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The New York Times is reporting that David Foster Wallace died Friday at his California home. In lieu of more coherent reflections - at least for the time being - we at The Millions would like to salute a novelist whose achievements will stand in the company of American giants, and whose best work should have been ahead of him.
Jim Harrison was a husband. “I’ve been married for 46 years,” he told me when we met a decade ago in Livingston, Montana’s Owl Bar. He’d learned through our preliminary correspondence -- during which I’d assured him that I’d been a compulsive creative writer since the age of seven and had “given my life to it,” the main criteria by which he decided whether or not to be interviewed by a young aspiring novelist -- that I was newly married. The dream of being married had occupied half of my heart for as long as I could remember; it coexisted there with the equally consuming dream of being a writer. Now Jim said in earnest, exhaling the smoke from his American Spirit and assessing me kindly with his good right eye, “I hope the marriage works out. They tend not to these days.” At 68 years old to my 27, Jim had experienced decades of matrimony in contrast to my eight or so months. Soon, he would become my literary idol as an author of fiction, poetry, essays, and memoir that -- in their contagious vitality, their celebratory and compassionate explorations of the pleasures and pains that come with being alive on this rich earth -- have done more to heal, inspire, and delight me than the work of any other artist. He would also become an authority in my eyes on conjugality and love, as well as a peripheral observer of my own marital and romantic misadventures. “You know, you’re very attractive,” he told me a few times over the course of our interview, perhaps because he was never timid about his appreciation for women either in life or literature, or possibly because he accurately sensed that I did not know. Introverted, diffident, and in some ways naive, there was much I didn’t know, especially about men -- my dad had been completely absent even longer than I’d been compulsively writing. Jim was as dynamic a speaker as he was a writer, and our conversation that day covered kaleidoscopic terrain: xenophobia as the root of the world’s ills, his sighting of Jack Kerouac passed out in a San Francisco bathroom in the early ’50s, Native American cultures, Christianity, and whether or not it was a good idea to strive for poetry in every sentence. “Some people try to do it that way,” he said, ashing his smoke in a manner that conveyed he didn’t think he was one of them. There was only one question he was shy about answering. “Doesn’t your wife get jealous,” I asked, “in response to the way you write so lustily about women? Even if it’s fiction?” I was a jealous new wife who imagined all wives must’ve been similarly wired. Jim was closemouthed. In a few days, though, he sent me a note in which he gently expressed that a marriage is, and should be, a mystery to all but the two in it. He was protective of his longtime bride and their union, and I was impressed. He liked the finished article I'd written about him when it appeared in print and wanted to stay in touch. My then-husband and I had moved from Montana to Los Angeles when Jim mailed me a letter. “The Yellowstone is flooding,” he wrote, “and you’re not here to help.” He said he’d been suffering from health problems and had just come out of the hospital. “It was so awful I should have gone to see you..." he said before declaring me a healer, albeit one with witchy tendencies: "You could have stolen holy water from the usual cathedral and mixed it with shark pee-pee, etc.” He asked me to continue with some research I’d been doing for him on the loup-garou, a mythical French werewolf that had captured his interest, and he closed with a request: “Send a photo...” I complied with a demure, decidedly Victorian headshot, shoulders and neck wholly hidden by a turtleneck, snapped by my spouse among the flowers at the L.A. Arboretum. This likely wasn’t the sort of photo Jim had in mind -- his work is rife with carnal, playful, and sincerely heart-struck celebrations of feminine pulchritude -- and he received it without comment. But at the time I couldn’t imagine that he -- that anybody -- would want something different. Any awareness that I might have been beautiful or desirable was at that time latent, locked away in a box to which I didn’t think I had the key. Not long after that, somebody came along who did appear to carry a key, and the unlocking was both bitter and sweet: sweet because I was enchanted by the potent and persuasive sense of being seen in a novel way, bitter because he was not my husband. Feeling profoundly altered, guilty, confused, and unfit for my marriage, I sent a confessional email to Jim. There was no judgment in his reply, only sympathy. He advised me to “proceed with caution” if I proceeded at all, and wrote that he understood the experience of allowing oneself to be seduced, though he didn’t say explicitly whether it had ever happened to him. Still, I wondered if he felt disappointed. He’d wished me well in my fledgling marriage and now it seemed I was making a real mess of it. A year later, I moved back to Montana by myself and adopted a solemn collie from the shelter who seemed, like me, to be in a quiet-but-constant state of emotional distress. I lived alone in a cheap apartment in downtown Livingston. The affair into which I’d stumbled had ended when I’d been unable to tear myself out of my marriage. My marriage had also ended when I’d confessed the affair and, after the dust settled, couldn’t stay with my husband, though I’d tried. I didn’t