On Poetry, Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Spencer Reece, The Poet’s Tale

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions. 1. I try to recall what made me run out and buy Spencer Reece’s debut poetry collection. The book had been recently published, so this would have been 2004. Back then, I still got my news in paper form, the daily New York Times. I enjoyed especially the Sunday morning ritual -- cover to cover, coffee and breakfast. I needed rituals back then: newly divorced, living alone for the first time in 10 years, past 30, with a demanding day job; and anxious that I’d never get back to writing, that it was all a silly fantasy I should put to rest. Sunday with the big fat New York Times was soothing somehow. I even cut coupons. I do a quick search at the Times online, and there it is: a piece on Spencer Reece, Sunday, May 9, 2004. And yes, now I remember, it was in the Style section. The silly headline: “O Khaki Pants! O Navy Blazer!” Like many – like the editors of the Times – I was taken with Reece’s life before coming to know his art. It was his personal story – the romance of it, the near-tragedy, the “stylish” way in which it all turned around for him, one night, when he came home from his job as assistant manager at Brooks Brothers to a message on his answering machine from Michael Collier, chair of the prestigious Bakeless Prize committee. Louise Glück, then Poet Laureate of the United States, had selected his manuscript as that year’s winner. He’d been working full-time at Brooks Brothers for several years, first at the Mall of America in Minnesota, then in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The book had been submitted to contests and publishers, in various forms, and rejected, some 300 times over the previous 13 years. Spencer Reece was 40 years old when he got that call; he’d been writing poetry since college, had sent out thousands of submissions to magazines (three at a time, 10 magazines each round), diligently, year after year. Even so, he’d lived and wrote mostly outside the literary world. The title of the book – and of the collection’s most well-known poem – was The Clerk’s Tale. I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier, selling suits to men I call "Sir." Not long after that phone message, another call came, while Reece was at work, from Alice Quinn of the New Yorker. “I was fixing a pair of pants for a man and his wife, the wife was very upset,” Reece recalled. “I couldn’t stay on the phone long, because I had a pair of pants and the woman was getting more and more upset.” The New Yorker published “The Clerk’s Tale” in June 2003, devoting to it the entire back page. Even without knowledge of Chaucer's original -- the tale of a peasant girl's harrowing trials of love and loyalty -- Spencer Reece’s Cinderella story was irresistible. And we needed such a story. Well, I did. The romance, the sense of “close call,” i.e., what if he had never won any prize or come to anyone’s attention, but continued to labor in the dark – 40, 50, 60 years old -- a melancholy retail clerk, making $30,000 a year, estranged from family, with two master’s degrees (in Renaissance poetry from the University of York, and in theology from Harvard Divinity), living in suburban Florida. It could have happened. It does happen, all the time. We need these stories to counter the inevitability of obscurity; we need stories that kindle our sense of hope, and possibility. 2. We needed Reece’s story so much that we began to own it for ourselves, at times adjusting and embellishing. As I delve into research, poring over interviews and profiles from the past eight years, I find inconsistencies: it is notably difficult to piece together the chronology, to get the narrative right. Here, we have him graduating Harvard at 27, then entering a mental hospital at 29, after an acrimonious break from his family; another account has him closer to 31 or 32 at the time of the break and breakdown. Had he spent three full years in the mental hospital, or was it three years living with the nurse and her husband who took him in afterwards? In one version the root of acrimony was money and alcoholism; in another, the central conflict was Reece’s homosexuality. It is also unclear whether Reece did not work at all while he lived with the nurse, or if he did this and that – radio work, freelance writing. Was it eight years at Brooks Brothers by the time he got the call, or was it closer to five or six? In one account it is Collier’s message on the machine; in another, it is Louise Gluck herself. One profile has Reece working on his poetry “in secret,” his “only literary encouragement an epistolary friendship with famed poet James Merrill.” (He met Merrill “through friends,” one article states. In a later interview, we learn that he met Merrill through Frederick Buechner, though we don’t know how Reece knew Buechner.) Elsewhere we learn that Annie Dillard was also an early encourager, and eventually a champion of The Clerk’s Tale. By his own account, Reece was once a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award and received consistent encouragement from the nurse, Martha, and her husband; from the poet Clare Rossini who lived across the street; from writers involved with The Loft literary center where he took classes and won an award; from the Minnesota State Arts Council from which he’d won an artist’s grant. “I read with Galway Kinnell, that was early on, so I want to paint an accurate picture," Reece said in an interview. "There were little blips, things that were encouraging and that were happening. It wasn’t like nothing was happening. But I wanted more to happen faster.” In truth, I wouldn’t blame fans or journalists for altering or exaggerating the story. I understand why we need it to be as dramatic as possible. I wouldn’t even blame Reece himself if he occasionally magnified certain truths over others, or melded details for narrative effect (“much I knew I would forget or remember in a way my own / which would not exactly be correct, no, not exactly” he later wrote in “The Road to Emmaus”). With such compelling bare bones, we need the story to rise and fall in a particular way, we need cause and effect to play out convincingly. I am reminded of a visit I made to my MFA alma mater a few years ago, upon the publication of my novel. My former professor had asked me to visit his workshop, to encourage the students and be a kind of poster child for “Yes, you can.” The students asked good questions about my Road to Publication. The day after, one of the students confided in me that among the after-chat was a horrified sentiment along the lines of It’s been 12 YEARS since she graduated? What TOOK her so long? So much for poster child. 3. But Reece is, in many ways, a poster child for the Post-40 Bloomers series. Although, I rather dislike that expression, which implies, literally and otherwise, a two-dimensional representation. My efforts to track Reece’s story in a linear, progressive way – and finding this challenging – showed me that his story is messier than that, fully three-dimensional, with diversions and detours, hills and valleys, all along the way. How else could it be? Reece lived a lot of life as he worked on his poems; in fact he’d lived many lives. He’d aspired early on to be a poet, then a poet-slash-hospital-chaplain (in the footsteps of George Herbert and John Donne, whom he studied at York). Discouraged from pursuing that particular path after finishing his degree at Harvard Divinity (“A religious career seemed impractical,” he wrote, reflecting in 2008, and “I was immature”) – he spent the next few years living alone on a farm owned by his family in Minnesota, writing poetry, managing a bird sanctuary, and writing for his father’s medical newsletter. When the break with his family came, he lost his bearings, along with any financial stability, and checked into a mental hospital. In our romanticized version of Reece’s story, this was rock bottom, and thus the epiphany moment, the turnaround. Perhaps. Or perhaps the years following were even more difficult, and