make the slightest mistake.”And we meet the ward’s other patients – Dyomka, a teenager facing the amputation of his leg and trying to keep up with his literary studies; Asya, the yellow-haired girl desolate about impending surgery for breast cancer; Vadim, an engineer so absorbed in his work he had no time for illness; Chaly, suffering from acute stomach cancer but cheerfully sharing with Rusanov his feast of illicit pickles and vodka.Solzhenitsyn gives a full and sympathetic picture of these characters, revealing each one’s inner reality – loneliness, marital happiness, eagerness for life, fear of death. Like others of the best Russian novels, Cancer Ward bursts with conversations. Some are timely still – about alternative cancer cures from roots and herbs and the influence of one’s mental state on the healing process; about the difficulties of achieving free national health service and yet providing patients with sufficient personal attention; and about what of honor or self-respect or bodily function one is willing to sacrifice to stay alive.The heavy atmosphere of the totalitarian Soviet Union is brilliantly rendered and, in my tattered edition, numerous footnotes clarify allusions that might be lost on a reader without a detailed knowledge of the time. When Kostoglotov talks to Zoya he has to explain to her that he is a Russian and was exiled on a trumped-up charge of treason. “Note: A number of small nationalities – Volga Germans, Chechens, Kalmucks and others – were deported en masse to Central Asia during and after the second world war, suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. These were called ‘exiled settlers.’ ‘Administrative exiles,’ like Kostoglotov, were usually political prisoners who had served their term in a labor camp but still had to live in a remote region of the country.”This novel is constructed around these and other historical truths too ghastly to be believed and, in our country, in some danger of being forgotten. When Kostoglotov begins to suspect that political changes may be coming in his country he thinks, “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?” As it turned out, this one could not; the system that produced the camps is gone. Solzhenitsyn’s story, brilliantly mixing fact and fiction, tells us just how sick the patient actually was.With his prophet-like appearance and cantankerous public persona, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will surely be remembered for his determined truth-telling. By keeping the details of Soviet history alive, his extraordinary literary oeuvre may help guard against the recurrence that with cancer can never be fully ruled out. But Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered, as well, as a novelist to put on the shelf next to Gogol and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, a writer to be re-read and savored for the way he translates messy, often ghastly human experience into brilliant, clarifying prose.
It seems fitting to begin a reflection on the late David Foster Wallace in a fit of anxiety about reception – about the propensity of words, sentences, personae, to falsify or to be misunderstood.
For example: I know this seems fraudulent and fanciful and like the scratching of some deep narcissistic itch, to write publicly about a famous person’s death. And also: I want you to know I know, and to make sure you know I want you to know I know, so that you don’t mistake me for someone less intelligent, original, precise, and self-critical than I am. Because I am terrified of the ethical misstep, of solipsism, and above all of getting things wrong.
So, I think, was my subject, for whom the vicious regress sketched above could go on infinitely, each new confession forcing a confession about the rhetoric behind that confession. Indeed, in his later work, as in the short story “Octet,” David Foster Wallace found a way to make the regress feel infinite. Some readers saw in this a kind of heroism – a commitment to representing philosophical truth, no matter how ungainly. Others saw it as evidence that Wallace had hit some kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac. Some even saw it as both: a heroic cul-de-sac. But it seems to me that Wallace’s manic sincerity was merely the obverse of our age’s reflexive irony. Each was an expression of deep suspicion of abstractions like “trust” and “faith.”
Which makes Wallace’s achievement even more impressive. Ultimately, his characters and narrators managed to push beyond paradox and to risk saying something about what used to be called the human condition. In honor of those risks – and with the preliminary apologiae more or less in place – let me try here to risk saying something about David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace was a large, shaggy, uncomfortable, funny person who once held me and 75 other people hostage for over an hour in a basement room in St. Louis. He was reading from his new book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I was 19, and when the reading was over I squeaked out something like, “Infinite Jest really meant a lot to me,” and he said something like, “Do you want me to sign your copy?” and I said something like “I checked it out of the library” and then I ran away.
That is, Wallace was a person I did not, in any respectable sense of the word, know, though I am currently feeling a dreadful temptation to pretend otherwise, to insist on a connection between reader and writer, to assert some rights over the body, and over the life, and over the work. Then again, in another sense, I knew him – I did. I heard the critic John Leonard say one time that the great writers, the ones who matter, are “friends of the mind,” and David Foster Wallace was mine. Simply put: his work has mattered more to me, and for longer, than any other writer’s, and when he killed himself last week at age 46, I felt like I had lost a friend. His voice is still in my head.
I came to that voice in high school, when I first read Infinite Jest. This was immediately and not incidentally prior to my discovery of literature per se. I read the thousand-page book more or less continuously for three weeks (as would be my habit every few years) and I felt like someone was speaking to me directly, in my language, about people I knew, or had been. “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace wrote, in a passage that hooked me early on, Hal Incandenza
tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.
The secret power of this voice, as Wallace would discover in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” lay in its immense ethical appeal. Although his descriptions of Hal’s life at a tennis academy, and of pharmaceutical habits or Eschaton, did not stint on arcana, Wallace was perfectly willing to admit that certain things were “hard to say.” Moreover, there was the seeming correspondence between the authorial persona and the real person I glimpsed through the interstices of the fiction, and, later, nonfiction.
