I first heard the news of David Foster Wallace’s death the morning after my wedding. I was walking around the small downtown that hosted the weekend’s festivities and ran into a couple, friends of the bride. They had left the wedding the night before with my college roommates, the group steaming back to a rented house to continue the good feeling of the night. One friend opened a bottle of scotch, another a laptop, and that is when the news broke. The feeling of celebration fell like a curtain descending a window. Retelling the story the next morning, neither among the couple could remember the dead author’s name. “William Chester, Franklin Wright, something with three names,” they said. It took me half a minute to figure out who they were talking about.Mourning the death of an artist I didn’t know is not something I’ve ever done before. I thought of it as an emotion only teenagers felt, and mostly in movies. And when David Foster Wallace died it didn’t register like the loss of someone I knew or like the loss of someone I didn’t. It was more descriptive. His suicide, like his work, added texture to the world, or revealed it, and even if the resulting picture was not any clearer, at least it was more honest and likely also more true. His death felt to me most directly like the settling of rubble.I expected a string of emails among my friends about DFW’s death. For the last two years we’ve participated in a Google Group with a steady daily volume of posts. Many of the threads are combative, filled with faux-disputes that make it easier to pass the workday and serve as a proxy for hanging out on weekends, which we cant do as much now that many of us live in different cities. One thing everyone agreed on though is that DFW was the Real McCoy. Soon after news of his death there was a simple post, titled “RIP” that stated matter-of-factly what had happened. After that a few people added links to blog posts and remembrances. I commented after listening to him read from “Up, Simba” on an archived This American Life episode, that I’d never heard his voice before. Our discussion was part the idle chatter of a funeral, and part a notation of the kinds of inconsequential details that are insulating in times of grief. DFW liked The Wire as it turned out, and to be able to say so out loud is almost proof that his death was not so severe.But the primary sound after his death was silence. We’ve had people write 1,000-word posts on football players’ names, and threads about the US Open that stretched past the horizon, but on an occasion of significance to everyone in the group, very little has been said. It is, I think, an appropriate response. In his writing, and maybe in his head too, DFW battled the cacophonous echo chamber of modern life. In our little corner of the online world, it felt fitting to let the only reverberations be his own.
The first words of Harry Crews’ first book, The Gospel Singer, are:
Enigma, Georgia was a dead end. The courthouse had been built square in the middle of highway 229 where it stopped abruptly on the edge of Big Harrikan Swamp like a cut ribbon.
This is geography as metaphysics, and I can never read about the Big Harrikan Swamp without thinking of it. William Gay’s horrifying Twilight followed Crews into the literary Harrikan. Now Crews, who died on March 28 at age 76, has followed Gay all too closely into that bigger, scarier Harrikan that eats us all.
Before that was Barry Hannah, and before that Larry Brown. It’s hard not to notice the way the obituaries make all of these writers sound the same, when they don’t in their own prose. An excessive journalistic focus on their hard-scrabble lives creates the illusion of a school: the rough-and-tumble “Southern Writers.” It’s true enough that the manners described by Hannah, Brown, Gay, and Crews were those of the mid-to-late twentieth century South. However, the mystery each grasps at in his own way extends beyond any real-life coordinates. In Crews’ case, when we look past the haggard face and the thrilling biography full of fights and fornication, we find a fictional world closer to the Eastern Europe of Kafka and Hrabal than to today’s good ole boy.
I first heard about Crews when I was trying to write a novel about people I’d known when I was living in South Carolina with a stripper several years my senior. I was embarrassed of my novel and of South Carolina. I’d tried my hardest to get the hell out of there — to become unSouthern. But as any Southerner who is a writer and an exile knows, it only really gets in your blood once you’re gone. I wasn’t trying to convince myself I didn’t hate it, like Quentin Compson; I was trying to convince myself I did. A friend, seeing my struggle, suggested I try Harry Crews.