unstable. At any rate, there is a beautiful story he tells about meeting nurse Martha: they became friends when he read to her Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” “Much life has gone into the making of this art, much patient craft,” wrote Louise Glück in the Foreword to The Clerk’s Tale. Its light touch and connoisseur’s passion for surface notwithstanding, this is a book of deprivations and closures [...] I do not know a contemporary book in which poems so dazzlingly entertaining contain, tacitly, such deep sorrow. The average contemporary reader may find poetry difficult to access, even more so to “evaluate.” Glück describes Reece’s work in terms of “tone” – one of “artless naturalness[…] so capable of simultaneous refinements and ironies as to seem not a tone, not an effect of art, but of truth.” I love this about Reece’s poems – an erudition that is sensual; formal beauty that is also earthy. We see this especially in the collection’s two ghazal cycles – a form characterized by 5-15 couplets per cycle, traditionally incorporating a rather strict rhyme-and-refrain scheme. But Reece plays with the form and makes it his own, moving audaciously between high and low registers: Hey you! Come unto me! Let the meadow march into my mouth! I’m due for a moist trembling emotion, don’t you think? Well, don’t you? [...] The animals are back and they’re singing their prothalamia. It’s about time. And get a load of that forest! It’s squirting filigree. In the remarkable “Florida Ghazals,” we are immersed not only in this tone, in this earthy erudition, but also in story and character, an ensemble cast (including Reece’s cousin who was murdered at 23, the local prostitute, an escaped convict, and Elizabeth Bishop) whose fates are both remote and hauntingly proximal. Dolores teases her blonde hair a foot into the air, her hair the one perfection in this low-income town, a conspicuous example of Darwinian sexual selection.[...] Weather. Weather. How's the weather? When I speak of the weather is it because I cannot speak of my days spent in the nut house? Juan sinks into the swamp thick with processed excrement. Nude paper ladies sinking like cement, silencing him. [...] All this beauty. Butterflies at the ankles. Birds, birds. When hurricanes come with their bad names, they ruin this place like madness. Elizabeth Bishop was five when her mother went mad. They locked her other away in Nova Scotia and Elizabeth never saw her again. [...] It was dark and my cousin was alone. They dragged him to the river. It rained for three days. They could not find him; when they did, no one knew his name. We see Reece’s comfort with informal formality – a grooving box-step -- in Reece’s rhyming poems as well. From “Chiaroscuro”: When the ficus beyond the grillwork darkens, when the rind cools down on the lime, when we sit here a long time, when we feel ourselves found, when the red tile roofs deepen to brown, when the exhausted beach fires with blues, when the hush of the waves reminds us of regrets, when the tides overtake the shore, when we begin to place God in our sentences more, we will turn at last[...] We see here too the quality of Reece’s attention to minute detail, blooming into metaphysics – the rind cooling on the lime blooms into time passing; the browns and the blues and the hush of the waves bring forth memory’s regrets; through the composition of sentences, our spiritual state emerges. “I admire his studied attention to details” says the narrator of “The Clerk’s Tale” of his co-worker, “an old homosexual” who refers to himself as “an old faggot.” In this case, such details include “a layer of Clinique bronzer,” “manicured lacquered nails,” “his breath mint in place.” At the end of “The Clerk’s Tale,” “Sometimes snow falls like rice,” and then the remainder of the poem is written in the imperative, the reader implored to See us take our dimly lit exits [...] See us loosening our ties among you. We are alone. Here, the metaphysics pivot to me, the reader, to the meaning of my life as this attention to details becomes my own responsibility, to See us. As in many of Reece’s poems, our engagement becomes simultaneously intimate and expansive, personal and universal. From “Midnight”: The rest of this panorama is immense, dark, impenetrable, unstructured. But if you look closely in the left-hand corner, I can just be distinguished from the blue blue brilliance of all this land, A tiny figure, no bigger than a grass blade, a shadow hugged by shadows From “Etude”: and if a new friend should take your arm do not define the gesture, no, let the moon spread shampoo all over you, allow the palm trees with their shallow roots to lull you down the broad avenue 4. The narrative of Reece’s last nine years – since the Bakeless, since that first New Yorker publication – is indeed remarkable, and yet still, also, textured and surprising. He continued to work full-time at Brooks Brothers for another two-plus years, through The Clerk’s Tale's acclaimed publication. Then, in 2005, he won a Guggenheim, an NEA fellowship, and the Whiting Award. He decreased his retail-work hours to four days a week, then eventually to three days (“to keep my benefits”). On his off days, Reece began volunteering at a nearby hospice center – in his own words, “whispering into the ears of the dying.” After two years of volunteering, Reece came to a decision; or, as he put it, felt “called.” He wrote: “Perhaps thirteen years in an Episcopal prep school, a seemingly dead-end graduate degree, twelve years in retail, a first book published in middle age, a priest could make. Why not? [...] Each door I open at Hospice, I move closer to something brightly intimate.” In 2008, he left Brooks Brothers, Gerstenberg (hospice) Center, and Florida for Connecticut -- his birthplace (Hartford), and also where he went to college (Wesleyan) – specifically for Yale Divinity School, with the renewed intention of becoming a priest. Reece was ordained in the Episcopal church in 2011. And all the while Reece has continued to write poetry, answering finally to the hybridized vocation he envisioned in his early twenties. Since 2008, he has published primarily in the New Yorker and Poetry magazine, and his second collection, The Upper Room, is due out with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in 2014. The story of Reece’s life comes to us now mostly through his poems – “The quietness inside my father was building and would come to define him,” he wrote in the 2011 prose poem “The Manhattan Project,” about his father and paternal grandfather, an engineer who worked on the bomb. “I was wrong to judge it. Speak, father, and I will listen.” (In a 2011 Yale Divinity School alumni note, Reece writes of “reconciliation with family.”) In two narrative poems, “The Road to Emmaus” and “Gilgamesh,” both written in linear first-person fragments, he explores the intimate relationships of his life -- with his mentor and AA sponsor Durrell Hawthorne (who died in 2003, the day “The Clerk’s Tale” appeared in the New Yorker), and his five-year love affair with an older man – both as retellings of Biblical narratives. In an interview accompanying “Gilgamesh,” Reece reveals that he continues to engage formal conventions while also personalizing them: “I need the poems to be understandable to me” and also, “Memoir bores me. But in poetry, the autobiography becomes something else entirely, somehow selfless [...] I am unconventional but always trying to adhere to convention.” He could just as easily be speaking about his work as a priest. At Poets.org, Reece’s official, complete biography currently reads: Spencer Reece is the chaplain to Bishop Carlos Lopez-Lozano of the Reformed Episcopal Church in Spain. In 2014, I suspect that may once again change. Reece will be 51 then, both deeper inside and further outside the literary establishment. I look forward to both the poems and the publicity. I can see the Times article now, perhaps in the Book Review, perhaps in the Religion section: “O, Holy Poet.”
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: Harriet Doerr’s Impossible Perfection and Happiness

