I took The Shining down from its shelf a few days before Halloween, as it seemed a seasonally-appropriate read. It had sat there for years, Danny Torrance’s blank face staring out from its silver spine, asking me what I was afraid of, what I was waiting for. This will be much different from the movie, it said. Everybody knows how much Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s film. “I think he wants to hurt people with this movie,” isn’t that what King said? And besides, it went on, you haven’t seen it in 15 years.
Book-jacket Danny had a point. And not only was it almost Halloween, but I’d just finished Jack Handey’s brilliantly asinine, irresponsibly funny The Stench of Honolulu. Among the books I’d recently read were Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Dean King’s Skeletons on the Zahara, and Bill Beverly’s Dodgers. None of these were exactly “fun,” but they were entertainments, with none of the claustrophobic dread I associated with The Shining. I needed a change of pace, and I couldn’t avoid King’s novel any longer. It was time to get down to brass tacks.
And within the first few chapters, it became clear that The Shining was all brass tacks — sharp, blunt, and efficient. I most enjoy King when he scraps his leavening impulses — inexplicable mysticism, mediocre humor, saccharine endings — and lets the darkness rip. The Long Walk and Gerald’s Game are two of his best because almost no light shines through them, and even The Stand — in which, after a trillion pages, good ultimately prevails — ends on a demoralizing note. As a fan of Kubrick’s film, I knew what I was getting myself into, but King’s book was entirely different, a much more human — and therefore, more unsettling — family drama.
As I made my way through, another unsettling drama — the 2016 presidential campaign — was mercifully winding down, and until election night, The Shining was just a way to escape the noise. What better way to distance myself from Donald Trump’s noxiousness than to read about an eerily quiet, snowed-in hotel, written decades before the terms “basket of deplorables” and “nasty woman” entered the vernacular?
Then, early on November 9th, Donald Trump fucking won. I was about 80 pages from the end of The Shining, and like everything else — large and small, consequential and irrelevant — in the hours and days afterwards, the tenor of the novel changed. I was so unmoored by his victory — by the very notion that someone so vile could be so richly rewarded — that the book and reality engaged in a queasy merge. In The Shining, King conjured a world — albeit limited to the grounds of the Overlook Hotel — in which everything was wrong. Hedge animals came alive; dead guests reappeared; fathers tried to kill their families. Having a sociopathic pussy-grabber as president had more in common with that world than the one I’d been living in.
The Shining is about many things — parental love, the strictures of family, alcohol abuse — but it is mainly about the perils of the mind. In The Shining, there is nothing more dangerous than an unstable thought allowed. And in the wake of the election, it became clear that our minds — both individually and collectively — had become territories as unsafe as anything King could muster. Trump’s more cartoonish supporters had become no less delusional than Jack Torrance, who spends the latter part of The Shining piss-drunk on imaginary gin. Those voters’ nihilism “sent a message,” we were told — as if that message would improve a goddamn thing.
Those of us crushed by the nation’s turn, meanwhile, became dazed Wendy Torrances, at once unwilling to believe what was happening and unable to dismiss it. The hornet’s nest that had sat empty and fumigated — The New York Times puts Clinton’s chances at 85 percent, you know — was suddenly abuzz. All of us — Trump and Clinton supporters both — had become untethered from reality. Or, more accurately, we were all now yoked to a reality that couldn’t possibly be real.
In the end, King’s Shining was much more hopeful than the film, the shadow of which it deserves to escape. This isn’t surprising; King seems, at heart, a warm and caring person, while Kubrick was by all accounts a petty tyrant of his own. So amid my post-election grief, I was heartened by the novel’s ending, which qualifies as “happy” without, as often happens in King — I’m looking at you, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — cheapening its preceding horrors. And that seems about as good as I can ask for from the next four years: to emerge from the ordeal damaged but still whole. This is the limit of my optimism at the end of 2016. Because we’re all in The Shining now.
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Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.
After decades of pushing, my father wanted to ride. He bought a Snapper mower, and I remember running after him while he drove. I liked how the grass would lighten or darken depending on his direction. His stripes and patterns were forms of revision, our home made new.
My father cared about our lawn, but never became obsessed with it. Like his father, he was a carpenter, so he thought in geometric precision. He always had a pencil sharpened like a blade that he would use to tick-off inches or locations to saw. He would lay awake in bed planning the leveling of a cabinet top or the raising of a floor. Despite that attention and forethought, my father’s pride in his lawn never made him prideful. One’s lawn is like a face for the world. Siding and roofs need to be replaced in time, but an unkempt lawn soon spills into the driveway, over curbs, onto the road. For my father, a former All-American running back who was calm and soft-spoken, caring for a lawn was like an exercise in restraint. A way to control one’s own space.
In his essay “How Green Was My Suburb,” Ted Steinberg traces the lineage of lawns from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to the post-World War II domestic renaissance of Abraham Levitt, who thought trim lawns were a form of “neighborhood stabilization.” Lawn maintenance was neighborhood maintenance. Levitt is best known for the 1947 construction of Levittown, Long Island, which Steinberg sums up as the “mass production of low-cost housing, producing the cookie-cutter houses embraced by some as the epitome of the American dream and reviled by others as the start of soulless suburban conformity.” Along the lines of that contrast, Levitt’s call for lawn care was tempered by the worry that the American quest for lawn perfection would lead to obsession and disillusionment (Jonathan Franzen once quipped that mowing is “among the most despair-inducing of human activities;” pair that sentiment with the most John Updike of John Updike descriptions, “[while] he pushed a balky lawn mower through the wiry grass around their rented house, Richard thought about nakedness”). Levitt cautions: “Even our lowly weeds, which are just other native grasses, if kept cut to not more than two inches help to green carpet the ground.”
