Ever since I moved from New York to Tucson seven years ago, I’ve been restless about my reading. Some of my favorite Saturday afternoons in New York were spent wandering from bookstore to bookstore, and I liked the bookseller-favorite recommendation shelves and the back tables that held the off-the-radar titles. I miss browsing for discovery’s sake.
That’s one of the many reasons I decided to start reading the entirety of the PEN/Faulkner nominees, dating all the way back to the 1981 list. My biggest hope was that I would have the browser’s pleasure returned to me, even if the sense of discovery wasn’t really my own; a prize list is a curated one, after all. Three lists and 17 books in, the result has been a mixed bag. For one thing, books by women are scarce and books by writers of color even more so (five women and one African-American writer so far, with the added irony that these books ended up being some of the most intriguing and substantial — so much for tokenism). I’ve also been enjoying how my odd reading project inspires conversation about the books that have stuck around and how much people love or hate them. Like Housekeeping, which holds up superbly on reread and inspires warm coos of approval whenever I mention it, or A Confederacy of Dunces, which I learned not to say much about if I wanted to keep a conversation civil, or Sixty Stories, which made one friend roll her eyes and say, “That’s 59 too many.” On the other hand, there have been genuine and wonderful surprises, like Walter Abish’s entrancing and masterful How German Is It, which I had known only as the lonely, drab unreturnable New Directions paperback with the black-and-white cover on the top shelf of the Brookline Barnes & Noble where I worked years ago. I would scan it every three months with my inventory gun, but I wasn’t curious enough back then to bring it down from the shelf and rescue it with my employee discount. Right now, I’m only halfway through the 1983 list and suspect that, if I had finished it in time, I might have written something about William S. Wilson’s Birthplace: Moving into Nearness, an epistolary novel set on an island long after a nuclear catastrophe. High on style, with lushly disorienting long sentences, it’s a disarmingly complex book, made all the more enticing by its provenance (San Francisco’s North Point Press, from the time before the conglomerates swallowed up all the indies, but that’s another story).
But if “interesting” is the guiding principle here, then I have to choose August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running. My good friend from graduate school, Ken, has a completist’s temperament as well, and it was his idea to read and discuss the entirety of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle (one play about the African-American life for each decade of the 20th century). I went along with it because I know little to nothing about drama and figured I could learn something from a literary art that, at least from my fiction writer’s eye, hangs everything on dialogue and space.
Two Trains Running is set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969. The date alone is a striking avoidance of the obvious flashpoint of the previous year, a reminder that history might be marked by our major national traumas, yet it is experienced by ordinary people living through the times right after. The central conflict is that of Memphis, the diner’s owner, who is debating what to do in light of the city’s urban renewal schemes. Does he sell or risk losing his property to eminent domain? Everyone has an opinion, from the savvy funeral-home owner West to the philosophical regular Holloway to the numbers-running Wolf, who uses the diner as his central booking site. It took several readings of the play for me to see that it privileges the diner more than characters, that each of the characters casts the space in the regret of past wishes and the urgent, sometimes already frustrated, dreams for the future. Each of the characters, of course, except for one, the fascinating Hambone, who wanders into the diner with his singular and repetitive complaint over his lack of payment for a fence he painted years ago. “I want my ham!”
The play, which I read in the spring, has lingered in my imagination all year, and it’s even withstood what Ken calls August Wilson’s Purple Rain period: “Because, except for Prince, I can’t think of another artist who packs as many punches in a row as he does with Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson.” I keep thinking about how sharply Two Trains Running insists upon a plurality of experiences and my rereading keeps me at a constant attention to how the play’s language holds all sorts of tonal ambiguities, just waiting for an actor or a director to draw them out. I’ve been inspired by how the play contrasts the sometimes naïve and boisterous impatience of youth (where the only story that matters is the one that’s happening now) with the pain of stories long held close to the chest (where what we consider “history” is still not powerful enough to muscle out the voices that most need to be heard).
I’m still missing four of the plays (Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf), but it’s inspiring to experience a writer deeply invested with his community and capable of creating such a panoply of characters, all of them starkly different from each other. The plays have been my new poetry, pieces I can read in a single evening sitting, then reread multiple times, the music deepening with each contemplation. The accomplishment of Wilson’s Cycle is so audacious and impressive that I agree with Ken when he maintains that, had Wilson not died so early, he might have been the writer to break the American Nobel drought. We’re always too quick to believe it’s the fiction writers who have the most to tell us.
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