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. 
Wallace Stegner once said of Harriet Doerr that she had “an almost flawless lens, with a capacity to make a world out of the fragmentary images she had caught." He started that statement with “Although [she] came to writing very late in life...” I suspect “Because” is more accurate. With age, the things that matter come into relief, trifles fall away; so with Doerr’s prose, fragments of character, experience, and place strike the reader as all that are necessary, all that carry meaning, all that is real, and beautiful. On the occasion of her 85th birthday, Doerr wrote a short memoir, 27 pages in which she covered the ground of her entire life -- a terrifying moment at the blackboard at age eight, the feel of a glass doorknob, gardeners and butlers more vivid than the relatives whose household they served, then, “Suddenly at seventeen I grew up, fell half in love, and went east to college.” She returned west to continue her studies at Stanford but dropped out, after a year and a half, to marry: “forty-two years of marriage, including two separate pieces of time which, recollected now, impress me as nearly perfect. Later on, after my husband’s death, another came along, and it too approached perfection.” But more about these many years, and their near perfection, in a moment. 2. In 2009, I wrote an essay here at The Millions called "“The Mommy Problem," in which I confessed: I mine for family status in the biographies of women artists and writers. If a prolific, successful woman-artist has children, I (uncharitably, self-pityingly) think to myself, “She must have a husband who makes money.” This unattractive thinking came back to me as I immersed myself in Doerr’s luminous work, and the story of her seemingly perfect life. 3. The Work: Doerr wrote two novels -- Stones for Ibarra and Consider This, Señora – and a collection of “stories and other inventions,” The Tiger in the Grass. Ibarra was her first novel and won the National Book Award (then the American Book Award for First Fiction) in 1985; in his NY Times review, Anatole Broyard described it as “a very good novel indeed, with echoes of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Katherine Anne Porter and even Graham Greene,” and a New Yorker review deemed it “a novel of extraordinary beauty, of unusual finish, of striking originality.” Consider This, Señora also received high praise: Times critic Margo Jefferson, citing the 12 years between the two books, wrote admiringly of the family resemblance from one novel to the next -- “But [in Señora] everything is richer, as when an actress takes a role you saw her play a decade ago, and lets you read that decade in her face, her voice and her body.” I read all three books in a weekend and immediately began re-reading them, savoring sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Doerr’s prose is often compared to a precious jewel for its “clarity and beauty.” I would add elegance, and the mirage of effortlessness -- a lightness that belies depth and complexity. Her subject, invariably, is romance -- the double-romance that a woman has with both man and place. In Doerr’s fictional worlds (as well as her real-life world), the man is a husband, the place usually rural Mexico. Both loves are complicated and beautiful. As Jefferson wrote, Doerr’s romance “accommodates sadness and rue. That accommodation is what keeps the tidy precision of Ms. Doerr's style from becoming precious and diminutive.” 4. The Life: During those 42 years of marriage, Doerr had two children and devoted herself to the roles of wife and mother. When she was pregnant with her second child, the family began making visits to Mexico to oversee husband Albert’s family mining business, and in the late 1950s, Harriet and Albert moved there and stayed until Albert’s death in 1972. Three years later, at age 65, she re-enrolled at Stanford to finish the degree she’d abandoned 47 years earlier. Her writing teacher, John L’Heureux, was impressed by her writing and personally invited her into the Stegner Fellows program upon her graduation (to the initial chagrin, apparently, of the others who’d been admitted by competitive application). The rest, an oft-told legend of “it’s never too late,” is history (or in this case, herstory). Doerr published the award-winning Ibarra when she was 74 years old. Her 20 years of late-life writing comprise that third period of time which “approached perfection.” Put together with the other two -- when her children were young and the family spent summers at a small beach cottage in Southern California, and the years they spent living in Mexico (“impossibly flawless”) -- by my count, that’s well over half a life lived in a state of bliss. 5. What to do with all this happiness and perfection? Was Doerr’s own life not at all complicated by “sadness and rue”? Harriet’s grandfather, Henry Edward Huntington, was a railroad magnate and major collector of art and rare books; it was in fact the year of Harriet’s birth, 1910, when her grandfather sold most of his interest in Pacific Electric Railway and devoted his time to books. She was one of six children and lost her father at a young age, but overall, Harriet was raised in abundance, both materially and culturally. Albert Doerr, engineer and copper-mining heir, also provided for her amply (she writes often, for example, of her/her characters’ relationships with hired help, particularly full-time gardeners). Those beach-cottage years were the years of the Second World War, when "There was very little right in the rest of the world,” and yet, she wrote, “I am convinced that the scattered houses on the beach and on the hill, the expanse of empty sand, the endless and untroubled coming on of days and nights, the slow hours passing unmeasured and unnoticed, were my first intimations of paradise." Did things always come so easily to Doerr, each segment of her life falling into place, perfectly, one after the other? I suppose this question is why I found myself intrigued by this passage from “The Tiger in the Grass”: I think of a conference in Park City, Utah, where I spoke one afternoon to a number of published and unpublished writers. I explained my late start as an author after forty-two years of writing “housewife” on my income tax form. These years without a profession, from 1930 to 1972, were also the years of my marriage. Hands were raised after my talk, and I answered questions. The final one was from a woman who assumed, incorrectly, these were decades of frustration. "And were you happy for those forty-two years?” she asked, and I couldn’t believe the question. I asked her to repeat it, and she said again, “Were you happy for those forty-two years?” It was then that I said, “I never heard of anyone being happy for forty-two years,” and went on, “And would a person who was happy for forty-two years write a book?” 6. Would she? Despite its rhetorical bite, Doerr's answer is, to me, oblique, and markedly depersonalized. Did the woman who asked the question "assume decades of  frustration," or was she troubled because she sensed none? I find myself needing to know that Harriet Doerr’s life was not perfect. Why do I need to know this? I suppose it's because I’ve reconciled myself to the belief that “you can’t have it all.” That we make choices and live by them and bear fruit in our own particular, valid, and meaningful way. That disappointment and sacrifice are a part of life, no one really gets everything she wants. And that there is no perfect or right way to make a life as a woman and an artist. Doerr’s biography disturbs that view, threatens to proffer The Perfect Formula: marry young to a decent, wealthy man; devote yourself to him and to motherhood for a long time, thinking not of yourself or your own talents, until those children are grown and that husband is dead. Then, spend your final 20 years developing and perfecting your art, without conflict or distraction. Harriet Doerr, it seems, did have it all, and in spades. The woman in Park City may have just wanted to know if the perfect life was really possible; it seemed to be living and breathing before her eyes. 7. If the marriage years were neither decades of frustration, nor decades of happiness, then what, in the final accounting, were they? Other than the story of Albert and Harriet's first date -- a boxing match -- we know little. Perhaps the couple in Ibarra, Sara and Richard Everton  -- striking in their airtight intimacy and unqualified togetherness as they venture off to rural Mexico -- provide a reasonable approximation. Everything, including their idealism, is “they,” not “he” or “she”: Five days ago the Evertons left San Francisco and their house with a narrow view of the bay in order to extend the family’s Mexican history and patch the present onto the past […] To weave chance and hope into a fabric that would clothe them as long as they lived […] But the Evertons expect too much. They have experienced the terrible persuasion of a great-aunt’s recollections and adopted them as their own. That oneness holds throughout the story, especially through Richard’s illness and death. Unlike many contemporary novels that feature a couple as co-protagonists, it is not a novel “about” a marriage in the sense of exposing its fault lines; the marriage's inviolability is a given, the reader absorbs fully, if unconsciously, Sara’s and Richard’s fidelity to it. It’s a beautiful trick on Doerr’s part: “Here they are,” the first line of the book reads, “two North Americans, a man and a woman, just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico.”  Here they are, this couple, these two who will be devoted to one another and to this eccentric life they are making together -- what else is marriage if not this? Ursula Bowles, the 79-year-old widow of Consider This, Señora, (roughly Doerr’s age when she started writing the book), was also married to one man for a long time -- 55 years. And even while, acknowledging those years, she thinks that she “could scarcely have defined [love],” her dead husband Philip comes to mind often: at one point she is “stunned by a sudden longing to reverse time, touch this Philip’s young mouth again and feel his hand on her young breasts.” She observes her daughter Frances, divorced twice and taken up with a charming but unreliable man, and thinks, “I must explain love to Frances […] Somehow find the words to tell her what love is, what it truly and actually is.” For Doerr, it seems, whatever else love is, it is longevity; it is a lifetime, together. And yet: Sara and Richard Everton have no children; they live in their own undisturbed world of pleasures, the odd North American couple, who sleep late, and “lift their glasses and laugh” in the kitchen, and drive 100 kilometers to buy a particular shrub for their garden, and light a fire that they do not cook on, as well as candles while they eat and talk. Sometimes “the señor and señora eat out [in the corredor] in the middle of the day and watch the wild birds flock to the imported bird seed.” I wonder what it meant for Doerr to delete motherhood from her images, her memories, of life and love in Mexico. Two of Doerr’s characters -- Sue Ames of Consider This, Señora, and Ann Randall from the story “Carnations,” have suffered their husbands’ infidelities. Sue, a young wife, walked in on her husband Tim with another woman in their own bedroom; Ann, closer to middle age, learns of her husband’s affair by anonymous letter in her mailbox. “In the case of Elliott, her husband, she is out of sight and sound. His eyes focus behind her and his voice is directed to one side. His arms do not reach through the unseen walls.” Ann’s marital future seems precarious. Sue, on the other hand, remarries Tim after five years divorced, five years she spent living alone in Mexico; theirs is a romantic end, the road traveled sad and rueful. 8. Beset by near-blindness in her final years, Doerr’s lens finally grew flawed. She was working on a book-length memoir, which she never finished. We may never know in her own words the textures and details of the less-than-perfect times of her life; as with most novelists, her fiction is, and isn't, a window into her life -- "I believe the older you get," she said in an interview, "the more your memory and your imagination become one in the same." We do know, or can guess, that Doerr was aware of her own privilege: “They are kind and friendly, but they are strangers to the exigencies of life,” a villager says of Sara and Richard Everton. But we also know that in fact she was no stranger to loss -- her father, her husband, her son to cancer, her eyesight. We know that she was an immensely gifted writer who had time only to leave us with three books. And finally we know that -- partly by virtue of the many years she lived, and partly because of what she says she learned in Mexico -- she understood that, rich or poor, privileged or not, “if you regard dying as a part of living it makes your life more complete.” Like Ursula Bowles on her death bed, “She could see now that an individual life is, in the end, nothing more than a stirring of air, a shifting of light. No one of us, finally, can be more than that.” If Doerr were to speak before writers today, she might say that perfection is found in holding loosely to this life, to both the beautiful and the sad. Love, family, art, talent -- it is here, and it is good, maybe even perfect; but then, of course, it is gone.

