On Poetry, Post-40 Bloomers

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

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

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

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

Post-40 Bloomers: Walker Percy, The Original Moviegoer

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. Walker Percy, author of the 1962 National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer, believed in the power of film on many levels — as a means of escape, as the unifier of cultural experience, as a metaphor for all the ways we tell each other stories. And in fact his own life story had the kind of arc that could have been pulled straight from a movie of just about any era. Perhaps that’s why he identified with the medium, perhaps that’s why he found both hope and despair in it. Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916, the oldest of three boys. When he was 14 his father, LeRoy Walker Percy, shot himself — as had his grandfather the year after he was born. His mother took the boys to spend a year with their grandmother before moving on to Greenville, Mississippi, where they all moved in with LeRoy Percy’s cousin, William Alexander Percy. Two years later Martha Percy was killed when her car plunged into a creek, and Uncle Will, as he was known to the boys, adopted all three brothers: Walker, Leroy, and Phinizy. Will Percy was something of a Renaissance man; a lawyer, poet, plantation heir, and progressive activist, he was by all reports devoted to the boys and their education. He had an enormous library, which he encouraged them to explore, and it was in Greenville that Walker Percy developed the habit of inquisitive, investigative reading that would shape a lifetime of work. Uncle Will also introduced Walker to Shelby Foote, a neighborhood boy his own age, and the two hit it off immediately. (Foote went on to become a successful writer and historian himself; his trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative was the basis for Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary.) Their deep friendship and mutual encouragement sustained both writers’ careers and lasted until Walker’s death. Walker attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as did Foote, two years behind him. He then went on to New York, to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, to study pathology. There he began to feel the first pricklings — a term he would use often in his fiction — of the melancholia that was the ruin of his father and grandfather. He responded by initiating several years of psychotherapy and the escapist moviegoing habit that would last a lifetime. Years later, describing his love of the movies to Robert Coles in the New Yorker, he pinpointed those days as the beginning of his consciousness as a novelist, even though he had no desire, at the time, to write: I think at the movies I was getting to know how people looked at the world, what they thought — the way a doctor does. The movies are not just fantasies; for a lot of people they provide important moments, maybe the only point in the day, or even the week, when someone — a cowboy, a detective, a crook — is heard asking what life is all about, asking what is worth fighting for, or asking if anything is worth fighting for. Percy’s medical career was cut short in 1942, when he contracted tuberculosis six months into an internship at Bellevue Hospital. He spent the next two years recovering in a sanatorium in the Adirondacks, observant and restless as ever but largely confined to bed. While both his brothers and his best friend were serving their country honorably, he was flat on his back, dramatically detached from action of any kind. Percy had always been somewhat reserved — unsurprising for a boy who had sustained such huge losses so early. In the hospital, cut off from friends and family and any feeling of connection to world events, he turned further inward, and, as always, found escape in books. Rather than medical texts, though, Percy picked up Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, and then Camus, Sartre, Thomas Mann, Kafka, and Tolstoy. The answers he was seeking, he