I picked up A Feast of Snakes and was astounded by how radically unSouthern its South was. The book had all the tropes of a “Southern Novel,” sure — alliterative names, bootleg whiskey, dog-fights — but it pushed them so far as to blow them to kingdom come. Which was what I’d been waiting for. I’d read a ton of Faulkner and all of Flannery O’Connor, but, with apologies to Faulkner, the past is, after a certain point, past. (Today, it’s hard to believe that when O’Connor went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, nobody could understand what she was saying. Southern kids text “OMG” like everyone else.) Crews’ book had come out the year I was born, and yet, as I read it at the turn of the millennium, I saw an old coot way out-doing what I thought was new; this wasn’t past at all. Joe Lon, Berenice, and all the snake freaks, dog-fighters, and castrated cops pushed the real South I knew into an ecstatic, rhapsodic space. It was right next door and out of this world.
In a lot of ways, Crews’ irreverence toward regional tradition is to be expected. With World War I, generation displaced region as the primary literary category, Malcolm Cowley once argued. This seems pretty sound today. We don’t really talk about “Midwestern literature” post-Sherwood Anderson (or maybe Saul Bellow). “New England literature” sends us all the way back to Emerson and Thoreau. Yet you still hear “Southern Literature” all the time. It resounds like the drone-string of a banjo every time one of these old white rebel novelists dies.
There is still plenty of debate about the implications of the term. Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American, recently wrote a controversial essay attacking an upstart, upscale rival, Garden and Gun, for “white washing” the South. I like Garden and Gun, but I loved Smirnoff’s attack — except that much of his criticism applies equally well to his own pages. Why does the Oxford American have to be a magazine of “good Southern Writing?” It might not fetishize the South in precisely the same way as Garden and Gun (or Southern Living, to which Smirnoff compares G&G), but it still fetishizes it. There are amazing writers in the South — Suzanne Hudson is the best, in my opinion; seriously check out In A Temple of Trees — but they aren’t good because they’re Southern. So maybe the most fitting tribute we could pay to Harry Crews’ achievement is to bury the term “Southern Literature” alongside him.
But we need Southern Lit, you might say. The South is different — they’re crazy down there — and we require a certain quota of drunk, hard-living scribblers in order to understand them. I’d reply that that’s precisely the reason Southern Literature should be kicked to death like the dog, Tuffy, in Feast of Snakes — with a vicious brutal love. Because it is not the job of Harry Crews to school you on the quaint anthropology of a foreign region or to make you feel better about living there. It is his job to take you to a different Georgia, Enigma and Mystic, a Georgia of the mind. Crews is not a romantic writer, but his works are now being romanticized — and civilized. The Southern Lit industry tells us what to expect when we read these dead gritty Southern white dudes. But the only way to do justice to the sledgehammer prose of Crews — to allow it to do its work — is to kill off the genre, sacrificing the adjective “Southern” for the sake of what really matters here, which is Literature.
Just found out that Hunter S. Thompson killed himself. It’s unbelievable. I suppose he’s one of those guys who didn’t want to die of old age. Maybe we’ll find out more…HST has been appropriated by many. He came to represent a lot of things, especially an over-the-top counter-cultural wackiness, that he may or may not have signed up for. It also seems like his work is dismissed by as many as those who embrace it. To my mind, his books, especially those penned from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, included long stretches of blinding brilliance. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad HST writing on bookshelves too, but his public demanded it, I suppose. My favorite HST book is Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72 which is about the race that led up to Nixon’s reelection. If you have even the slightest interest in politics, this is an essential book. In it the ever-distractable HST follows the many tangents that encompass the insanity of the American political process. In one particularly surreal scene, Thompson shares a long limo ride with Nixon. The election is not the only – nor even the central – drama of the book, which originally appeared almost in its entirety in Rolling Stone. The subplot that occasionally becomes the plot of the book, is whether or not HST will be able to finish the book and to face the inevitability of Nixon’s reelection. In the end he does not, and the reader is left frustrated, wanting this man – who seems to have an answer for everything – to stick it out until election day, but he can’t. I think, though, that that was Thompson’s way. It’s infuriating in that instance, as well as in today’s, but in exchange we got brilliance from a man who wrote with such fury that he burnt himself right out.See also: the AP obit. The first of many to come.
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.