RIP William Gay

I am very sad to report that William Gay, whom we featured in our "Post-40 Bloomers" series last fall, died on Friday, at the age of 68.  From Clarksville Online: "At first, I would send a story to the New Yorker and when it came back, I’d send it to The Atlantic, or Harper’s or Esquire. I didn’t know about the college literary magazines but when I found out about them, I started getting published. After I finally got published in the Georgia Review, I got a call from the editor at The Atlantic. He asked why I wasn’t sending them something because they’d like to publish my work. I told him I’d been sending things for years. He said they never got to his desk. I had to wonder what kind of operation they were running."  Look for his final novel The Lost Country, hopefully coming soon.
Post-40 Bloomers

Nine Stories, 16 Years in the Making: Post-40 Bloomer Daniel Orozco

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. It’s the biography that gets you; especially if you are yourself an aspiring writer of fiction, feeling rushed rushed rushed to be “20 Under 40” or bust. I mean, imagine: You graduate college (1979), and for 11 years you do various kinds of office work -- human resources, that sort of thing. Then, inspired or perhaps just restless, you start “tinkering with a story idea.” It nags at you, you keep working on it, and when you finish it, you use it to apply to a writing program (MA, San Francisco State, 1992). You are still not sure you “want” to be a writer per se, but something about the process, the intensity of creative focus, absorbs you like nothing else; so you go on for two more years of school (MFA, University of Washington). Then, bam -- publication in Best American Short Stories a year later (“Orientation,” 1995). Two years after that you win a Pushcart (“The Bridge”) and you publish another story (“Hunger Tales”). You are in your late 30s; fucking-A, you are on your way. Probably your agent and your cohorts are asking if you have a novel. You don’t. You write very slowly. You are not prolific. So far, you really just have three good stories to show for yourself. Okay, three very good stories (so they say). Over the next six years, you write and publish another very good story (“Temporary Stories,” 1999) and then another (“I Run Every Day,” 2001). Still: six years since that best American short story (the clever one about office life that everyone was talking about) and no novel yet, not even a full story collection. But you are serious about your work, ticking time clock be damned. You’ve been a Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer during this time period, after all. You are developing your body of work in your own sweet time. In 2002 you are offered a one-year teaching position that turns into a tenure-track writing professorship the following year. And you haven’t even published a book! Five stories, and you are employed for life! You will never have to work as a temp or a human resources officer again. You are now in your mid-40s. After you settle in as a university professor, things really start to take off. Over the next five years, you write and publish four more stories (at roughly once/year, that’s twice as fast as you published the previous five). You win an NEA Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Residency, two MacDowell residencies, and one of those four stories (which is actually nonfiction) is published in Best American Essays. In 2011, your collection, which you title after that first best American story, is finally published; and that same year you win a Whiting Award and are long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. At 52 years old, you are a “debut author.” Nine stories; 16 years in the making. And the book is damn good. 2. The book is damn good. Reviewers agree, and I don’t have a lot to add to that chorus. What I will say is how amazed I was at Daniel Orozco’s ability to move from the impersonal to the deeply intimate, from the outside-in to the inside-out, with such skill, precision, and, most surprisingly, gentleness. You don’t know how you got there -- underneath the skin of these (often nameless) characters, feeling the throb of private wounds as if they are your own -- but you’re there, fully, in an instant. Most of the stories are written from a roving omniscient point-of-view; the narration typically begins from a coolly formal distance, flat and unparticularized. “Those are the offices and these are the cubicles.” “It was tradition on the bridge for each member of the paint crew to get a nickname.” “She went grocery shopping three times a week.” “Two men followed a third man up the street one night.” Others (in particular “Officers Weep,” written in the form of a police blotter, and ultimately one of my favorites) experiment with forms that, on the surface, threaten gimmickry. I confess that I had the book on my shelf for a few months before delving in, because, having skimmed the first sentences and the shapes of each story, I couldn’t imagine “getting into” them. But by the third story (once I did set myself to reading), I couldn’t wait to see how Orozco would do it – how he’d come up from behind me with a beat-up old club chair, slip it underneath my knees, effectively saying, “Stay a while. Have a seat. You’ll need it.” A short way of saying all this is that Orozco has done what I’ve always hoped to do in my fiction: he’s written “idea stories” – stories that begin with a formal experiment or an intellectual question or situational problem – that also break your heart. Finally, despite comparisons to David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo, Joshua Ferris, et alia – authors who are known for depicting the soul-crushing hyperrealities of “modern-day alienation” or “the tyranny of dehumanizing institutions and technology” – Orientation is not about “alienation,” modern-day or otherwise; nor about the effects of a particular cultural transition or economic decline. The stories are about loneliness. About the awful, persistent distance between you and me, between me and me, between each of us and the spiritual-whatever in the universe; all of which keeps us wondering what the hell this life is about, and how we will survive it. This seems an important distinction to me, and what has allowed Orozco’s work – some of it 16 years-old – to debut with full emotional resonance. 3. Mostly I’m glad for Orozco’s damn good example – of taking your time. Of doing what you do, as very best as you can do it, and shutting out the noise of what everyone else is doing. Of focusing on quality not quantity, which seems an apt, if cliché, mantra for someone who set most of his stories in uninspiring workplace settings. Orozco's cumulative oeuvre to date, and how it came to be, is itself a resonant narrative, the 10th story of the collection you might say. It speaks to the reader about foraging for a truthful place, a perch of realness, in the midst of and despite the specter of loneliness.

Susie DeFord’s Dogs of Brooklyn

Poets, dog-lovers, urban-dwellers, and really, everyone -- check out poet and dog-trainer Susie DeFord's heartfelt and keen-eyed new book of poems, Dogs of Brooklyn.  Says Vijay Seshadri, DeFord's collection is full of "wonderful poetic investigations into the life of Brooklyn's dogs, into their habits, their idiosyncrasies, and their secret longings."

