Yesterday it was learned that Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields passed away. She was best known for the book that won her the prize, The Stone Diaries. They broadcast an old interview with her on NPR yesterday, and Shields talked about how she squeezed in an hour of writing each day between teaching and taking care of her young children and after nine months she had written The Stone Diaries. Her last book, Unless, didn’t recieve a huge amount of press, but it sold tremendously well at my bookstore and was much loved by the readers I spoke to about it. If you want to learn more about her, here is her obit in the New York Times.
I still remember with hallucinatory precision reading Barry Hannah’s Ray while laying out on my futon in my graduate school hovel in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was a southern transplant having moved from the north to the south when I was ten. I had a love/hate relationship with the place. None of the then popular southern writers moved me much—Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle—all romanticized the South and its characters. Hannah, on the other hand, hadn’t gotten the memo about the folksy-soft-glow south; instead he drove full throttle into the taboos of the messed up region, taking on the Jesus-obsessed nuts, the macho lunatics still hurting from the loss of the Civil War, the racial friction, and the lush almost mystical landscape.
Ray, the main character of the book of the same name, was familiar to me. He was a drunken doctor, a poet, an adulterer, a bigot, a deeply charming and unconventional man. The sentences in the book inspired me, reminding me of another hero, Jane Bowles. From the first few words you could not tell where the rest of the sentence might careen. “So I ordered a double Vodka to hose down my conscience” and “I invent cheerfulness from my heart, the biggest engine.” I quickly read more: the masterful Geronimo Rex about a factory owner’s son and his friendship with an African American marching-band leader and the mind-blowing stories in Airships. Ray, though, remained my favorite. Thoughout graduate school I dove continuously into its pages. Hannah was direct about the erotic sphere, a subject I was also trying to take on. “She was a violent delight. For about an hour we went into the beautiful nowhere together.” He was also honest about the derailing effects of that desire. “Ray, the filthy call of random sex is a killer. It kills all you know of the benevolent order of your new life.” The high low jam-up, the economy of language and the eccentric, incandescent phrasing: “To live and delight in healing, flying, fucking. Here are the men and women.” It all convinced me that if the power ever went off I could use the book to electrify my entire house.
Flash forward eight years, my novel Suicide Blonde had recently come out and while it was getting good reviews, The New Yorker had not liked it. I tried to let that sink in. The New Yorker, the magazine I’d read since I was a teenager, willing myself into its pages on a weekly basis. The New Yorker, that Mount Olympus of the Literary World, had in its pages a cartoon caricature of me! The article, which was also a send up of my charismatic publisher, Morgan Entrekin, critiqued something I’d also been worried about, my novels grim fixation on sex. At first I cried and then spent days roaming around my apartment, pulling books off the shelf, only to convince myself that everything I read was better then anything I’d ever compose.
My phone rang into this atmosphere of despondency and a voice, friendly and southern, asked for me. Barry introduced himself. “I wanted to call and say you wrote an honest book.” He went on to tell me that The New Yorker article had made him angry. “You should be proud of yourself,” he said, “you told the truth.” My heart was beating so loudly in my ears, I could only say, Thank you. Thank you so much.
After that I was like his dog. I wrote to him expressing my adoration for his writing and telling him about myself, that I was a minister’s daughter and a new mother. He wrote to me asking for a “marginally southern story” for the then new magazine Oxford American. “As you know the south is a wide tremendous nation with big fingers in NYC.” As we corresponded I heard about his daily life, his love of tennis. “Trying to get back to my career as a minor tennis hero.” He had a weekly game with a graduate student. “He’s young but I’m old and crafty. I have to win points fast because of my awful Marlboro habit.” In one letter he asked for payment for an essay he’d written for an anthology Rick Moody and I were editing. “I want to start around the square soon with my roll of 100’s spread around to impress certain women who have been ignoring me. Starting with my wife, who’s studying French at night and does not light up like a candle when I enter the room.” When I complained about the business of writing he concurred. “Don’t feel alone. It’s the times, the viciously commercial times—very hard on writers of all sorts.”
Barry entreated me to get “living tissue on the page.” He told me voice was about “finding your own past, your people and the conditions you’ve observed close to you, valuable.” He explained how first person was not about interior intellectual exposition, but a point of view where “you could be more interested in the fool.” Finally, whenever I complained about the difficulty of our profession, he’d remind me that we’d given ourselves to writing without any promises. That there was something “thrilling about risking your whole self for something with no guarantee.”
His letters weren’t always strictly supportive. When I sent him the manuscript for my third book, Jesus Saves, he was honest about his reservations. He liked the mood of the book, the tone and the voice, but “there were many rough patches of prose.” He went on to say, “I do not speak from smug superiority in any way—I’m not above anything myself. I am capable still of huge blunders.” He asked to see a smoother version and, thanks to his honesty, I was able to made the book better.