realized, were not necessarily to be found in science, and the questions he was forming were new as well. As he would later explain in an essay titled “From Facts to Fiction” in his collection Signposts in a Strange Land, What began to interest me was not so much a different question as a larger question, not the physiological and pathological processes within man’s body but the problem of man himself, the nature and destiny of man; specifically and more immediately, the predicament of man in a modern technological society. Percy returned to Columbia in 1944 as an instructor, but relapsed within a couple of months, this time ending up at a sanatorium in Connecticut. He went home to Greenville a year later and looked for a place to settle down, driving out to Santa Fe with Shelby Foote but returning a few months later. In 1946 he married Mary Bernice Townshend, whom he had met five years earlier while working over the summer at a Greenville clinic, and the two moved to a summer place of Uncle Will’s in Sewanee, Tennessee. Percy had grown up nominally Presbyterian, but for some time had been feeling the need to solidify and centralize his faith. Six months after their marriage, he and his wife converted to Catholicism, a decision that would deeply inform his writing and thinking for the rest of his life. In 1947, when Percy was 31 years old, they moved to a furnished house in New Orleans. Its owner, the philosopher Julius Friend, had amassed a large library, and again, Percy was able to further his autodidactic ethical education. He never returned to the practice of medicine, and instead devoted himself to reading: philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, and semiotics. Percy immersed himself deeply in his studies. A modest inheritance enabled him to spend his days reading widely and methodically, living the life of a gentleman scholar. In the fall of 1954, he published his first essay in Thought, the Fordham University quarterly, titled “Symbol as Need.” It posited semiotics as a discipline more dependent on the spiritual than the scientific; that symbolization is not a biological need, but a social activity. He followed it two years later with the dense, technical, “Symbol as Hermeneutic in Existentialism: A Possible Bridge from Empiricism” in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research. Percy was 40 years old, fascinated by states of consciousness, existential anxiety, ontology and its relation to his faith, and the mystery of what he called “the zone of the other.” He began publishing scholarly articles regularly, but all the while considering other, more accessible ways to frame his thoughts. Shelby Foote had published his first novel, Tournament, in 1949, and in the course of their lively correspondence he never stopped encouraging — and goading — Percy to move on to fiction. Percy did, in fact, complete two novels that would never see print; the first collected a series of rejections, and the second he never bothered sending out. In the meantime he published philosophical essays, book reviews, and articles. But then in 1958, at age 44, he started work on what would become The Moviegoer, and suddenly everything fell into place. As Percy describes it: I can only report that something did happen and it happened all of a sudden. Other writers have reported a similar experience. It is not like learning a skill or a game at which, with practice, one gradually improves. One works hard all right, but what comes, comes all of a sudden and as a breakthrough. One hits on something... It is almost as if the discouragement were necessary, that one has first to encounter despair before one is entitled to hope. The Moviegoer narrates a few days in the life of Binx Bolling, a disaffected young New Orleans man on the eve of his 30th birthday and on the brink of growing up. Describing it in a few words is an empty exercise — this is a novel of nuance and inference, about unarticulated feelings, the fear of malaise, and the life force that simply will not be denied. Percy was thinking hard about Kierkegaard, especially his postulation in Either/Or that “Boredom is the root of all evil... The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” His