Staff Writer Sonya Chung at Tin House

At the Tin House blog, I write about my literary education in independent bookstores  Also, my piece about James Salter appears in Tin House's current issue.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Last Leopard

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. In considering why it took Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa until the age of 58 to begin work in earnest on his one and only novel, the luminous masterpiece Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, Julian Barnes wrote: Lampedusa was afflicted with several handicaps (not so much to being a writer, but to being thrustful enough to dream of, and then achieve, publication): extreme shyness; enough money never to need take a job [he was a prince]; plus a sense that, as a Sicilian aristocrat, he came from an exhausted, irrelevant culture. There were other factors too, including a major nervous breakdown in his 20s, and a domineering mother. The roots of such unthrustfulness notwithstanding, one laments whatever convergence of factors precluded Lampedusa from a more prolific literary career. I first fell in love with Il Gattopardo via Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous film version (I’d seen it three times in fact, before reading Lampedusa’s original). It is unusual for me to read a book after seeing the film adaptation, but I was aware that some had criticized Visconti for staying, believe it or not, too close to the novel. I was thus eager to read it, and it has become, like the film, among my very favorites. One indisputable factor that deprived us of more opportunities to luxuriate in Lampedusa’s gifts was a diagnosis of lung cancer in the spring of 1957, at age 60. The diagnosis came just a few months after he finished the novel. He had two publisher rejections already in hand, a third would arrive weeks before he died in July of that year. The author note of the Pantheon edition goes as far as to say that this third rejection came from an Italian editor who told him that his novel was ”unpublishable”—that Lampedusa, in other words, died with that declaration stamped upon his late-blooming artistic soul. 2. One wonders just how shaped Lampedusa was by his exhausted, irrelevant culture, as he in fact lived a life highly atypical of a Sicilian of his era: influenced by his mother’s cosmopolitan bent, he was educated in Rome, read Latin and Greek, spoke German and French, and (almost unheard of at that time) eventually studied English. He served briefly as a lieutenant in the army during World War I and was imprisoned in a POW camp in Hungary. After the war, he traveled throughout northern Italy and Europe, and while visiting his uncle in England -- of whose literature and culture he became (scandalously, for a Sicilian) enamored—he met Alexandra “Licy” Wolff Stomersee, a Latvian aristocrat and intellectual who studied psychoanalysis. The couple wed at Riga in 1932, in the Orthodox Church—another shocking departure from Sicilian cultural tradition—but eventually they lived apart, after his mother (domineering, yes, although some accounts additionally deem her “eccentric” and “open-minded”) forced her only son to choose between the two women. Licy was apparently no match for Signora Beatrice. He spent the late years of the Second World War near the coastal town of Capo d'Orlando in Messina, with his mother and cousins, where he also reunited with his wife. After his mother died in 1946, Giuseppe and Licy returned to Palermo, where Lampedusa lived out his mature years, doing very little, strictly speaking: according to Barnes (whose source is David Gilmour’s biography, The Last Leopard), “on a typical day, he might first visit the bookshop and cakeshop, then sit reading in a cafe for hours, return home for tea and buns, and perhaps go out to the film club in the evening.” While most accounts confirm Lampedusa’s extreme taciturnity—a most “shut in” personality, someone you “met but did not know”—it was during these years that he began meeting regularly with a group of young intellectuals to discuss French and English literature. 3. What more can I say that has not been said about this beautiful novel? In 2008, for The Leopard’s 50th anniversary—for yes, obviously and thankfully, it was eventually published, in 1958, the year after Lampedusa’s death—Rachel Donadio wrote a wonderful essay for The New York Times which I recommend and refer you to for your basic plot and historical context. Donadio also describes an event that year at NYU at which Lanza Tomasi, a younger cousin whom Lampedusa adopted as a son (presumably the autobiographical seed for the character Tancredi Falconeri, beloved nephew to our main character, il gattopardo himself, Don Fabrizio Prince of Salina) spoke of class divisions in the novel—essentially two classes, nobility and peasantry—as "unredeemable." And yet, Lanza said, like all great novels, The Leopard transcends such boundaries. Reading it, "no one believes he's the lower class," Lanza said. The "miracle" Lampedusa produced in this novel is that "everyone believes he's the prince." Everyone, indeed—even this Korean American woman living in New York City circa 2012. One’s love for Il Gattopardo is nothing if not a love for Don Fabrizio, a lusty middle-aged nobleman, the last of his kind at a time of social and geopolitical upheaval, with a passion for mathematics and astronomy, a soft spot for beauty and charisma, and a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” He is a character with whom anyone who has found herself cultivating an independent soul, by choice or by necessity, feels an intimacy. 4. And so, it is not just with interest, but with tender fidelity, that we follow Don Fabrizio’s affecting evolution from irritable dreamer to wistful relic. Early in the novel, as both political and familial disturbances encroach—the novel opens in 1860, as the war hero Garibaldi is gathering rebel volunteers to overthrow the Bourbon King for the cause of risorgimento, or the unification of Italy—Don Fabrizio considers “the endless little subterfuges he had to submit to, he the Leopard, who for years had swept away difficulties with a wave of his paw.” Without yet a vision for how to cope, how to move along with his times, he turns, as always, to the comfort, the “morphia,” of the skies: The stars looked turbid and their rays scarcely penetrated the pall of sultry air. The soul of the Prince reached out toward them, toward the intangible, the unattainable, which gave joy without laying claim to anything in return; as many other times, he tried to imagine himself in those icy tracts, a pure intellect armed with a notebook for calculations: difficult calculations, but ones which would always work out. “They’re the only really genuine, the only really decent beings […] who worries about dowries for the Pleiades, a political career for Sirius, matrimonial joy for Vega?” At this point, the Prince is primarily worried about domestic matters—the gradual but inevitable disintegration of his royal wealth into the hands of the new money classes. He is also worried about his sweet but unsophisticated daughter Concetta, who is in love with her dashing cousin Tancredi (Alain Delon in Visconti’s film version), whose fortune was squandered by the Prince’s brother-in-law and in whose future, political and social, the Prince sees great things. And he is worried for Tancredi’s impending engagement, around which the bulk of the novel revolves—to the enchanting Angelica (a young Claudia Cardinale, who else?), whose father, Don Calogero di Sadera, is exemplary of these crude rags-to-riches merchant classes in whose hands the future of Sicily, not to mention great sums of wealth, seem to lie. But later, as the lovely Angelica and the Sedara family become fixtures in his life, as Tacredi’s future solidifies with the assurance of Sedara’s wealth, and as a unified Italy dominated by power (not nobility) materializes as a foregone conclusion, the Prince found an odd admiration growing in him for Sedara’s qualities […] he began to realize the man’s rare intelligence. Many problems that had seemed insoluble to the Prince were resolved in a trice by Don Calogero […] he moved through the jungle of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs, without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed. The Prince is not exactly resigned, not exactly accepting; but neither is he self-deluding. He faces the coming reality with neither self-pity nor false optimism. He is il gattopardo—regal in the hot sun, dignified, elegant, weary, solitary. Wise to threats but unmoved, a creature of both survival and indifference. When the Secretary to the Prefecture entreats the Prince to represent Sicily in the new Senate, he responds with a lengthy speech, at once fiery and aching with melancholy, as if all the stages of grief have collapsed into one gorgeous oratorial moment, saying of himself, and of men like him, We are old, Chevalley, very old. For more than twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of a superb and heterogeneous civilization, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own. […] I don’t say that in complaint; it’s our fault. Sleep, my dear Chevalley, sleep is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them […] This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and these monuments, even, of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction, who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind […] I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both […] but I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception. 5. Edward Said, writing about The Leopard in (his own late, last work) On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, characterized Don Fabrizio as in effect the last Lampedusa, whose own cultivated melancholy, totally without self-pity, stands at the center of the novel, exiled from the continuing history of the 20th century, enacting a state of anachronistic lateness with a compelling authenticity and an unyielding ascetic principle that rules out sentimentality and nostalgia. If I am reading Said correctly, he is associating lateness with both authenticity and asceticism, as well as a cultivated melancholia and exile. I prefer these associations to Barnes’s mere "unthrustfulness," which Barnes (or perhaps the biographer Gilmour) in turn ties to exhaustion, irrelevance, reticence, nervousness, and submissiveness; for Said’s more appreciative assessment of “anachronistic lateness” applies not only to Lampedusa, but, it seems to me, to many of the late-life bloomers we’ve seen in this series; and to many of the artists I personally most admire.