Lawns — big or small, green or brown — are places of play. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Habit of Perfection,” with the lines “O feet / That want the yield of plushy sward.” Few things return us to youth as much as walking barefoot on grass. Hopkins’s love for the natural world extended to the prose of his notebooks: “Green-white tufts of long bleached grass like heads of hair or the crowns of heads of hair, each a whorl of slender curves, one tuft taking up another — however these I might have noticed any day, I saw the inscape through freshly, as if my eye were still growing.”
The weekly ritual of mowing, of men and women walking their property like mechanical monks, is fodder for literature. Robert Wrigley’s gorgeous “Mowing” is one of my favorites. How true are these opening lines: “Sleepy and suburban at dusk, / I learn again the yard’s / geometry…Shoving such a machine / around a fairway of dandelions, / it is easy to feel absurd.” During one cut, his mower’s blade “pulls” yellowjackets “from their deep sweet chamber,” and he is stung. The man torches the nest, and the “blackened” lawn scar remains until it is covered by snow, only to be revealed again come spring. Mowing is a cycle of returns.
For years I offered to mow my father’s lawn, but was careful to not steal that ritual from him. He would have given it to me, but part of growing up is knowing what is yours, and what is not. I worked for town and county grounds departments during the summers, mowing roadside slopes and rocky park entrances. I later worked for The Seeing Eye, where I graduated from push mowers to a wide Steiner tractor, the type used on baseball fields. I would bring a Gatorade and a book — everything from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis to Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone — to a wide expanse at the edge of the campus. Bordered on one side by a treeline, and the other side by a post-and-rail fence, I mowed for much of the afternoon, taking breaks in the shade to read.
The Steiner worked well, but had to be trucked to Pennsylvania whenever it needed service. After I got married, I wore my father’s Snapper into the ground, but my wife surprised me with a John Deere. We moved to a new house with several acres, but I committed the mortal small engine sin — not checking the oil — and the tractor choked to a stop on a hill. A month later, grey clouds swarming above and Hurricane Sandy hours from landfall, I sold the tractor to a man named Norbert. He pushed the mower into a white van, and drove into the coming storm.
In “The Lawn Mower” by Sarah Barber, night is the time to flip over a busted mower: “In this our suburban Eden we’ve only / a teenage Adam too dreamy to manage / his motorized scythe and silly Eve leaving / her coffee cups and plastic paint pots / behind in the grass.” The narrator “like[s] my mower / turned over among the glowworms, / a monstrous dandelion as unnatural as we / are, out in a garden, with our untidy / golds and our dangerous sharps.” “The Mower” of Philip Larkin’s poem is in a worse state. Twice-stalled, the second reason is a “hedgehog jammed up against the blades.” The narrator has seen the animal before, “even fed it, once.” He feels guilty, ending “we should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.”
Pastoral writing is no stranger to melancholy, but a particular strand appears within the literature of lawns. Take “An Old Push Lawnmower” by Coleman Barks, the narrator of which is “nostalgic for a life I’ve never led, a grounding / in tools and physical work that I have never earned.” He keeps an old yet oiled push lawnmower in his living room “so as to delight in the sound of pushing it around indoors.” In Anne Sexton’s “The Double Image,” inspired by a time when Sexton’s daughter lived with the poet’s mother-in-law, the narrator reflects on absence: “All that summer sprinklers arched / over the seaside grass…To help time pass / I tried to mow the lawn / and in the morning I had my portrait done, / holding my smile in place, till it grew formal.”
The John Deere sold, my shed was empty until the next spring, when I bought a zero-turn mower. I had more ground to cover at our new house, and less time; with twin girls inside, there was no time to mow circles and loops in the field. Yet I still enjoy my rides; mowing makes me feel young. I appreciate the sentiment of Jill Alexander Essbaum in “Mow Job”: “I do the summer work of a twelve-year-old boy, which isn’t surprising as I have the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old boy: I cut grass.” She started mowing for “fast cash,” and liked the “labors of clearing out, cleaning up, and cutting down.” Her mower is “red,” and bought by her ex-husband, but “I assumed custody when we split.” She is “no landscaper, no gardener.” Rather, “an Army barber, your one-woman clean-up crew.”
Some days I can move the mower slowly, along lazy paths. On my return from each lap, I see my daughters leaning against a window, laughing at daddy spinning around on a ridiculous machine. On other days, when rain beckons and the grass looks nearly knee-high, I need to scorch green earth. More often, I simply head out to the lawn with the same source of pride that I bring to words. I want the lawn to look nice because it is ours. We have worked years for it.
Pride is difficult to parse in the present moment. Pride is not the same as vanity. Pride is what makes a young writer believe that her words are worth reading, despite a world, a culture, that might prefer her silence. Pride is the most important trait that I can help shape in my students; pride means worth. In our collective fear of being too proud, I wonder if we have enabled some to not care as their default emotion. We could do worse than to create things that we are proud of, whether they are loving relationships, careful words, or mowed lawns.