exploration of the fault lines between alienation and engagement in The Moviegoer is both strange and exhilarating, with moments of stunning beauty. Percy sets his readers up to refute the assumptions he’s handed them: Bolling is a self-identified outsider yet he’s very much in the world, and while he goes to the movies to escape, at the same time they bring him to life. There is a moment at a drive-in when Binx is watching a Western -- sitting on the warm hood of a car in the company of a new girlfriend and his beloved, disabled half-brother Lonnie -- that made me feel as alive as any words on a page ever have: A good night. Lonnie happy (he looks around at me with the liveliest sense of the secret between us; the secret is that Sharon is not and never will be onto the little touches we see in the movie and, in the seeing, know that the other sees — as when Clint Walker tells the saddle tramp in the softest easiest old Virginian voice: "Mister, I don’t believe I’d do that if I was you" — Lonnie is beside himself, doesn’t know whether to watch Clint Walker or me), this ghost of a theater, a warm Southern night, the Western Desert and this fine big sweet piece, Sharon. He was nearly 45 when the book was published. Sales were initially slow and reviews were scattered, but the following year it went on to win the National Book Award for fiction, beating out Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, and Revolutionary Road. Five years later he published his second novel, The Last Gentleman, which introduced Will Barrett, another of what Robert Coles referred to as Percy’s “anguished pilgrims.” Barrett is also Southern, also chronically detached — the novel’s opening finds him in New York’s Central Park, spying on people through a telescope — and he’s also prone to fugue states, although his are medical in nature, not cinematically induced. He too undertakes an odyssey in the process of connecting with the world, although his covers more physical and less emotional ground than Binx Bolling’s; it’s a good book, but The Moviegoer would have been a hard act to follow. Still, Percy had become, irrevocably, a novelist. He took the job seriously, sitting down to write in his office over his daughter’s bookstore every day without fail, and when Foote, his original cheerleader, was floundering with his last novel, Percy cheerfully dispensed advice and encouragement. He never stopped writing, going on to publish four more novels — Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), and several collections of his essays, including The Message in the Bottle (1975), Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), and the posthumous Signposts in a Strange Land (1991). All his work, fiction and nonfiction, was about seeking in one form or another — seeking connection, seeking involvement, seeking God in the everyday. While he never had another hit like The Moviegoer turned out to be, he was unwavering in his regard for the truth. While he complained to Foote that he had been pigeonholed as a “Christian Existentialist,” it also seemed to please him at least a little. As the real-life version of an orphan boy from some kind of dark fairy tale, Percy must have loved the promise held by the narrative arc of the movies. You entered the dark theater and two hours later all would be revealed, all would be redeemed, and the lights would go up. In fact, his life did turn out well. He discovered what he loved to do when he was old enough to do it well and realized enough success to keep at it, and was able to stay true to his precepts throughout. Nobody else important left him: he married well, his daughters and grandchildren stayed close by, Foote remained a treasured friend — and was with his family at his bedside when he died — and he seemed to remain on fine terms with his God throughout. Walker Percy’s was a good tale, well told. As he wrote in 1966, Perhaps the only moral to the story is that a serious writer, or any other artist for that matter, is a peculiar bird who has to find his own way in his own time and who had better be left alone to do so. Lights up. Bonus Link: Living Out the Day: The Moviegoer Turns Fifty
Post-40 Bloomers