On Spinach and the National Book Awards

1. I, for one, am thankful for Laura Miller’s article in Salon last month about the alleged irrelevance of the National Book Awards. Miller demonstrates passion—which in my book is almost never a bad thing—for good fiction and, in particular, for “ordinary readers.” Miller wants the NBAs to matter, to have impact. She wants the majority of fiction readers to both pay attention and be influenced by them. In 2004, equally (if not more) troubled by the NBA shortlist, Miller wrote in the New York Times that she wanted the awards to play a strong role in directing readers to what they should read: For people who read, say, four novels a year, prizes help narrow down a bewilderingly vast field of candidates. Awards have become, as the critic James Wood put it, ''the new reviews.'' There is something rather idealistic—in a public service sort of way—about Miller’s position. There are people out there looking for novels they can read and enjoy; let’s give them some. It follows that she is troubled by a generalized cynicism about awards. A.O. Scott wrote about this cynicism back in 2005:  [T]he prizes, transparently trivial, implicitly corrupt and utterly detached from any meaningful notion of literary value, will be greeted with cynicism, derision and, if we're lucky, a burst of controversy. It will escape no one's attention - not even the winners' - that the very idea of handing out medals and cash for aesthetic and intellectual achievement is absurd, if not obscene. Furthermore, the selections will inevitably reflect the rottenness of the literary status quo, which is either hopelessly stodgy and out of touch, or else distracted by modish extraliterary considerations - hobbled, that is, either by conservative complacency or by political correctness. But the National Book Awards, Miller argues, are not playing the role of trusted arbiter; rather, they have become, as she puts it, the spinach of literary awards: established fiction writers (the five judges, a different group annually) telling the reading (non-writing) public what they “should” be reading, regardless of what they might “like” to read.  Her use of spinach as the metaphor implies, it would seem, finger-wagging paternalism. Read this; you will be an improved, healthy, stronger person. Enjoyment? Pleasure? Well, frivolous reader, no pain no gain. 2. Despite my admiration for Miller’s relentless crusading on behalf of “a lot of people,” i.e., “nonprofessional readers,” my personal response to Miller’s argument is fraught; not because of my “professional” status as a reader, but rather due to my relationship with spinach. You see, I love spinach. It is possibly my very favorite food. If I have spinach as part of every meal—raw or cooked, chopped or whole, plain or smothered in something cheesy or creamy or eggy—I am a happy person, my meals are pleasurable. It is in fact challenging for me to conceive of why anyone would hate spinach or need to be forced to eat it or would associate it with the pain that leads to gain. (For the record, I also like liver and other innards, Brussels sprouts, beets, and anchovies; but (ironically?) no brains, please.) When I mentioned this to a friend, he asked me if it was my favorite food, or my favorite vegetable; and my answer is the latter. I love bacon burgers, and I love spinach, and I love them especially together; in my world, there is no carnivore-herbivore hierarchy. If I think back to childhood, no one ever had to tell me to eat my spinach. Or, put another way, no one ever told me that spinach was something that people needed to be told to eat. Sometimes for lunch we had peanut butter sandwiches, or tuna fish, and Doritos (or school rectangular pizza with soggy tater tots); sometimes (when there was more money), we had roast beef on rye and a piece of fruit. My sisters and I ate it all, and liked it, and we’re all in pretty good health now. I never remember thinking, Ew, peanut butter, where’s my roast beef? My partner was raised mostly by his father, who loved food but couldn’t afford luxuries, so he gathered the five children up to hunt for morels and shitakis, pick watercress, dig for razor clams and oysters at the shore (this was in the Pacific Northwest). They kept chickens, which the kids were responsible for feeding and eventually slaughtering, so there were fresh eggs and sometimes chicken meat (including the feet, necks, gizzards) and always broth in the freezer. They ate well but it was also hard work. And so a “gourmet meal” for him now can be anything from grilled American cheese on buttered white bread, to noodles and dumpling soup, to oysters and Sancerre. What is my point here? What I am saying is that we do a disservice to “ordinary readers” and “professional” ones alike, by calling a book spinach and attaching good-for-you but not good-in-itself to that metaphor. We are telling readers, This is spinach, didn’t you know, and you won’t like it; over here, this is ice cream, you’ll definitely like this. Herein lies a more insidious kind of paternalism. In dividing the world among writer-readers, critic-readers, and reader-readers, we assume that—to completely mix my metaphors here—a reader-reader (Miller’s “people waiting for the bus”) would find the literary equivalent of raw oysters or shitaki mushrooms to be esoteric or elliptical or poetic in a way that puts them off. I have caught myself in this mistake myself: when I lived in the South Bronx, I would often be surprised when I saw someone on the 6-train, north of 96th Street, reading something literary. It was important to ask myself why I was surprised. And it happened often enough (and I’m not talking about Mott Haven artists or hipsters) that I knew something was wrong with a world view I’d absorbed thoughtlessly. I want to live in a world—and I believe that if we look and listen closely, we'll recognize that we're closer than we think—where “the reading public,” regardless of the inside-baseball interferences of literary professionals, consumes, likes, and engages with many different kinds of literary nourishment; and where writers, teachers, and critics trust and even expect readers to do so... 3. ...And in this sort of world, it’s a good thing to have an award like the NBA whose winner is specifically selected by writer-peers; along with an award like, say, the National Book Critics Circle Award, that is selected by some 25 book critics, and by systematic vote as opposed to the NBA's small-group consensus. Having different awards, with different selection processes and juries, seems to me to keep the process—the parties involved—optimally honest; it allows everyone to be themselves and not have this be a liability. One wonders what Miller would have NBA novelist-judges do, short of intentionally selecting books that don’t genuinely or particularly excite them, simply because those books have gotten a lot of media and Amazon-reader attention? I don’t and can’t know what really happens in those closed-door discussions, what baggage or agenda each judge might bring, but it would seem much more highly suspect to me—in a cynical, power-brokering, old boys club sort of way—if all the writers and critics in America were indeed selecting the same five favorite books in a given year. On what planet of readers does that happen, honestly? Given how many books each judge must read (315 this year for the NBA), and how quickly, it would seem that the specter of group-think could loom. That such pressures instead seem to push favorites to the fore for each judge in a more idiosyncratic way—you’d be looking for what grabs you—is a tribute to the individualized intelligence and diverse aesthetic interests of these judges and board members. (See Victor LaValle's riposte to Miller at Publisher's Weekly for one NBA judge's confirmation of this.) A side-by-side comparison of the finalists and winners in fiction for the NBA and NBCC since 2004 reveals both complete divergence (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010) and also significant overlap (2005, 2008, 2009).  (Note: one might assume we’d see more overlap if the NBCC was also limited to American writers). I’m not sure why this is a bad thing for anyone, whether you consider yourself a reader-reader, critic-reader, writer-reader, or all of the above; especially since we now all have access to so much literature-specific social media—Amazon and Goodreads, for example—for recommendations from mostly “nonprofessional” readers who share one’s tastes. It also does not follow, by the way, that the more “professional” you become as a writer, the more “writerly” (by which Miller means a love of “beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states”) your reading tastes become. I think about the book that made me want to become a writer, long before I’d actually written anything: Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I would guess that Laura Miller hates this book, if she’s read it, or at least hates it for an award (it won the Pulitzer) and would not recommend it to an “ordinary reader.” It is dense, and ponderous, and theological, and there is no “story” apart from the “esoteric” story of humanity and existence, a young woman examining her tiny corner of the natural world with a magnifying glass and meditating on meaning. Then I think of what I’m reading now: everything by William Gay, and Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World—bootleggers, murders, car chases, thwarted love for the boy from the wrong side of the tracks; storytelling at its best, artful and muscular language. And I can’t get enough. 4. I was not being facetious or rhetorically sly in praising Miller for continuing to write passionately about the NBAs. I try to be on the side of idealism over cynicism generally speaking, which is more and more challenging as I get older. In this case my position is ultimately more idealistic than Miller's: I have faith in the pleasures of spinach, in the folks waiting for the bus and riding the 6-train, and even in the possibility of a world where we all read more than four novels a year.   Image credit: anathea/Flickr