know where or with whom I belonged. I felt like a failure. These were dark days, dampened by tears. I was walking my dog one afternoon when I heard Jim call to me from the sunken sunlit patio of the tavern where he sat with a few friends. I stepped down to join them. Always fond of dogs, he fed mine Cheez-Its from the basket on the table. I shakily talked with Jim and his commiserative companions about what had been going on. “It’s harder to write these days,” I told Jim, “without the sense of stability that comes with being married.” He nodded. I got up to leave and ascended the steps from the tavern patio up the sidewalk. Jim followed. We paused. Since I stood on a step and he did not, I was about six inches above him. I bent down and kissed the top of his head. He looked up at me and said my name. “What if you were really this tall?” he asked. I heard the real question tucked beneath his seemingly light and irreverent one. I have never forgotten it. It is my favorite and most treasured of all the things he communicated to me in writing or in person. I must have merely chuckled in reply. Though I understood what he was asking, it didn’t seem quite possible yet that I could be “tall” -- that is, powerful in my aloneness. I could be my own woman, with no husband, no lover, no hovering possible partners: just me. I could let go, at least for a while, of the lifelong dream of forming a permanent union with a man. I could rent my own house on the creek and become a hermitess of sorts, mend my mostly self-inflicted wounds until they closed, work hard to revise the novel I had drafted during easier days, get it published, and see the dream of a lifetime -- which ran parallel to the dream of lasting love -- come true. I wasn’t immediately sure if I could do this, but Jim’s question would echo, and I would do it soon. In the meantime, whenever I felt especially blue I would spend time with Jim’s books, because reading about Brown Dog, Dalva, the farmer’s daughter, France, food, dogs, sex, death, revenge, and birds was medicine for me. He was the real healer, able to transmit his mind’s singularly heartening perception of the world through the medium of his poetry and prose. He was helpful outside the realm of printed pages, too. When a TV personality came to town to film an episode of his show and asked Jim about me, Jim replied firmly, “She’s not for you,” and that was the end of that. In those days, as he must’ve known, my boundaries were so permeable I might have been drawn into a situation that would have only caused me more pain. When word of this exchange got back to me, I was grateful. After that, our lives filled with new diversions; we corresponded and saw each other less. My first book came out. I began to consider love again, my incautious heart now tempered by slightly clearer vision. And I continued writing all the while. As I grew taller, Jim slowed down a bit. Though he was still admirably prolific, he was aging. He had back surgery and shingles. He spent part of each year in Arizona, away from the stingingly cold winters and slushy early springs of Livingston. When he returned, I’d see him around town. From a distance I’d recognize his unmistakable shuffle, his canvas shoes worn like slippers with the heels smashed down, his uncombed shock of white hair, his careless clothes and cane. Always, I felt explosive affection. A quotation of his -- “There’s never an excuse not to do your work” -- is taped above the desk where I’ve finished a second novel and where today I labor over yet another -- one I’ve been working on in a state of vulnerability and insecurity, with a gambler’s blind faith, as I feel my way through its dark woods for the fourth consecutive year. I’m not sure what will become of either of these books, but then that’s no concern of mine. I wasn’t lying when I’d told Jim prior to our first meeting that I’d given my life to writing. And he’s the one I most look up to among all those who’ve given their lives to this weird and lonesome compulsion to tell stories by scratching ciphers onto sheets of tree. I’m still thinking hard about marriage, love, and forming a forever union -- a union of heads and hearts, with abundant heat. Just a couple of weeks before he died this March, I watched a 1993 French documentary about Jim. One short scene struck me as so piercingly beautiful I had to replay it a few times. Middle-aged Jim and his wife are driving down a country road. She is wearing bold dangly earrings. He reaches over from the driver’s seat to push back her hair and examine one of the pretty baubles in the most familiar, proprietary, curious, husbandly way, as if to say, “What is this new thing with which you’ve adorned yourself?” or “I know you -- I know your head, your heart, your body.” Seeing this moment, I swallowed a sob. That small, intimate, seconds-long gesture encapsulated so much: what he cherished, what he guarded, what he held on to for nearly six decades despite inevitable difficulties, and what I want. Jim and his wife had been married 56 years when she died last October. I sent him a card. Friends said the last thing he ever expected was that she would go first. He was the one with the unapologetic appetite for cigarettes, drinks, and rich foods. Six months later, he followed her. I heard the news on Easter Sunday, which seemed fitting; he’d mentioned during our first meeting at the Owl Bar that he’d been an ardent boy preacher and still believed in the resurrection. Of course his own resurrection will be perpetual: every time anybody turns a page of one of his books, there he will be. I went out and bought his latest, The Ancient Minstrel, the title novella of which is an imaginative memoir. Like so much of his other work, it alleviated my