Image Credit: Flickr/kmdoncaster.
I’m not sure when I began following Nina MacLaughlin’s Tumblr, but for at least a year I’ve admired her thoughtful and elegant writing; it sometimes feels as if I’m reading a poem rather than a blog post. Just recently, for instance, she wrote this:
The wood, white oak, has the look of driftwood. Weather worn, sea bashed. The hole, former home of a long-gone knot, brings eyeballs to mind, or portals, entries to other worlds. Two inches thick, the slab got sawed to size yesterday afternoon, from a length of six+ feet to a little over two. In the cold air of yesterday’s afternoon, I sawed, which warmed me fast, and did a first run of sanding with coarse grit paper. Snowbanks have eclipsed the fence behind the house, and snowflakes, more, falling slow and small, landed on the board as I worked. They disappeared, but not for melting — I watched one linger on the wood — but for being sanded into the board, an adding and a stripping at once, layer by layer, instilling and smoothing. This is the beginning of an end table.
See what I mean?
MacLaughlin’s beautiful and wise first book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, recounts how she left her job as a journalist at an alt-weekly in Boston and became the apprentice to a carpenter named Mary. When she started, Nina was burnt out from her former career, but had no experience working with her hands. Now she can tile a bathroom, build a deck, and renovate a kitchen — among other projects! — and remains energized by the work. The book not only lets its readers experience Nina’s career shift along with her, it also sneaks in some carpentry lessons and history. In Hammer Head, MacLauglin poses questions both big and small, and its default mode is one of consideration and wonderment: How did that wall get there? How do we decide what’s right for our own lives? It’s like if Annie Dillard had her own show on HGTV.
Nina was kind enough to answer some of my questions via email. What follows is that conversation.
TM: The book is organized by tools — the saw, the tape measure, the screwdriver, and so on. How did this organizing principle come about, and can you talk a little bit about how you balanced the book’s dramatized scenes (the memoir aspect of the book) with succinct histories of said tools?
NM: I’m drawn to books that braid together the personal, political, historic, cultural, and philosophical. Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Annie Dillard, Eula Biss, these are writers who, when they write about themselves, address questions on a human-wide scale, and when they write about politics, geographies, or journeys, demonstrate how decisions, history, and powers impact us as individuals. So I wanted to write something that did a little bit of blending. In early drafts, the book was much more heavily weighted on the meditative side. So much ruminating! Some of it had to give way for the sake of a forward-moving story. As for the tools, they provided a sort of spine, a way of grounding the story in the work. The order of the tools as they appear in the book loosely follows the order in which you’d use them on the job, a way of moving through time based on the state of completion of the project. First thing you’re likely going to use is your tape measure. The level comes at the end to see if what you’ve done is true.
TM: There are so many wonderful literary references in the book, from Ovid to Joan Didion. Did those just surface as you were working, or was that another organizing principle for the book?
NM: When I sat down to write the second draft, I started reading the Metamorphoses, which I’d somehow never read, despite majoring in classics in college. I figured poetry of that sort wouldn’t overly influence the writing I was doing, would be a good way of continuing to read without having someone else’s sentences, rhythms, ideas, etc. weasel their way into what I was up to. Wrong! It ended up being an enormous influence, and a guiding principle behind the whole book. I’d recommend everyone read or revisit Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I read Alan Mandelbaum’s translation.) It’s violent, sexy, dark, beautiful. There’s a section in Book VIII that makes me cry every time I read it.
The other references happened more spontaneously and surfaced along the way. In reading, I’m often underlining, and when I’m lucky I’ll remember a particular passage when it relates to something I’m trying to get at.
TM: I love your descriptions of Mary — the wisdom she imparted, her small physical frame, how hard she worked. What was your process like for depicting her on the page?
NM: It’s so nice hearing how much people respond to Mary in the book. Whereas describing in words (and making clear and compelling) the act of tiling a floor or swinging a hammer proved tricky, writing Mary happened naturally and easily. That likely has a lot to do with who she is and what she’s about as a human being. She is so much who she is, a complete person, and that’s rare, I think, and it made it easier to present her on the page. We’ve also spent a lot of time together, working in close quarters, and you get to know someone pretty well when you’re in an attic crawl space trying not to cut the person’s hand off or bang them with a hammer.
TM: You came from a journalism career, but this book is very much about you and your evolution, your gathering of experience with and knowledge of objects and building, of working with your hands. How was it to write about yourself? Were there any sections in the book that felt difficult for what they revealed to the reader about you?
NM: Discomfort comes when I think about the people closest to me reading the book. It’s obviously strange to know that my parents and my boyfriend will read that I thought about boning the plumbers we work with, but that’s something you just have to deal with. I know as a reader, it’s difficult when reading a memoir not to think that this is this person’s whole life, that you know everything about them. In this case, I shone the flashlight on a narrow and specific part of my experience. In that way, it feels strange that people who I knew for six weeks while we renovated their kitchen and will likely never see again in my life, got more attention on the page than the people closest to me.