Poetry Walk in the Bronx

Don't miss Jon Cotner's "Poem Forest" at the NY Botanical Gardens Nov 4-5 and Nov 11-12, 12-4:30. It's a self-guided tour that promises "a new kind of poetry experience, as well as a new kind of walking experience. Poet-walker Jon Cotner has fused lines selected from 2500 years of nature poetry with Thain Forest's autumnal landscape."  Details at the Poetry Society of America.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: The Stories of William Gay

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. In answer to a question at the Clarkesville Writers Conference in 2010 about how his life has changed since he’s achieved literary success, William Gay said, “If I hadn’t wanted to be a writer so much, I’d probably still be married […] It was like being Pa Ingalls in 'Little House on the Prairie,' and then suddenly I was going to writers’ conferences and that kind of stuff.  It was pretty jarring, to be honest about it.” Gay was 55 years old, in 1998, when his first stories were published in the Georgia and Missouri Reviews. An editor at the Missouri Review who had publishing house connections asked if he had a novel, and he did; in 1999, Gay’s first novel The Long Home was published by a small press in Denver. He’d been writing since he was 15 years old. In the intervening years, he’d been in the Navy, lived in New York and Chicago for short periods of time working in factories, then returned to his birthplace of Lewis County, Tenn., where he worked many years as a construction worker, carpenter, and house painter. He has lived in Hohenwald, Tenn., five miles from where he was raised in a sharecropper's cabin, for some 30 years now. Gay's stories have appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The Atlantic, Southern Review, and the Oxford American, among others, and have been widely anthologized. He has published two additional novels, Provinces of Night and Twilight, both to critical acclaim. (Provinces of Night was made into a movie, Bloodworth, starring Kris Kristofferson, in 2010). He has been referred to as “the Faulkner of Tennessee”—high praise for someone who cites Faulkner as the writer about whom he feels this way: “Sometimes you read something so good that you want to break your pencils… you feel sad because you know you’ll never be that good […] but at the same time you feel good because someone else did it and you can read it, it’s in the world.” Critics place Gay’s work firmly in the tradition of the Southern Gothic, with Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe (one of his earliest influences), Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. He is also often compared to Cormac McCarthy (the epigraph for Provinces of Night is from McCarthy’s Child of God)—if for no other reason because of his omission of quotation marks around dialogue: “If you don’t have the quotes, it’s just more natural to me, it’s just part of the narrative. Also, when I read The Orchard Keeper I noticed that Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotes either; so I figured it was okay.” (In his review of The Long Home in 1999, Tony Earley suggested that Gay was in fact overly imitative of McCarthy to his detriment.) 2. “You Southerners. I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ll never understand you,” says young Fleming Bloodworth’s English teacher, Mr. Spivey, in Provinces of Night.  He is a lonely man, and a cripple, but is offering to “help” the boy (in whom he sees a burgeoning intelligence) through his family troubles. “We do just fine on our own,” Fleming replies. So Gay establishes the sense that the South is a world unto its own, that the outsider will always have limited access, will never know. Reading Gay you get the sense that he wants you to simultaneously live in his world but also respect its sacred ground from your proper place (even watching him read at the Clarksville Conference on YouTube felt a bit voyeuristic). Like Spivey, I find myself deeply drawn to the tragedies and ecstasies of rural Southern life, and yet not quite worthy of full access, of the kind of ownership that as readers we want to claim when we love certain books. For better or for worse, I experience Gay’s vision and talents as transcendent of regional bounds; unlike the reviewers at Publisher’s Weekly, who wrote that his 2002 story collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down “confirms his place in the Southern fiction pantheon,” I would not include the word “Southern” in that assessment, if it is meant in some way to put limits on the emotional and spiritual reach, or literary prowess, of Gay’s fiction. Such valuations needn't, at any rate, represent either/or delineators; while Gay himself might prize being considered among the Southern greats, his stories of desolation and beauty—brimming, yes, with the familiar Gothic elements of violence and darkness of hearts—feed and trouble our souls, whether or not we come to the text already knowing the “timeless tolling of whippoorwills […] both bitter and reassuring,” or have passed ugly nights in a honkytonk, or keep a rifle or a pistol (or both) under the bed (as most of Gay’s characters do). “You need to know what a man’s capable of.  You need to know what things cost,” says a character in the story “Crossroads Blues,” and this for me captures Gay’s literary-existential universe. To this reader, Gay is essentially a romantic writer, who sees the full range of humanity’s nobility and evil in the doings and beings of his mid-century rural Tennessee—bootleggers, veterans, farmers, carpenters, pimps, whores, fathers and sons and murderers and thieves (especially), squatters, musicians, porch-rockers, drifters, and hunter-gatherers. “Well,” said Gay, both shrugging and off and enjoying the comparison, “I guess Tennessee needs a Faulkner.” 3. But back to those rifles and pistols. If you are new to Gay, you might do well to start with his short stories, collected in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (The Free Press, 2002) and also in a slim, self-published (or locally-published, it’s not quite clear) volume of just two stories called Wittgenstein’s Lolita. A murder lurks in the recesses of every story—often by gunfire, though not always; sometimes homicide, not infrequently canicide. Gay likes the murder as a secret that a person carries around like a talisman, a confession that emerges late in the story: You need to know what a man’s capable of. But Gay manages—without trivializing the act of murder exactly (though the sheer frequency of it does give a non gun-toter pause)—to make each story, each life, about much more, about something other, than moral judgment. In Gay’s universe—in his landscape that is at once wild and wasted and Arcadian, where scoundrels bury their gold in fruit jars, and both the guilty and the innocent vanish from the face of the earth without a trace—a man kills for a clear reason, or for no apparent reason.  Either way, a dark, compelling mystery brews. For Gay, the killing itself seems to be both the least arresting, and the least verifiable, of acts: In “A Death in the Woods,” a woman’s lover is found dead in the nearby forest, the death ruled a suicide.  Her unknowing husband puts the pieces together, then confronts her:  “What made him do it? Did he get in over his head and you brushed him off? Did he break it off and you were about to tell his wife? Or did you shoot him yourself? She went on serenely packing clothes […] I sort of got the impression that that sheriff thought you knew a lot more than you were saying. Perhaps you did it yourself.” In “The Paperhanger,” a disturbed man confesses to his former employer that, years before, he killed his wife (and dug up a grave in which to toss her body) after learning of her affair with her boss.  