sadness, even though my sadness had been over the passing of the minstrel himself. When I got to the very last page of that story I lost my breath. I knew Jim wasn’t writing right to me -- that he’d only thought of me for a fraction of the time that I’ve spent thinking of him -- but that’s how it felt. Our communication had always concerned both writing and relationships. Now, it seemed, he was making his last definitive statement and proffering his final bit of advice on those subjects. They reached me with the same precision that a bird navigates to the end of his flyway with the help of the sun and stars: I feel absolutely vulnerable and realize it’s the best state for a writer whether in the woods or in the studio...Feeling bright-eyed, confident, and arrogant doesn’t do this job...You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head...You don’t want to be writing unless you’re giving your life to it. You should make a practice of avoiding all affiliations that might distract you. After fifty-five years of marriage it might occur to you it was the best idea of a lifetime. The sanity of a good marriage will enable you to get your work done. It was a reassuring end to our conversation. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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I started reading Harvey Pekar’s comic book series American Splendor in high school, when I was anxious about my future and frustrated by my present. Little did I know then, Harvey would soon become a friend and a confidant of sorts. At 16, my impending adulthood terrified me, and I worried often about my ability to do the ordinary things that an independent person must do to get by. I was convinced that facing the logistics of life—finding a place to live, paying the bills, going to the dentist—would deplete any happiness I might find. The bureaucracy and tedium of high school left me outraged, and like many young people who came of age during the Bush administration, I had a pretty grim view of humanity’s future. I found hope and comfort in American Splendor, even as the comics actually confirmed some of my worst fears about the adult world. Harvey’s autobiographical protagonist faces all the challenges I worried about, and he doesn’t always respond to them with the calm maturity I hoped I would someday develop. Most of the stories in American Splendor take place at the hospital where Harvey worked for most of his life as a file clerk, or on the streets and stoops of his run-down Cleveland neighborhood. They chronicle his strained relationships with loved ones, his bouts with cancer and depression, and his frustration at practically everything. American Splendor reassured me despite all this gloom. A lot of the comics recount run-ins with a cast of eccentrics; some strangers, some co-workers and friends. I think one of these vignettes, an encounter with a guy named Crazy Ed, inspired Pekar to start writing comics in the first place. I spent a lot of my life at the time wandering around the city and riding buses, so I had plenty of conversations with strangers myself, and I often enjoyed talking to them more than anything else I did. Pekar recognized that these interactions are not just funny anecdotes: they can sustain one’s spirits and make it easier to persevere. Getting through the day was hard, he affirmed, but it was worth it. Not for any great philosophical reason, but because ordinary life is filled with strange occurrences that are not to be missed. American Splendor helped me imagine a future I could handle, and I considered Harvey Pekar an ally on my path to adult stability. When I saw a P.O. box listed in a back issue of American Splendor, I decided to write him a letter to thank him. I told him that his comic books reassured me that things would turn out okay, and that I loved the Mr. Boats stories (a series of comic strips about an elderly co-worker given to making grandiose statements in elevators). I didn’t really expect a response; my brother had made similar overtures to R. Crumb and never heard anything back. A few weeks later, though, my mom called me at work to tell me that I had gotten a letter from Harvey Pekar. Luckily, I worked in a bookstore, so I could brag about it without having to explain who he was. The wrinkled, beat-up envelope from Cleveland contained a short note, in which Harvey thanked me for my letter and said I could give him a call if I wanted to talk some more. He had free long distance, and he didn’t have time to write long missives. I couldn’t believe that an accomplished writer wanted to talk to me, although I knew from references in the comic books that he had become friends with fans before. I was extremely nervous the first time I called. His wife picked up the phone, and I stumbled through an awkward explanation of who I was. Once Harvey got on the phone I relaxed a little bit and we talked for a while. His voice was strained and raspy, due to a problem with his vocal chords that was charted in a series of comic strips. I felt bad about keeping him on the phone because it sounded so painful. Our first conversation was friendly but short. We mostly talked about comics we liked; he was very enthusiastic about young comic book writers like Keith Knight, and gratified by the medium’s newfound popularity. He was surprised that I found anything uplifting in American Splendor, since his work was often derided as too curmudgeonly. We agreed to talk again soon and he got off the phone to go to bed. We had longer phone conversations over the next year. Harvey was warm and funny in conversation, but he also sounded worn out and subdued. In his comics, he portrayed himself bursting with energy and anger and enthusiasm. I knew this was an exaggeration of