McSweeney's Issue 63 (McSweeney's Quarterly Concern)

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Porochista Khakpour on Stephen Dixon: An Excerpt from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #63

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Life versus art. This was the concept that hovered around our heads, us young aspiring writers in the then second-best writing program in the country (Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars). The question was fashionable at the time. You could be the writer who had discipline and craft and skills, or you could be the writer who really lived, whose adventures were the anecdotes that made up intricate plots, whose characters were based on a cast so real they were called “larger-than-life.” Our program was split between those camps, and the question—if it was a question, even—was never resolved. I recall regularly staying out all night with my set of loud, messy, rebellious types, while other students were back in their apartments by dinnertime. We found this amusing but easy to understand: They were in the camp that chose art; we had chosen life. Different roads, that was all.

“Where the hell would you get an idea like that? Dichotomies? When, ever? I mean, really, you are asking where do I stand?” my most beloved professor and mentor, Stephen Dixon, asked me in his office one day when I brought up this idea of the two camps, thinking I was really onto something. But his face quickly let me know that was not the case.

“You’re kidding, right?” he went on.

“Yes,” I lied sweetly with a tight smile.

“Good,” he grumbled. It always felt like there was an invisible cigarette he was taking a long drag off of between his fingers. Dixon was constantly teetering into exasperation but never so much that it felt like resentment, thank goodness.

The last time I saw Stephen Dixon was seventeen years ago, back when I was a student, and I don’t even remember the exact moment. I had no idea he was going to retire just four years after I left. I think I imagined him existing forever in exactly that form, as our forever mentor, sighing and groaning and rolling his eyes, somehow always still lovingly. Did we have a proper goodbye, even? The night before our graduation, a group of the worst troublemakers in our cohort and I, plus my visiting hometown best friend, all piled into someone’s run-down station wagon and drove to Atlantic City after hours of drinking at a pub in the heart of Baltimore. I think we made it there around 4:00 a.m., and all I remember is how awful the dawn light felt, how we drank even more, how someone threw up outside the station wagon window, how I made out with a friend while squished in the middle seat on the way home, and how we got back in time for short, ugly naps just before the graduation ceremony. Did he see me then? Or was our most memorable meeting the last, weeks before graduation, when I went to his office just after unsuccessfully attempting suicide among the tulips of Guilford Park, when the pressures of my thesis were becoming too much, especially when paired with addiction and mental illness? In that meeting he tore an orange in two parts with his bare hands and handed me half, and I ate it along with him right into that jagged wet wild, a face full of orange juice and pulp and tears, as I asked him what road to take in life. He was not put off by the question and didn’t hesitate to answer it: he thought I was a novelist, not a short story writer; that I should go back to New York and not teach but do real stuff, like drive a cab or tend bar. Like he had. Eventually I should publish books (in the end he published thirty-five books and over seven hundred stories, which he felt any of us could do with some discipline), get married, have kids—all like he had. Life. Art.

It sounded okay. In the end, I did teach and I did not get married or have kids. But I published. And maybe he knew it, maybe he did not. I can’t remember seeing him in the audience when I returned to campus in 2008 to give a reading to the Writing Seminars after my first novel’s debut. The second time I was back on campus to read was in November 2019, just under twenty-four hours after his death.

There are few humans I loved more than Stephen Dixon. Not only was he the model of a writer for me, but he was also the model of a human. Art, life. Not only did we learn so much as his students, but we learned as his readers. And that’s something everyone should be glad to hear, because he left a tremendous body of work. Anyone can access him in this way, which he would argue was his most genuine form of connection—he was his writing, more than any writer I have ever encountered.

He wrote daily, often a story a day. How? He didn’t have to choose a camp. Life was art, and he included it all, unfiltered—the line between fiction and nonfiction was irrelevant. We knew all about his wife and daughters, his home office, his bed and bathroom, his garage and car, the women he slept with in his twenties, the run-ins big and small that made him who he was. It’s rare to read the writing of a man that gets this personal, but that was the reality with Steve. He would line-edit your stories so much that you assumed syntax and diction were his only concerns, but then in conference he’d have you bawling into the guts of an orange, confessing suicidal ideation, only to match your stories of adversity with his own.

You always knew you were okay, because he was around. And I guess that’s maybe why I never got back in touch. I thought he’d always be around. Besides, he let us know how much he hated email. He was always brutally honest, and that honesty was a bit terrifying. He made it clear that teaching, giving readings, being interviewed, going to the grocery store, parking his car, answering the phone—all of it was a nuisance, as it interrupted his one purpose: to have writing time. Only time with his wife and daughters took priority over writing.

I still feel intimidated just reading his stories again, sensing his irritation with a reader who can’t keep up with his spiraling logic in the twists and tangles of his neuroses, not unlike his constant infuriation at agents and editors and at the endless politics of mainstream publishing. Steve never had time for things like that, though he made all the time in the world for others.