That person was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform. The difference was that DFW (as I came to think of him) had performed. Unlike so many of the other great minds of our time, he had made good on his promise, less by virtue of talent than through moral courage and hard work. I still think the elucidation of Gerhard Schtitt’s tennis philosophy in Infinite Jest is some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever read: “How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.” Wallace somehow managed to pay attention to everything.
Of course, nothing is so unforgivable in postmodern America as an assertion of one’s own value, and in various large and small ways, Wallace’s critical reception would be dampened by schadenfreude. The surest way to marginalize the literary high-water-mark of the 1990s would be to exaggerate its (considerable) length and difficulty. “Sure Infinite Jest is great,” the logic went, “but does anybody actually read it?”
Similarly, I think, it would be both inaccurate and reductive to blame the burden of following up a masterpiece for driving Wallace to his death. In the 10 years that followed Infinite Jest – which might have been a perfectly reasonable gestation period for another long novel – Wallace published five books, for a more than respectable average of one every two years. The short stories “Church Not Made With Hands” and “Good Old Neon,” and the essays on the porn industry and John McCain in Consider the Lobster would be among his best work.
Furthermore, it was impossible to read about the Depressed Person in “The Depressed Person” and not to understand that the author had known depression on the most wrenching and intimate and long-term terms. The suicide that now hangs shadelike over the Wallace corpus in fact predated it, at least as a potentiality; think of The Sad Stork and Kate Gompert and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and the narrator of “Good Old Neon.”
Or don’t, because revisiting Wallace’s work is liable to offer more questions than answers. E.g.: How can someone with so much going for him have felt so bad? How could such an ambitious communicator have settled for this final muteness? And what, in the end, can we say about it?
We can say, first of all, that David Foster Wallace’s death is a historic loss for readers. To me, the self-annihilating qualities of “Octet” and “Mister Squishy” and “Oblivion” didn’t read as fictional dead-ends, but as attempts to solve, once and for all, the preoccupations of Wallace’s youth, prior to some astonishing new novel.
And we can remember that that book would have reflected a side of David Foster Wallace his critics didn’t often acknowledge: the metaphysician. In retrospect, Wallace’s belief in something larger than logic is everywhere: in Schtitt’s philosophies, in the prayerful ending of “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” and in “Good Old Neon,” where a suicide suggests that “all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life [turn] out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward.” Indeed, it offers some solace to recall that Wallace imagined death, in Infinite Jest, as a restoration, a
catapult[ing] home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.
This lovely image of connection posits death as the antithesis of depression, whose cause and effect, as Wallace diagnosed them, was the ontological problem of aloneness. Wallace revisited the proposition again and again, most recently in a soon-to-be-minutely-parsed commencement address at Kenyon College:
I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of what your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
But on this point, Wallace, who got so much right and saw so much so clearly, fell prey to a junior-grade fallacy, which now deepens into irony. As he himself put it in Infinite Jest: “sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.”
Even as Wallace’s darkest images expressed the anguish of existential solitude, the act of writing fiction, of writing it so well, was itself an invocation of community. His finest creation, Don Gately (the Leopold Bloom of Infinite Jest) bodies forth the possibility of true empathy, and we learn, through a series of hints, that he will try to lead Hal Incandenza out of the prison of the self.
Gately’s secret? He has come to understand that there is no proof, that some things one simply takes on faith. And as Gately observes, it works. David Foster Wallace’s death looks, from where I’m sitting, like a failure of communication. But his life, and his work, are an affirmation of it. Death is not the end.
Thumbtacked to the wall above my desk is a line from Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. It runs: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Paley could speak of “open destiny” with some authority. A writer to the marrow, she was also a mother, a rabble-rouser, and an inspiration. It must have been hard for her to imagine, working as a typist in the 1950s, that she would someday be honored as a national treasure. That the strikes against her (Radical; Working Class; Daughter of Ukrainian Immigrants; Woman) no longer seem like strikes is a testament to her trail-blazing.But Paley’s most significant significance (to this writer, anyway) is her voice. In 1959, when vernacular prose and aesthetic refinement seemed like the opposed ends of the literary jumper cables – contact to be avoided at all costs – The Little Disturbances of Man crossed wires, and made sparks. Paley came on like a philosopher and a carnival barker, like a reporter and a poet (which she very much was). Her sentences met her friend Donald Barthelme’s criteria for greatness – truth, beauty, and surprise – without the slightest sign of strain. They could rival the richness of Ulysses while seeming as spontaneous as a shout in the street.In “A Conversation with My Father,” for example, Paley’s fictional stand-in, Faith, tries to heed her Dad’s deathbed request: “to write a simple story […]. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.” She spins a story about a neighbor whose son becomes a junkie, and her father insists that she end it there. “I had promised the family to always let him have the last word when arguing,” Faith tells us, “but in this case I had a different responsibility. That woman lives across the street. She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in the house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.) Therefore: She did change. Of course her son never came home again. But right now, she’s the receptionist in a storefront community clinic in the East Village. Most of the customers are young people, some old friends. The head doctor has said to her, ‘If we only had three people in this clinic with your experiences…'”Grace Paley died yesterday, at age 84, having battled breast cancer. But given the buoyancy of her spirit and her passionate engagement with the world, hers is not the kind of death that leaves readers bitter. Rather, it offers us a reminder of our own “open destinies.” I’ll be raising a glass to Paley tonight, and revisiting her remarkable body of work for years to come.