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

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

Post-40 Bloomer: Stephen Wetta’s If Jack’s in Love

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. “I think I belonged to the last generation of kids that could play outside,” young Jack Witcher tells us in the opening pages of Stephen Wetta’s new coming-of-age novel, If Jack’s in Love. Jack means this literally, in the sense that he and his neighbors in 1960s Richmond, Va., could spend hours out of the sight of adults, playing -- and causing trouble -- in the woods and creeks near their homes. But the line also serves as an epitaph of sorts for a bygone world in which kids were left to develop their own moral sense, free from the panoptic gaze of today’s helicopter parents who hover at the edges of their children’s every play date and keep a tight rein on the electronic tether of smartphones and iPods. Wetta, who was the same age as his 12-year-old narrator in the summer of 1967, when If Jack’s in Love takes place, came of age in that freer world of childhood, and by any objective standard, he suffered for it. Wetta dropped out of high school, lost years of his life to alcohol and drugs, and, even after he sobered up and went back to school, eventually earning a Ph.D. from NYU, he spent more than a decade toiling at low-paying adjunct teaching jobs that at one point briefly landed him in jail for tax evasion. Now, though, at the ripe old age of 56, a newly minted full-time professor at New York’s Hunter College, Wetta has put his fallow years to use in a remarkable first novel that captures the slow unraveling of a working-class Southern family during the Summer of Love. Wetta, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Richmond native James Branch Cabell, a largely forgotten writer of early 20th-century fantasy novels, is well versed in the Southern literary tradition, but says he doesn’t see himself as a truly Southern writer. “Aside from Cabell and, of course, Faulkner,” he explains in an interview, “I can’t say I feel much of an affinity for Southern literature, especially the more contemporary writers,” whom he sees as overly fond of self-consciously Southern Gothic touches. For If Jack’s in Love, he says he tapped into a different American literary tradition, that of the precocious child narrator in the mold of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. Jack Witcher, with his outsider status and his unerring eye for social detail, is indeed a descendant of Huck and Holden, with the crucial twist that Jack aches to join the respectable establishment of suburban El Dorado Hills that has branded him and his family “trash.” Therein lies the central conflict of the novel. Jack is a Witcher, a member of the local nogoodnik clan whose house is forever surrounded by cast-off car parts and bathroom fixtures collected from junk yards. “Witchers ain’t snitchers,” his father tells him, and Jack, who feels deep loyalty to his family, labors mightily to abide by this outcast code. But as a straight-A student who has fallen in love with Myra Joyner, daughter of one of the neighborhood’s best families, he also yearns to escape the semi-poverty and coarseness he has grown up with. “I had to slug it out with kids all the time, because of my name, because of my house, because my mother looked like a trout,” Jack says with characteristic humor. “How I longed for adulthood, when I would be surrounded by civilized people who would inquire, ‘How are you today, Mr. Witcher?’” Jack’s loyalty is tested early on in a riveting scene in which Jack’s father, who has just been fired from his latest job, almost runs over a neighbor’s dog and challenges the neighbor, Mr. Kellner, to a fight when Kellner accuses him of trying to kill his dog. The two men square off in the woods, Jack’s hill-country father and the pipe-smoking, jazz-listening Kellner, ringed by hooting neighborhood kids, until Jack’s father pummels the other man, sending Kellner “flopp[ing] to the ground like a tumble of clothes.” The scene crackles on the page because, already in this opening scene, Wetta has succeeded in putting his reader inside Jack’s head. Jack wants his dad to win the fight, but at the same time, because he is smart and bears a most un-Witcher-like sensitivity, he knows that the more his father bloodies respectable Mr. Kellner, the more he is confirming the Witchers’ reputation as hillbilly trash. “We marched back to our house,” Jack says when the fight is over, “victorious but unpopular, like Wehrmacht infantrymen goose-stepping into Prague.” Wetta, whose father was an IRS auditor and frustrated painter, says If Jack’s in Love isn’t in any strict sense autobiographical, though in a revealing afterword he describes himself as feeling “on thin ice” socially as a child. Wetta was a