He loved underdogs, for example, and ultimately I think that is how he learned to love himself. I was an underdog, too, and he saw that in me. He was the only reason I survived that year. And his sheet of carefully composed, typewritten line-edits of my story “Spectacle,” which I wrote in my final weeks in his workshop, was what led me to write my first novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects—which kept basically the same story line but converted into what he thought was its rightful form. Steve had seen me get brutalized one too many times in class workshops—I was one of the only non–Ivy League students, one of the youngest too—and he always found a way to rescue my stories from the class’s default of pure assault. I’ll never quite know if it was because of that protectiveness or because the story was actually good that he encouraged “Spectacle.”

Does it really matter? I can imagine him asking.

No, I can imagine myself lying.

I was invited to speak at his memorial, where I met his daughters, both as smart and lovely and interesting as I had imagined. It was on February 27, 2020, in the final weeks of normalcy before most of the country would be in pandemic lockdown. The Murmrr Ballroom, in Brooklyn, was packed with oddballs, and it had a funny psychedelic sheen to its lighting. In all my photos of the audience, every white-haired person appears like a blue-haired Dr. Seuss character. We laughed more than I thought we would laugh that night. The stories everyone told were uproarious and irreverent—you felt that his life, just like his art, involved a very lively cast.

A few weeks later, I spoke on the phone for hours with an author who is writing his biography, and I laughed and cried through so many memories. Just weeks later, I received a package in the mail: a half dozen hardcover editions of books Dixon authored, from his personal library. The biographer was assisting the family in cleaning out his office. I held the books tight; traced their jackets for dust; even, like a character in a bad melodrama, sniffed the pages in case they could take me back to him for a moment—and then I placed them in the order they had come in and piled them by my desk. The books have become an altar of sorts: a totem I face every single day, every single writing day.

He would have noticed that to me “a day” now equals “a writing day,” and maybe that would have made him prouder than anything. That was all him, after all.

When I received the stories that appear in this issue, I was touched to see that they were scans of typewritten pages in PDF form, a few with typos, even, which felt triumphant to spot (line-editing the line-edit king!), precious in their raw humanness. The stories, unsurprisingly, were stunning. The subjects also felt so familiar, so in keeping with the concerns of the Dixon canon: writer finishing a story, man meeting a future wife, New York City flashbacks, Maryland suburbia, the burdens and joys of being the father of daughters, a wife’s passing, aging, small talk and the negotiations of everyday life, the body’s failures (pills, catheters, hospitals, hospice), everyday urban sustenance (sandwiches, coffee, wine, fried oysters, smoked salmon, fish burgers). And there were the classic Dixonian themes: shame, tenderness, anxiety, intimacy, frustration, love, loss. And there was that trademark Dixon sound: long, winding sentences that operate like arteries for every anxiety imaginable, together creating a pulsing network of honest internal monologues. It felt so good to turn those pages and to be so deep in his head and to find that place a familiar one, to know that at the end of his life he was still at one with his art.

And then the pages stopped. It happened in that premature dark of November 2019, in my office in Queens, with just the sounds of the city—subways, cabs, birds, the hum and rattle of pipes—filling in where he left off. I wanted so badly for there be more (and somehow I suspect there must be, that there has to be more to come). But the way his words, his precise and passionate art, bled from the page right into the exterior landscape of my life, so many realities removed, reminded me: When you really live, and when you really tackle that life in your art, the pages never quite end. The narration might drop out, but the story is still in motion. If done right, the border blurs, the boundaries of life and of art fade into each other—your breath exists alongside your characters’; the sounds of your city overlay the sounds of the protagonist’s city; the distractions nagging at the corners of your consciousness are suddenly incorporated into the psyche of an ingenue cliffhanging. There is no real finale, since the world continues long after we’re gone. Dixon’s storytelling was like a house that’s larger on the inside than on the outside. When I finished these stories, I was left with a similar sense: that we are all just players in a story he wrote long ago, which has a life now past his own. And just like in his book Interstate, when the father dies in the final pages of the first section and the story continues without the father’s close third point of view, here we are, left with the roles he has written for us.

It makes sense that in this batch of stories, one is called “Finding an Ending” and begins: “I can’t seem to finish the story I’ve been writing.” If that isn’t an author who knows death is on the way, I don’t know what is. Another, “The Lost One,” begins: “Good morning, my dearie. Sleep well?” And the answer is “I want to go home.” And to double down on the Dixonian flourishes, he pushes it deeper: “You don’t understand. Or you’re not listening. I want to go home because I want to die there.” By the time we get to “Oh My Darling”—I won’t spoil the central dilemma there—we know Dixon’s fixation is on the idea of decline. He’s not dealing with decline generally, but his own degeneration after a long, colorful life, and only with the recognition that the world around him will continue its spins of colorful lives when he’s gone. In these stories there is nothing nostalgic, sentimental, or fever-pitched—the emotional frequencies he sometimes favored—and the obsessive register is there still, but it’s muted and almost revels in the mundane. Life, as cliché as it is to say, does indeed go on, these pages seem to say—and so does art, no matter who comes and goes. The stories get told no matter which storytellers enter or exit.

The altar of his books faces me each day, daring me to create something lasting like that. I don’t know if I will, but at least I know I was taught how to.

Excerpted from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #63. Published with permission from McSweeney’s and Porochista Khakpour. All Rights Reserved.

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