I suspect it’s true of all writers at some moment, but I definitely had to make big efforts to quiet the voices that said: Who cares about your dumb life? Why would anyone want to read about you? You had a job, then a different job, who cares? What makes your story more worth telling than anyone else’s? Those voices are still there, demanding attention as much as they did when I was writing. I try to hush them by reminding myself that everyone, really everyone, has, at one point or another, wanted to do something other than what they’re doing. We’ve all wanted to change our lives in big or small ways. It’s a human urge to want to leave one life for another, and it’s a story that can resonate with anyone who’s had a job or a relationship or a shitty afternoon. That’s my hope, anyway, and what I tell myself to quiet the voices that say otherwise.
TM: You write, “Finishing a piece of writing, the sensation was relief coupled with a spentness, a short temper and depletion, grinchy and hollow.” In contrast, you say of working with Mary, “I looked back on everything we’d built with satisfaction and pride.” I wonder how the writing of this book — rather than your past journalism — felt. Did writing this book feel like journalism did, or is writing about working, about doing, about the physical world, somehow different?
NM: Working on the book, the grinch quotient was high. More so than working on journalism stuff for sure. Writing about my own life as opposed to someone else’s turned out to shorten my temper and deplete me in a much more pronounced way. And so did the scope of the project and the length of time I worked on it. The book went through multiple drafts. It took me a long time to figure out how to write it, shape, pace it, make it a story. All I’ve done my whole life is read books and write about them, and I very wrongly figured that along the way I just absorbed how to do it, that I would just sort of know how to shape a book. I didn’t! I didn’t at all. I had a lot of trouble. It was a raw experience of coming up against my own limits, up against so much that I didn’t know and that didn’t come easily — a lot like my entry into carpentry. I was not good company for stretches while working on the book — I’m much better to be around after a day building a deck. But even in the pits of it, in some deep gut-level place, when I woke up in the morning and knew I had to work on the book, even if I was hating it and hating myself and wishing it were done or gone, in the deepest part of myself I felt happy — or not happy exactly, but calm and serious and motivated and grateful and glad — that I had this thing to work on, that I knew exactly what I faced, that I was doing what I always wanted to be doing.
TM: You’re still a carpenter and you’ve also returned to writing. How do these two careers balance and inform one another?
NM: What I’ve found: after a stretch of writing, I get antsy to get out of my head and back to the satisfaction — physical and mental — of building. I get antsy to leave the screen, leave my apartment, joke with Mary, use tools, forget about words.
And the same is true in the opposite way — after a bit of time goes by (usually a matter of about three days) where I haven’t written, I start to feel an itching in my head, and all I want is for some time putting sentences together. It feels a little like a hunger. A deep need. And it can be satisfied by writing a blog post or a book review. The best days usually involve some combination of the two.
There’s something about putting your brain where you hands are that frees up the word-centers of the mind, maybe a bit like meditating. It could be knitting or cooking or playing guitar or drawing or whatever. Letting that part of the brain go quiet allows things to cook in there without the grinding at the desk and the deliberate footfalls of one word after the next. Bodywise and brainwise, I feel so lucky to have these two pursuits in combination.
TM: When one is hiring a carpenter, what questions should one ask? What’s the closest way to a carpenter’s heart?
NM: Don’t be afraid to ask hundreds of questions if you don’t understand what’s being explained. People in the trades are fluent in the language of their work, and often forget that not everyone knows, for example, what sistering a stud means. Ask us to translate! Ask us the most basic questions. Don’t know what a joist is? Ask. Don’t know what 16-on-center means or how it relates to the wall you’re having built? Ask. It’s sort of like going to the doctor. There’s a specialized vocabulary, and it’s being spoken quickly and it’s good to slow down and make sure you understand what’s happening to your house. As for a way to our hearts, Mary and I have had good luck working for kind, warm, patient people (with a couple of exceptions). It’s a funny sort of intimacy that develops — we come to your home and spend days there, making a lot of noise. The people we tend to like most are ones who take interest in the work, who ask questions, who seem excited about what we’re up to and the changes taking place, who chat with us, and, gosh, a cookie every now and then definitely boosts morale.
TM: And, finally, because The Millions is a literary website, I must ask: What’s the last book you read and loved?
NM: I just finished up Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. It instantly transports you to a specific time (late ’60s) and a specific place (southern California) and a specific atmosphere (crumbling of the counterculture, strung-out, confused, chaotic, disillusioned, failed gurus, dead dreams). Stone writes great sentences and the story moves fast.
The Whippany River flooded my hometown post office in August 2011. Hurricane Sandy would cause far more damage statewide, but Irene pushed the river across Route 10 and through the front door. The post office has never reopened. Whippany now receives irregular delivery from the Morristown branch. Inquires from our congressman, Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, have received circuitous responses from the Postal Service.
I drive past the abandoned post office when I visit my parents, and can’t help but get nostalgic. The mail was a source of surprise during my youth: issues of Amazing Spider Man, Uncanny X-Men, and The Sporting News, letters from my French pen pal, or postcards from my sister in college. I would shoot baskets in my driveway so I could catch afternoon delivery. The low hum of the mail truck’s engine announced its arrival, and while it looped toward my mailbox, I envied the lives of those mail carriers. They delivered people’s hopes and disappointments, bound in rubber bands. There was a quiet dignity to the legion of men and women who delivered mail. It seemed like the entire town counted on this ritual.