Roman Catholic in a working-class Protestant neighborhood, and a reader in a world largely devoid of books. “I had the deep longing of the outsider, the genuine outsider, to be an insider,” he writes. It is in this subtle, more emotional way that Wetta relates to his central character. If Jack’s in Love offers a love story between Jack and Myra Joyner as well as a mystery plot of a kind revolving around whether Jack’s volatile older brother, Stan, murdered Myra’s older brother, Gaylord. But what drives the book is Jack and his tortured sense of loyalty. Even as the police investigation into the disappearance of Gaylord Joyner closes in on Stan, Jack is carrying on a clandestine romance with Gaylord’s little sister, Myra, exchanging secret messages ferried by a mutual friend. Sooner or later, the reader senses, Jack will have to choose between the outcast Witchers and the establishment Joyners, until the book offers him a third choice: escaping the confines of El Dorado Hills for the wider world. “A new social concept was birthing in my brain, and I had a momentary feeling of superiority to El Dorado Hills,” Jack says when a neighbor tells him she finds the suburban enclave provincial. “Outside, beyond the city limits, were other places, other towns: New York, San Francisco, Dallas.” Like Jack, Wetta felt drawn to the world beyond Richmond’s city limits, and after kicking drugs and alcohol and finishing his undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, he moved to New York in the late 1980s. More than 20 years later, living in Brooklyn with his girlfriend, children’s author Julie Winterbottom, Wetta seems ambivalent about his erstwhile hometown, saying that Richmond’s stultifying social stratification is balanced by a deep sense of community and history. “It’s a very enclosed place,” he says. “Most people never leave Richmond physically. There’s a sense there that Richmond is the center of everything. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Wetta came north to pursue his doctoral studies, but always at the back of his mind he wanted to be a writer. Early on, while drifting through odd jobs as a printer and hospital orderly, he published a few short stories, but then he suffered a creative block that lasted until the mid-1990s when he sat down to write his dissertation on Cabell and found himself, to his surprise, sneaking time from his scholarly work to write fiction. “I wrote a dissertation and I wrote a novel, but that broke the writer’s block,” he says. “And I’ve been writing ever since.” Out of that initial return to fiction came the novel Gone, set in the 1950s about a country musician who moves to New York and gets caught up in the Beat Generation. In 2003, Wetta sold the novel, retitled Real Gone, to indie publisher Welcome Rain, which heartbreakingly went out of business the same month Wetta’s novel was to appear. (Welcome Rain is by now back in business, and Real Gone, though still unpublished, maintains a ghost presence on Amazon.) Undaunted, Wetta kept writing, working as an adjunct instructor to pay the bills. In 2004, according to his version of events, one of the colleges where he was teaching stopped deducting state taxes from his paychecks. He let the omission slide, enjoying the extra income, but then, in 2010, he was charged with owing the state more than $11,000 in back taxes. In all, Wetta says he spent a grand total of twelve hours in jail and has long since paid back the state, but news of the case, gleefully reported in the New York Post, hit just as If Jack’s in Love was being picked up by mainstream publisher Penguin Books. Rather than hide this embarrassing episode, Wetta and his editor, Amy Einhorn, chose to play it up in a self-deprecating author’s bio that portrays Wetta, looking dapper in a porkpie hat and upturned collar, as a serial screw up who somehow stumbled into life as a college professor and author. In truth, while Wetta admits he’s “been around the block a few times,” in conversation he comes across as a thoughtful, ambitious novelist with a hard drive full of books he hopes to someday publish. So far, If Jack’s in Love isn’t doing him many favors. Published quietly in October, it attracted a strong review from the Wall Street Journal and near-total silence everywhere else. This seems unfair. The book isn’t perfect. Toward the end, like the proverbial dog that caught the fire truck, Wetta seems unsure what to do with the many strands of plot he has weaved together, and the final chapters peter out in what amounts to an extended epilogue. Still, despite the book’s occasionally creaky plotting, Jack Witcher comes alive on the page, by turns soulful and impish, bursting with love and longing. It may have taken Stephen Wetta 56 years to learn to write like a twelve-year-old, but it was worth the wait.
Post-40 Bloomers