In 1998 Barry called me again, this time to offer me the Grisham Fellowship at the University of Mississippi. The day I arrived with my three-year-old daughter, Abbie, at the lovely sprawling house the college provided across the street from William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, Barry drove up in his pickup truck with four stray dogs yapping in the back. In person, he was a round-faced, handsome, and deeply charming man. Our meetings around town thrilled me. Once as I walked into Ajax, a restaurant on the square, for lunch, Barry, who was sitting at a table eating an oyster po’boy and reading the new Phillip Roth novel, yelled out “Steinke! It’s a literary scene. It only takes two of us in Mississippi.” We met for lunch regularly, though it was the chance encounters I remember most. Once I was carrying a Hendrix CD I’d just bought from the local record store, when I ran into Barry. “Hendrix,” he said, “its like the blues with a helicopter in it.”
I also learned the local lore about him. Though sober for years, stories about his drinking days were a staple of Oxford’s oral tradition. How, wearing only a speedo and dark glasses, he’d spend his Saturdays spread out on a lawn chair in his back yard drinking from a tray of martinis and blasting the Stones on his tape player. After each drink was done, he’d throw the glass, shattering it against the trashcan. One story had him, during a drunken night, knocking on doors with the excuse that he was diabetic and needed a ham sandwich for his blood sugar, from second story Square balconies he’d hook passerby’s hats with a fishing line, and then there was the legendary speech he gave at the SPCA on the importance of unifying the cat people and the dog people.
Before I left to go back to Brooklyn, Barry took me to lunch at City Grocery on the downtown square one last time. He was going to give a lecture at the Bennington Summer Workshop about “Oxford Writers.” He dressed up for the lunch in a white sport coat and read off questions he’d written about my novels in a little notebook. I floated up, filled with absolute joy. One of his observations about the theme of motherlessness in my books, remains for me, the most valuable thing ever said about my work.
That lunch was the last time I saw Barry in full and vibrant health. When I went down for a party for him in 2000, he looked thin and pale. His Lymphoma, first diagnosed in 1999, had worsened. “I’ve fallen behind the pack,” he told me. In 2002 though, he’d gained enough strength to come to the New School in New York City, where I taught, to read from his new novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan. The room was packed with New School and Columbia graduate students as well as the local literati: Wells Tower, Ben Marcus, Amy Hemple, and Barry’s old editor Gordon Lish, who during the questions and answers yelled out repeatedly, I Love You Barry!
After the reading, though, Barry had what he later called “an attack of a bad envious low key god on my person,” and checked himself into an uptown hospital. By the time I got to his room the next day, flowers in hand, he’d broken out of the place and flown back to Mississippi.
Later that year while visiting Oxford, I tried to see Barry, who was again in the hospital. The nurse told me he was too sick for visitors. A few weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I got a letter. He called me an angel for “attempting to visit my corpse when I was so desperately ill.” He went on to tell me that Christ had appeared to him. This was not as surprising as it sounds. We’d both come from religious backgrounds and had, at times, been able to share the more mystical details of our spiritual life. Christ was “both in my room and immortal as promised. This world is a beautiful thing to me now, friend,” he wrote, “and I want it to be for you too.”
Image: Joey Lauren Adams
When I heard he’d died in the spring of 2010, just a few days before the Festival of the Book meant to celebrate him, I flew down to Mississippi immediately. The event became a sort of extended wake, with panels of his high school friends and former students. There were many Grisham Fellows, myself included, that spoke of Barry’s generosity of spirit, his wit, his kick-ass phrasing. Lisa and Richard Howorth, owners of the local bookstore Square Books, and close friends of Barry’s, had a reception after the memorial service. We carried tea lights down to the nearby cemetery, stopping at William Faulkner’s tombstone to place a bumper sticker on the granite that read I’d Rather Be Reading Airships. We stood under a white tent beside the fresh mound of dirt covered with flowers. People told stories; Lisa said how Barry had called her a “closeted nice person,” another how in a faculty meeting after a professor had given details of his new literary theory class, Barry suggested the class be called “The End of Joy.” A former student told how if Barry felt your workshop story wasn’t up to snuff he’d sometimes skip over it entirely. “For God’s sake,” he’d say, “try and do better next time.”
I was too sad and thrilled to speak. My hero was dead, a writer who accomplished with Ray, along with his other books, what I still hoped to do, presenting the messed up and lovely world in raw and nimble prose, never flinching from the ugly, acknowledging joy, being honest about the tug toward God. “I think of rising in the Phantom at dawn and the dawn intense—orange, yellow, violet, blue-black—the day very present because it could be the day of your death.”
We mourners finally laid our candles among the flowers. The high wizard of language was dead. A man who had transformed his brokenness, rage, and grief into stories as moving and powerful, to me, as those in the Old Testament, a man who’d offered me kindness, creative instruction, and in his own way, spiritual advice. I remembered what he’d written at the end of the letter where he’d told me he’d seen Christ, words that I copied and keep on an index card in my wallet. “Your prose gets more elegant. Please maintain this my dear. It’s the only way out of the present trash except Christ himself. I know this.”
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.
I can’t believe it… Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn’t mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn’t a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the “Art of Fiction” (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here’s the obit.
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.