That innocent perception has been tempered by our current reality. The United States Postal Service lost $334 million in the final quarter of 2013, for a total loss of $5 billion for the year. First-class mail revenue has plummeted. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has pushed to end Saturday mail delivery as a cost-saving measure, but Congress has blocked the attempt. Postal Service retail outlets are being opened in select Staples stores, and will be staffed by store employees, not members of the American Postal Workers Union.
In 2014, products are shipped to us. We are recipients of mail rather than creators of it. Bills are paid online. Invitations are sent on Facebook. Letters, handwritten or typed, are a rarity. We have chosen speed and convenience, and have redefined what it means to have a personal connection with another human.
The current literary magazines that only accept postal submissions are some of the finest “little magazines” in the country: The Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, Epoch, The Southern Review, Zoetrope, The Yale Review, The Sewanee Review, Denver Quarterly, The Hudson Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, The Paris Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, River Styx, ZYZZYVA, and Image. Their reasons are both practical and philosophical. The Gettysburg Review’s explanation is tongue-in-cheek: “We’re not an e-journal or e-zine…Neither are we neo-Luddites. Several of us actually enjoy using computers; however, we, like many of you, understand that the computer is not necessarily a piece of labor-saving technology. E-submission, while possibly a convenience for writers, is definitely an inconvenience for us.”
Electronic submissions have evolved from direct e-mails to editors, to the Council of Literary Magazine and Presses’ Submission Manager, to the now industry-standard Submittable system. Since electronic submissions have become the norm, editors have complained about writers who submit new work immediately after a rejection is received, or, even worse, rescind a submission only to revise and resubmit the work. Electronic submissions have put the writer in the editor’s office, like some cinematic wordsmith tramping into Random House with a manuscript under his arm. I would never think of calling the editor of the Southwest Review to check on the status of my submission, but e-mailing that editor somehow feels less intrusive. It shouldn’t, and unfortunately results in some writers eschewing professional decorum. Until an unsolicited work is accepted for publication, there should be a comfortable distance between writer and editor.
At Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading page, Agni editor Sven Birkets recalls the “labor-intensive era before e-submissions, [when] going through the stack that was several days’ accumulation had certain assembly-line aspects: open, extract, examine to gauge general caliber, sort into one of several stacks. Return, return with note, look closer, pass to trusted readers.” While putting together the first issue of his editorship, Birkets received a snail mail submission from David Foster Wallace. The story was titled “The Soul is Not a Smithy.” This was 2003; Wallace could have placed the story anywhere. Birkets was excited: “I took myself away from the desk. I found a private place with decent light and no phone; I did whatever one does to narrow the beam of attention down from wide-angle receptivity to full-on focus.” Granted, Birkets knew Wallace, but the story was a surprise, and Wallace’s work and self were made new by the spontaneity of that silent submission.
T.C. Boyle has called literary magazines the “meat and potatoes” of American literature. His first collection, Descent of Man, was published in 1979, and although it included stories from “the slicks” — The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Esquire, Penthouse — it also included stories that originally appeared in The Paris Review, Epoch, TriQuarterly, The Transatlantic Review, Fiction, Quest 77, Quest 78 and the South Dakota Review. Those publications were not merely means toward the end of a book; they were small victories. As Ben Percy writes, even after acceptances have “become the rule rather than the exception,” he feels like a “lonely madman crumpling messages into bottles and sending them off into a midnight sea.” The responses from editors make for a distant but real community. Nowadays writers like myself have connected on social media with other writers and editors, and while those connections are often meaningful and sometimes enlightening, writers remain solitary artists. As Percy notes, we are all “hidden away, only occasionally showing our faces, but engaged in an intimate, sacred togetherness made possible by journals whose pages serve as ink-stained harbors.”
My favorite bookstore is still D.J. Ernst Books in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. The bookseller has an almost cult following since 1975 among undergraduate creative writing majors at Susquehanna University. I bought armfuls of books, but mostly talked with “Homer” about fishing for bass in Penns Creek, running, kayaking, and God. Like other great independent bookstores, it was a place that made me believe imagination mattered.
I bought the 1992 edition of Best American Short Stories from him. I’d loved Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, and he edited that year’s selections. It’s an incredible collection: “Days of Heaven” by Rick Bass, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” by Robert Olen Butler, “Emergency” by Denis Johnson, “The Pugilist at Rest” by Thom Jones, “Carried Away” by Alice Munro, and my favorite of the lineup, “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace. I had read novels and collections from those individual writers, but I liked seeing them collected in an original form, with the magazines of original publication listed below. It was a lesson: American literary culture is built through literary magazines.
I flipped to the back of the book: “Editorial Addresses of American and Canadian Magazines Publishing Short Stories.” This was 2000, so much of the information was outdated, but there were mailing addresses and names of editors. Puerto del Sol: PO Box 3E, Department of English, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM 88003. Edited by Kevin McIlvoy and Antonya Nelson. Virginia Quarterly Review: One West Range, Charlottesville, VA 22903. Edited by Staige D. Blackford. I would dip back between the stories and their original publications to find which magazines best fit my style. I say style and not substance: I was very much a young writer, and it would take a steady dose of sentence-to-sentence examinations of writers like James Alan McPherson, Joy Williams, and William Gass in order to understand fiction.