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

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

Post-40 Bloomers: Isak Dinesen, Her Own Heroine

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. One of the more iconic ad campaigns of my youth was Blackglama furs' "What Becomes a Legend Most?" -- each installment featuring a grande dame of the day swathed in mink. Had Isak Dinesen lived long enough — she died in 1962, six years before the series began — she would have been a natural choice: all sharp angles, hooded eyes, and hauteur. By the end of her life Dinesen had indeed become a kind of dowager empress, living on grapes and oysters, champagne and cigarettes, holding court until she literally dropped from exhaustion and then dictating to her secretary while flat on her back. In a 1957 New York Times interview, she was asked, "Do you then look on your own life as a 'tale'?" "Yes, I suppose so," she replied, "but in a sense only I can grasp. And, after all, the tale is not yet quite finished!" It could hardly have been easy toward the end, or even particularly enjoyable. But for someone who nurtured an unmistakable ideal of high drama from childhood, and a writer's sense of life as a narrative arc, how else could she have lived? Karen Christentze Dinesen, nicknamed Tanne, was born on Denmark’s coast just north of Copenhagen, in 1885. A stormy and creative child, Tanne balked at her mother’s moral restraint. Her father, on the other hand, was her idol, swashbuckling and at ease in the world. They took daily walks together and he told her tales of his time hunting and trapping in America, his cabin in Wisconsin, his kinship with the local Chippewas. These attentions confirmed what she had always believed — that she was special, destined for greatness. When he committed suicide she was left, at age ten, to make sense of her story alone — and she would keep doing so for the rest of her life. She was always a writer and a doodler, and notebooks full of her early work — essays, dramatic tales of love and woe, and marionette plays — still survive. Her early training was as a painter, but she was a product of her mother’s bourgeois world, where art was merely a hobby, and never settled on a course of study. At 19 she wrote a series of ghostly tales titled "Likely Stories" — an obvious precursor to Seven Gothic Tales. A friend arranged for the editor of Tilskueren, a Danish literary journal, to look at them, and eventually three were published, under Osceola -- the name of the dog that had accompanied Tanne and her father (himself a writer, who had published an account of his youthful adventures in America under the pen name “Boganis,” the Chippewa word for hazelnut) on their long-ago walks. Dinesen identified with her father for most of her childhood and adolescence, scorning what she saw as her mother’s staid values and lack of sensuality. Yet she herself was a bit of a prude, and deeply old-fashioned. While her fiction enthusiastically delved into humanity’s darker side, she still felt most comfortable setting it far from her own experience, a century or more in the past. And it's not surprising that she would marry a man like Bror Blixen, a brutish kind of fairy tale prince. Not only was he handsome, tough, and macho — he's popularly believed to be the model for Hemingway's great white hunter, Robert Wilson, in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" — but he was titled: the Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. They were engaged in 1913. While in most respects they were a mismatched couple, both craved novelty and excitement. When Blixen’s uncle returned from a safari to British East Africa rapturous over the countryside — “Go to Kenya, you two,” he said — they convinced relatives to invest in a 4,500-acre coffee plantation near Nairobi, and emigrated in 1914. As it turned out, the farm’s soil and rainfall were inadequate, and the project was most likely doomed from the start. Nonetheless, Africa was an intensely fertile place for Dinesen herself. Her 14 years in the Ngong hills would forge her into the artist — and the character — she would become. For much of that time, she didn't write. Her responsibilities kept her busy, and she soon collected a wide circle of friends. These weren't only her fellow white expats; she became deeply involved in the lives of the natives. Tanne — now calling herself Tania — grew to appreciate the straightforwardness of the local Kikuyus, Masai, and Somali. Notwithstanding an evident colonial attitude typical of her time and station, her affection for them was genuine and respectful. She gladly took on the role of doctor, advocate, educator, and admirer. In Kenya Dinesen came into her own as a storyteller, a kind of self-fashioned Scheherazade, and as she learned their language she discovered that the natives were an enthusiastic audience. Nights were long on the farm, and she fell into the tradition of spinning tales for a spellbound crowd. It was also, within that first year, when she discovered that her indiscriminately unfaithful husband had given her syphilis (of which she was never fully cured, probably the cause of her chronic ailments later in life). Her divorce wasn’t finalized until 1925, and later she would admit to a friend, "If it didn't sound so beastly I might say that, the world being as it is, it was worth while having syphilis in order to become a Baroness." In the meantime, between bad weather and the Baron's mismanagement, they had managed to lose the farm. Dinesen was depressed, and the inconstancy of her lover, the handsome, mercurial Denys Finch Hatton, didn't help. In an attempt to combat despair she began, at age 40, to write in earnest: "I was young, and by instinct of self-preservation I had to collect my energy