The doctor’s wife didn’t say anything. She just watched him. A grave is the best place to dispose of a body, the paperhanger said. […] A good settling rain and the fall leaves and you’re home free. Now that’s eternity for you. Did you kill someone, she breathed. Her voice was barely audible. Did I or did I not, he said. You decide. You have the powers of a god. You can make me a murderer or just a heartbroke guy whose wife quit him. What do you think? Anyway, I don’t have a wife. I expect she just walked off into the abstract […] And in “Wittgenstein’s Lolita,” Rideout, whose wife cheated on him, and Rebekah, whose husband beats her, begin an affair. They tell each other their sad stories: "In time to come Rideout would decide that everything that happened grew out of the stories they told each other [...] Threads from one tale crept to another and bound them as inextricably as a particular sequencing of words binds teller to tale to listener." Rideout tells Rebekah that his wife and her lover were found dead in the woods. The lover’s wife later brought out a letter her husband had sent to her describing a murder-suicide pact the two lovers had planned, since the wife wouldn’t give him a divorce. Or maybe, [Rebekah] said. Or maybe what? Maybe Ingraham did write the note and send it to her but then changed his mind. Wised up and wasn’t going to use it. Maybe she kept the note and did it herself. Rideout shook his head […] I told you the story, he said. You told me a story with too many possible endings, she said. She was smiling at him. Maybe it happened just the way you said. Or maybe she did it. Or maybe you wrote her the letter and killed them yourself. Too many possible endings. Too many threads and tales. If I killed someone, what does it mean? What does it make me? If I am lying, what does it matter? What if you did it? Could you have done it? No one in Gay's stories really deserves to live, and yet some do; as for those whose lives have been brutally abbreviated, why, the reader wonders disturbingly, should we care? What do we really know, or believe, about the people with whom we are intimate? How do we decide what is true; or do we decide at all? 4. Gay’s women shoot to kill, too; although I won’t get into that, because, well, it would spoil the stories, violate the secrets. Mostly the ladies of Lewis County are cold-hearted and restless, whores and heartbreakers; and a man can’t live without them. The paperhanger’s employer, the wife of a wealthy doctor, flirted with him, backed away, flirted again. She would treat him as if he were a stain on the bathroom rug and then stand close by him while he worked until he was dizzy with the smell of her, with the heat that seemed to radiate off her body. She stood by him while he knelt painting baseboards and after an infinite moment leaned carefully the weight of a thigh against his shoulder […] He laughed and turned his face into her groin. She gave a strangled cry and slapped him hard […] You filthy beast, she said. When making love to his cheating wife in “A Death in the Woods,” Marvelously, his hand passed through [her naked breast] into nothing, past the brown nipple and the soft flesh and the almost imperceptible resistance of the rib cage and into a vast gulf of space where winds blew in perpetuity and the heart at its center was seized in bloody ice […] she was a ghost, less than that, like nothing at all. It is not uncommon for Gay’s women characters to agree to have sex with their jilted, supplicating ex-husbands/boyfriends for money; in each case it is a crossroads, a test failed, a moment of reckoning. It is the moment when a man realizes he’s been looking for love in the wrong place. Interestingly, the final story of I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down portrays a profoundly beautiful, albeit tragic and forbidden, love between a man and a woman.  Here, the woman is given to us as courageous and fully human: He thought for a moment her eyes looked frightened then he saw that more than fear they showed confusion. She looked stunned, as if life had blindsided her so hard it left her knees weak and the taste of blood in her mouth. He wanted to cure her, save her, jerk her back from the edge as she’d tried to do for him. We note the hard turn in Gay’s depiction of a female character, and yet we are not jarred by it; his reverence for Woman and for love of Woman has been there all along, but buried deep and seen through the unlovely distortions, the darkened lens, of a romantic whose guts have bled nearly dry. 5. The only divine laws in Gay’s Tennessee are those of the natural world, both harsh and merciful. A vast stretch of wild acreage called The Harrikin (the name originated from “hurricane” after a storm ripped through the place in the '30s) features prominently in the action and in the characters’ inner landscapes. Company-owned and once mined for iron ore at the turn of the century, by the '20s and '30s the iron ore dried up and the work with it. Shacks that served as living quarters for workers, mining machinery, a post office and a commissary, dangerous mine shafts—all of it was abandoned and never redeveloped or sold. “No one lived there, and there were miles of unbroken timber you couldn’t work your way through with a road map in one hand and a compass in the other” (from “Sugarbaby”). It’s a wilderness in every sense, a place to where characters flee when pursued, where fringe types have been forced to dwell provisionally; and it must be ventured and crossed en route to freedom, or at least the elusive idea of it. Finis Beasley, the old-timer in “Sugarbaby” who is fleeing the law because of a domestic dispute (guns, women, dogs), is someone who knows just what the Harrikin threatens and offers: “miles of uninhabited woods smothered in rain and darkness and he drew a small bitter comfort from it.” And that bitter comfort sought by characters like Beasley—along with other old-timers who want nothing more than to hold on to what little they have and to die as they lived—is at the heart of Gay’s moral vision. In this hardscrabble world, the only sense of “right” that I can detect is rooted in dignity, the entitlement of independence after a long, hard life; what’s “wrong” in the world (the law, the government, and those who hold power therein) is how everything conspires against the stubbornness—Gay might say moral core, or staying power—of an imperfectly decent man. If ever there was an author that, say, a liberal politician representing urban America might like to read for an inside-out understanding of backwoods libertarianism, Gay just might be the one. The law isn’t working for these folks, it is primarily a tool of dispossession and greed; when faced with a choice—be stripped of what matters to you and keep what doesn’t, or else throw everything over—a man behaves in extreme ways. 6. Critics of Gay cite his sometimes high Latinate prose, which we see mostly in passages where consciousness and the natural world layer together, as “overinsistent” and “self-conscious” (Charles D’Ambrosio, Paste Magazine). For example: Here the weary telluric dark past and present intersected seamlessly and he saw how there was no true beginning or end and all things once done were done forever and went spreading outward faint and fainter and that the face of a young girl carried at once within it a bitter worn harridan and past that the satinpillowed death’s head of the grave. Regarding plot he has been said to “overplay his hand” (Richard Bernstein, New York Times). Art Winslow wrote in 2001 that Gay shared Wolfe’s and McCarthy’s “propensity to risk overrichness.” For some readers, yes, all this overage will be a turnoff, minimalists beware (although D’Ambrosio does praise Gay’s more colloquial prose, which often comes in the form of “keen” and “bleakly funny” dialogue). For this reader, ultimately, “risking overrichness” is code for “desperately in love with words,” and “overplaying” the expression of a world view that sees high drama and profound connectedness in all things. In Gay’s hands, these add up to a book as a living, affecting, devastating thing; well worth both his risk and ours. It took 40 years for his world and his words to reach the rest of us.  Perhaps “late,” perhaps right on time. The patience that develops from such a journey is evident, however: at the Clarksville reading a woman said that she hoped his fourth novel, The Lost Country, publication of which has been delayed for over a year, would be published soon. Gay responded, simply, “Me, too.”