My fiction professor had a “Publish or Paris” cartoon on his office door, and the pun wasn’t lost on me. In order to be a writer, I also had to be a submitter. I printed some of my stories and followed the magazine’s guidelines. I typed and signed cover letters. I prepared SASEs, which felt like a strangely formal and unnecessary action to receive a response: folding an envelope and stuffing it into another envelope is the literary equivalent of matryoshka dolls. I soon understood that literary magazine editors and staff had to deal with cataloging, reading, and responding to thousands of submissions, as well as pleading for university or donor funding. They didn’t have the time or money to buy and provide stamps for responses.
I mailed stories to Cimarron Review, Artful Dodge, and Prairie Schooner. I thought about the submissions from time to time, but I was an undergraduate with more than enough distractions. The form rejections arrived on thick, cardboard stock cards, or on computer paper sliced into squares. There was the occasional “Thanks!” or a suggestion to subscribe. No meant no. There were no explanations. I needed to hear those cold, distant rejections. My writing mentors were constructive but caring: they would edit my stories down to the single sentence worth saving, but they would do so with guidance and interest. Editors owed me nothing: no words of encouragement, no line edits, and not a swift response. In order to impress them, I had to write better fiction. I knew that writing was a slow process on my end. I scribbled story and character ideas on napkins, in the margins of junk mail and newspapers, or in a series of notebooks. Those ideas became handwritten drafts, which were typed, printed, set aside, and then revised on the printed page. I typed those revisions, and then repeated the process. Ideas come in a flash, but stories must be built. I am the son of a carpenter who almost became a priest: planning and ritual are the modes of our lives.
Back then, I had no idea what happened to my submissions when they left the post office. Did editors really read my stories? I had an intimate connection with my own drafting, writing, and revising, but my submitting life was wrecked with unknowns. Submittable is a wonderful resource, but I long for those days when I don’t know whether a story is “received” or “in progress.” The method of write, submit, and resubmit has its real artistic perils. At the National Post, poet Michael Lista thinks the contemporary literary culture “encourages, for its own survival, a writer’s worst attributes: vanity, assuredness, sophistry, mutual flattery, imprecision, inefficiency and an unselfconscious fluency that is the surest sign of a minor writer. The qualities that contribute to producing great work — skepticism, deliberation, patience — are not in the system’s interest.” The ease of submission has cultivated a lack of self-discernment. Simply because a story can be submitted does not mean it should.
I miss having my envelope of stories weighed and mailed. I miss the handling of paper, the process of submission. The great, unlikely gift of postal submissions was the building of patience and discipline. Now we can publish at any and every moment: status updates, tweets, posts. There are benefits to tearing down those fences between our words and the world, but there is worth to relative silence, to communication between a single sender and recipient.
This is how I satiate my nostalgia for the old rituals. I go through my typical motions of drafting and revising, until a story feels ready to submit. I find a few potential markets and list them in an Excel spreadsheet. Then I print the story, fold it, and leave it in an unsealed envelope, tucked in a desk drawer. Weeks later, I take that story from the envelope and read it with new eyes: the eyes of an editor, a discerning reader who does not owe me anything. Those weeks of gestation are an abbreviation of the response time to a postal submission, but they are metaphorically enough. Postal submissions taught writers that this vocation is not a sprint. Writing is a series of marathons separated by long respites, where we regain breath and build strength. It is time for writers to slow down again, so that our performance in the next race can be better, more meaningful, and if we are lucky, closer to the eternal, mysterious rewards of art.
Image via paraflyer/Flickr
I arrived in New York in 1979, without a literary blueprint. I was a Southern boy, from rural Middle Tennessee (okay, by way of Princeton, I admit). My favorite writers at that time were Dostoevsky and Harry Crews. I didn’t know that a contemporary urban fiction existed. I saw New York at first through my own eyes. It was like Columbus “discovering” America: New York City was a wealth of material, ripe to be exploited, and as far as I knew, nobody else ever had.
Unemployed and impecunious, I spent a lot of time sitting around Washington Square Park, observing people and events which became fodder for my first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble. My agent, devotedly but quixotically, was determined to get an excerpt into the New Yorker, although, as one of my friends explained, the New Yorker publishes stories about people who live around the edges of Washington Square. To wit, Henry James, whose Washington Square is one of his least difficult works; here James is still operating in the nineteenth century and still writes like Trollope, though with a keener, doubled edge. Aside from the very Jamesian story line, there was something exhilarating in reading about Manhattan still mostly empty, but for wildlife and domestic cattle: “the small but promising capital which clustered about the Battery and overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by the grassy waysides of Canal Street.”
A hundred years later when I showed up, Bernard Goetz was shopping for electronics parts on “the grassy waysides of Canal Street,” Manhattan was full up to the neck (not counting the wide swaths of real estate vacated by insurance arson), and dangerous in a way Henry James could not have imagined in the 1880s, when Second Avenue was still the frontier. Threat was the pulse of the whole city; some neighborhoods were safer than others, but nowhere was altogether safe, and I was young and testosterone-poisoned enough in those days to find the situation more exciting than not. They say fiction requires conflict; well, when New York was a war of all against all, you had all the conflict you could handle any time you put your feet on the street.