his personality, but I think the time I knew him was especially hard for him. It was a bad time for me too, and having someone to commiserate with helped. I was so grateful that he was interested in my problems that I felt presumptuous trying to help with his; I was just a kid and I didn’t have much perspective. I remember one very serious conversation about living with chronic depression. He was amused that I expected him to have some words of wisdom on the topic, since he had struggled with these problems his whole life without overcoming them. Nonetheless, he did give me some advice that was both pragmatic and frightening, and I’ve tried to follow it ever since. I think Harvey didn’t even consider it good advice; it was just the only thing that worked. He told me that you have to force yourself to do whatever needs to be done to get through the day, no matter how you feel, and at some point later you’ll be glad you did. We talked about lighter stuff too, mostly books and art. Harvey also told me to read as much as I could about everything I was interested in, and to keep educating myself whether I was in school or not. He believed in reading to satisfy curiosity and gain expertise, not just for pleasure, a philosophy in keeping with his pragmatic, unromantic approach to writing (another thing he encouraged me to do regularly). And, as any reader of American Splendor would expect, we spent a lot of time complaining. We met in person twice, at comic book conventions in San Francisco and Portland, but I enjoyed talking on the phone more. The conventions were busy and crowded, and I was even shyer in person. When I introduced myself for the first time, I was flustered and asked if the convention gave him any free food. Recognizing a fellow cheapskate, he responded enthusiastically and gave me a handful of energy bars. I was very sorry to hear about Harvey’s death last week. I’m sure our conversations meant more to me than they did to him, but I hope they cheered him up. Our acquaintance demonstrated one of the things I had loved about American Splendor: the importance of connections to strangers. The fan letter I wrote on a whim led to a brief but valuable friendship. Those talks helped me grow up. I took his advice and forced myself through the rest of high school. I’ve settled into the adult life I was so afraid of, and most of the things I dreaded turned out to be pretty easy. I wish I could thank him, and ask him for advice again, this time on figuring out what to do with my freedom.
I have been one of the few to extract a plausible living from a bookshop. When I was hired to work at Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Whitman had recently taken over running the place from her father, George. She wanted a permanent staff to confront the multitudes who flooded in on a daily basis, and she knew a good salary would keep people around. I was glad Sylvia was my boss. She was sweet and even tempered, while George was known to be irascible and unpredictable. Furthermore, everyone told me that George “didn’t like men.” (At one of his heralded Sunday breakfasts, he spied a single boy among the crowd of young female admirers and remarked, with narrowed eyes, “There’s a weed in my flower garden.”) My shift lasted from 6 p.m. to midnight. Sylvia warned me that George often came down in the evening, after she’d gone home, to engage in sabotage. Father and daughter were embroiled in a simmering conflict over “improvements.” Telephone, or cash register, or books organized by genre -- George was revolted by the idea. A few weeks earlier, under orders from the French authorities, the famously-treacherous staircase, described by Anaïs Nin as “unbelievable,” was taken down and replaced by a wider, sturdier, more conventional thing. Enraged, George attacked it with a hammer. The night of my first shift, I sat at the register, nervous that he would renew his assault. What should I do if he appeared with that hammer again? But when he turned up midway through the evening, it was not the stairs he had in mind. A friend was coming from Atlantic City. We needed another bed! Ignoring the line of waiting customers, George ordered me to climb out onto the dilapidated roof (of the 16th-century building) to retrieve a piece of rotting plywood, skewered with nails. I obliged, of course. Later, he brought me gluey pancakes, which I clandestinely flushed down the toilet. When readings were held outside the shop, George would sometimes throw chewed pieces of chicken out the fourth-story window. This was a snack for Colette, the shop dog. We all prayed the scraps would not fall on the author. George was thrillingly indifferent to appearances. When Bill Clinton visited, he descended in his pajamas to inform the former president that he had “betrayed his principals,” by executing a mentally-disabled man during his tenure as governor of Arkansas. George was epically and, at times, autocratically uninterested in anything convenient, orderly, or efficient. Cell phones? Computers? Kindles? No thanks. If we organized the books, he disorganized them. If we brought in the cleaners, he was livid. Cockroaches roamed and flourished. The wishing well was raided constantly by gypsies. George didn’t care; as long as people had books. Over the course of 60 years, he gave shelter to almost 40,000 people, many of that desperate genre: the aspiring writer. When I worked at the shop, we would often find scraps of paper under the stairwell that revealed themselves to be thank you notes to George from people like Langston Hughes or Graham Greene or Jacqueline Onassis. And so I, and the many thousands of others who passed through, add our not-quite-as-illustrious thank you notes to theirs. Photo courtesy of Harriet Lye.