I was going to write street life, not that that was the only possibility. I wasn’t so interested in “uptown” writers, heirs to James like Louis Auchincloss (admirable as his opus is, and I have since enjoyed it). Thomas Caplan would prove, in Parallelogram, that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book, but that was later, and anyway I was specifically not looking for New York writer influences; I wanted to preserve my illusion that the thing would not be done until I did it.
In 1979, I moved over the bridge to the Williamsburg waterfront, a good 25 years before gentrification. The pedestrian walkway had not been caged in, and anyone foolhardy enough to go up there had it entirely to himself, with its astonishing vistas of Manhattan. I worked those views into so many books a friend told me, “that bridge is your white whale.” In my bed (a foam mat on the floor, that was) I had Cormac McCarthy’s early novel Suttree, set not in New York but in Knoxville, and yet it was the most rich and vivid urban novel I had ever read (over and over for over a year). I cannibalized its style and attitude for my own second novel of the New York understrata, Waiting for the End of the World.
By then I felt like I had got out from under the anxiety of influence problem and was secure enough in my own writing that I could afford to look around and see what other people were doing and had done. The vogue at the time was for super-skinny minimalist fiction, heavily influenced by what was later discovered to be a full-on collaboration between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. I tried to care about Carver but couldn’t, just as I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon, and somehow I wanted to read something with more depth and dimension, with red meat on the bone.
Then, Shazam, there was Mary Gaitskill and her first collection Bad Behavior. These stories were everything the other stuff wasn’t; a mirror of life (for people like me even) in New York in the eighties that captured and reflected everything, with a marvelous, sculptural realism, down to the gum wrapper stuck in a crack on the sidewalk. Gaitskill is a writer to stay with; her masterpiece novel Veronica is much more deeply internalized than those early stories, and still it gives you glimpses of New York City you won’t find anywhere else.
But who was doing the real nitty-gritty? I was beginning to wonder. Hugh Selby for one. Just last week I took Last Exit to Brooklyn on a ride to Fort Greene; the book’s as startling and horrifying as I remembered it, and the writing more sophisticated and just plain better than I remembered it, though at the end of the day the Freudian mechanism driving all that sheer brutality strikes me as a little too much… I like better a couple of other books from the boroughs: Bloodbrothers by the pre-Clockers Richard Price, a novel mostly set in the Bronx, but including some dizzying tours of the Manhattan I was exploring around the same time. This novel reaches the same scary heights of violence as Selby’s, but Price really loves his characters, and his story evokes a sympathetic compassion for them, in the place of Selby’s disgust.
Down in Brooklyn, I discovered Jay Neugeboren in the Williamsburg branch of the Public Library, a curious oasis in what was then a very broad desert of urban blight — and a good shelf’s worth too, Neugeboren being perceived as a local boy. From these books, and especially Sam’s Legacy, I began to learn what kind of civilization had once existed in territory which now looked to me like something out of Mad Max. Sam’s Legacy gives you the old Brooklyn neighborhoods as they begin to crumble, and also this extraordinary lagniappe: an embedded novel with a completely different voice, called My Life and Death in the Negro Baseball League: A Slave Narrative.
Robert Stone, a New Yorker born and bred, writes about New York very obliquely (as he wrote about the Vietnam War so elliptically in the classic Dog Soldiers). One doesn’t necessarily think of his solo-sailing extravaganza, Outerbridge Reach, as a New York City novel, and yet the city is vividly present in more than half of the scenes, in most of its variations and many of its different social strata — from the toniest suburbs to the price of a parking place in Manhattan. The book probes the city, embraces it, and surrounds it all at the same time; one of the most memorable bits involves a microcosmic circumnavigation, when the hero Browne sails his catamaran down the Arthur Kill by night, exploring one of the city’s cloaca:
…the hulks lay scattered in a geometry of shadows. The busy sheer and curve of their shapes and the perfect stillness of the water made them appear held fast in some phantom disaster. Across the Kill, bulbous storage tanks, generators and floodlit power lines stretched to the end of darkness.
The richness of this place, and its myriad stories! In the end, one can’t just take them from the city on the cheap. Outerbridge Reach contains another home truth for all writers (though Stone slips it into a filmmaker’s offhand remark). “She told me her stories,” Strickland said. “I had to trade for them with mine.”
Image Credit: Pexels/Snapwire.
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.
My father used to tell the story of the summer he spent touring Europe with his Uncle John. For five memorable weeks, he was allowed (or forced, depending on his mood) to ride shotgun in a decrepit VW bus, barnstorming the battlefields of World War II, listening to John – an uncle by marriage, practically a stranger – spin tales as tall as the day was long… never once stopping to pee. Last week, as I raced through Robert Stone’s new memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, I found myself recalling the tone with which my dad described that Continental adventure, a kind of affectionate exasperation, or exasperated affection. Revisiting mid-century America in Robert Stone’s company, it turns out, is a lot like traveling with a garrulous uncle. One is not always certain one’s getting the straight dope, nor is the telling without its longeurs. But one would hate not to have made the trip.Stone himself returns repeatedly to questions of veracity, and declares himself to be after bigger fish than “just the facts”:So much can be said about the intersections of life and language, the degree to which language can be made to serve the truth. By the truth I mean unresisted insight, which is what gets us by, which makes one person’s life and sufferings comprehensible to another. We take an experience, or a character, an event, and so to speak we write a poem about it.The deepest insights in Prime Green harmonize the sensory impressions of how the world felt then to young Bob Stone, with the hard-won skepticism of a writer many years his senior. In chapters on Ken Kesey and Vietnam and helter-skelter Los Angeles, Stone probes the self-delusions and selfishness that underwrote the Sixties counterculture, while doing honor to its outsized personalities and nobler aspirations.The story starts not in the Sixties proper, but in 1958, aboard a naval transport ship traversing the globe. We see Robert Stone, fresh out of high school, exploring the shore and dreaming away the days at sea. The beauty of the ocean and its creatures would seem to bespeak the essential benevolence of nature, but racism in South Africa and a bombing campaign in Egypt trumpet the human capacity for ugliness. (Both the Rousseauvian and the Hobbesian notes will crescendo in the decade to come.) Back home in New York, Stone gets married and tries to write. After a stint in New Orleans, he moves to California as a Stegner fellow at Stanford, falls in with a band of proto-hippies led by Ken Kesey, and thus launches headlong into the turbulent waters of the Sixties.Writing about Kesey, Stone is at his best. The half of Prime Green that deals with Kesey could have been expanded and published on its own, under a separate title – Remembering the Chief. As it is, Stone’s account provides a compassionate complement to Tom Wolfe’s depiction of the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Stone’s love for Kesey is evident, yet a kind of fraternal competitiveness allows him to see the man behind the persona more fully than did Wolfe. We feel the powerful allure of Kesey’s charisma, without which the Sixties of pop-cultural memory might not have come into being – the “psychedelic movement,” the Grateful Dead, the road to Woodstock. But we also see glimmers of fascism and paranoia around the edges of Kesey’s ubermensch antinomianism… the beginning of the road to Altamont. More importantly, we come to understand the long silence that followed Kesey’s early burst of literary brilliance.Stone himself suffered no such silence – after winning the National Book Award for his first novel, AHall of Mirrors, he published six others, as well as a book of short stories. (Larry McMurtry was also part of the prodigious group of Stegner fellows from the early 60s). In his seventh decade, Stone can still hammer out sentences of marvelous felicity and a kind of raffish charm. Moreover, focusing on his late friend and colleague Kesey frees Stone from the burden of writing about himself, which tends to nudge the aforementioned felicity toward glibness. The deceits and adulterous episodes that have marked his remarkable forty-five year marriage, for example, are mentioned almost in passing, tossed off as jokes. And the dark side of the author’s hard drug use, like that of free love, is everywhere alluded to but nowhere dramatized. “We had gone to a party in La Honda in 1963 that followed us out the door and into the street and filled the world with funny colors. But the prank was on us.” End chapter. (More please! one thinks.)Apart from the long middle section that lingers on Kesey, Stone is most affecting when exploring his own failures of nerve and/or judgment. In early passages on South Africa and Jim-Crow New Orleans, he laments his own inability to take a public stand against apartheid, and thus illuminates the degree to which institutional racism depends on the silence and complicity of forward-thinking people. A queasy interlude in L.A. finds parents and their small children sharing balloons of nitrous oxide.When, would you believe, this one little tyke made this snarky face right at me and said ha ha or hee hee or some shit, ‘These aren’t balloons! They’re condoms!’ […] We’d been getting loaded watching small innocent children sucking gas from condoms.An uproarious chapter recounts Stone’s stint writing for a tabloid called “the National Thunder. It was an imitation of the National Enquirer, lacking the delicacy and taste of the original.” And a late section on Vietnam, in which Stone excoriates himself for being a tourist in other people’s combat zone, hammers home the horrific senselessness of that war. (I regret to say that I’ve never read anything else by Robert Stone, but I plan to start with Dog Soldiers this summer.)While providing a showcase for these bravura episodes, Prime Green remains somewhat ramshackle as a memoir. This may befit the anarchic, unfocused nature of the Sixties themselves, but it also speaks to an unsettling trend in the burgeoning confessional market: the memoir-as-article-collection. As with Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, substantial chunks of Prime Green were first serialized in magazine form; to make them cohere into a sustained narrative requires a degree of readerly imagination, a filling in of holes.Read Prime Green as a kind of compilation album, however – a sampler of Robert Stone’s range – and a quite different and more satisfying book emerges. In the course of 230 quick pages, we meet Ram Dass and Alger Hiss, undertake adventures in sex, drugs, war, and parenting, and encounter “unresisted insight” and wry humor in almost every paragraph. It’s like riding shotgun with Uncle John, except the trip moves faster, and touches down on five continents, and we can climb off this bus whenever we like. Buses, come to think of it, play a special role here. In Robert Stone’s nimble hands, Kesey’s “Furthur” becomes a metaphor for the Sixties themselves. Whether one was on the bus or off the bus back then, whether or not one had yet been born, one now lives, for better or for worse, in the landscape the counterculture transformed. It was, as Stone puts it, “…a journey of such holiness that being there – mere vulgar location – was instantly beside the point. From the moment the first demented teenager waved a naked farewell as Neal Cassady threw the clutch, everything entered the numinous.”