on something, if I were not to be whirled away with the dust on the farm roads, or the smoke on the plain." Out of this dark time emerged drafts for parts of Seven Gothic Tales, Winter's Tales, and of course Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. Dinesen's return to Denmark in 1931 effectively marked the end of her time as a fruitful subject for her own myth-making. She moved from a life of great activity and engagement to a state of suspension: once again ensconced in her childhood home, surrounded by old friends and relatives, living on money parceled out by her family. She had nothing else to do but write. So she threw herself into her work, taking the next year to polish the stories that would become Seven Gothic Tales, essentially myths and ghost stories with sophisticated underpinnings. There is a perversity to many of them that no doubt echoed Dinesen's feelings; at 46, she was financially and sexually ruined. The book is rife with witches and crones, as if to conjure through her writing the strength she needed. She could well have been describing herself in “The Deluge at Norderney”: In all her fantasies she was her own heroine, and she ran through the sphere of the seven deadly sins with the ecstasy of a little boy who gallops through the great races of the world upon his rocking-horse. No danger could possibly put fear into her, nor any anguish of conscience spoil her peace. The book was turned down by European publishers, but her brother Thomas passed it on to a reader in the United States, who sent it on to publisher Robert Haas. She chose a new pseudonym for the work in order to confound any gender expectations: Isak Dinesen — Isak being Hebrew for "the one who laughs." And laugh she did, as the book's success ended up attracting the interest of the same British and Danish presses that had turned her down initially. At 50, as her literary star started to ascend, her physical deterioration also accelerated. Dinesen responded by moving on to the next project. In Out of Africa, she shifted from folktale to memoir, painting a gorgeous, lyrical picture of her time in the Ngong hills. She may have polished some events to a high gloss, and skipped over others — her marriage and illness, for instance — entirely. But the book is no less stunning for it, particularly her descriptions of native life, both human and animal: giraffes "in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing"; a couple of rhinos who "looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley and enjoying life together"; elephants "pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world." The prose swoops from loving attention to detail to the expansiveness of the land as viewed from Finch Hatton’s bright yellow biplane — “In the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space” — in a way both intimate and thrilling. Published in Europe and America in the fall of 1937, the book was enormously well received and cemented her reputation. In 1985 Sydney Pollack’s film version, starring Meryl Streep as Dinesen and (a jarringly un-British) Robert Redford as Finch Hatton, brought Dinesen’s work to a wider audience. The long days of the German occupation during World War II returned Dinesen to her allegorical mode with Winter's Tales. The tone of the stories reflects the times: melancholy, introspective, romantic yet lonely. Dinesen turned once again to the landscape for inspiration. This time she was looking at the windswept Danish countryside and waterways rather than the hills of Kenya, but the ambiance is every bit as sumptuous: [H]e was down by the harbor and stood upon the wharf, his portmanteau in his hand, gazing down into the water. It was deep and dark, the lights from the lamps on the quay played within it like young snakes. His first strong sensation about it was that it was salt. The rainwater came down on him from above; the salt water met him below. That was as it should be. He stood here for a long time, looking at the ships. He would go away on one of them. To entertain herself during the tedium of the occupation, Dinesen next turned to crime fiction with The Angelic Avengers, her "illegitimate child" — a novel she considered such a throwaway she wrote it under the pseudonym Pierre Andrézel, denying any connection to the book even in the face of its popularity. Her health declined further, exacerbated by reliance on amphetamines and, probably, anorexia, but she continued to write: in 1950, "Babette's Feast" was published in Ladies Home Journal; then followed Last Tales, in 1957, and the lighter Anecdotes of Destiny in 1958, as well as scattered essays and stories. In 1960, she gathered the last of her African notes into a short epilogue to Out of Africa titled Shadows on the Grass. By that time, the woman who had once been addressed honorifically as "Lioness Blixen" had grown to resemble not a lioness, but perhaps one of the camels she described so elegantly: "haughty, hardened products of the desert, beyond all earthly sufferings, like cactus, and like the Somali." She struggled to keep her weight above 85 pounds and smoked incessantly; it was as if life had burned through Tanne Dinesen with a brilliant flame, leaving just the husk. She once told a young acquaintance, in typically self-dramatizing style, "I promised the Devil my soul, and in return he promised me that everything I was going to experience hereafter would be turned into tales." The tale of Isak Dinesen, Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, Tanne and Tania, finished on September 7, 1962. Her final years were filled with endless hospitalizations, and she spent much of the second half of her life lonely for a soulmate. But she was her own work of art, her own carefully woven and rewritten story that she controlled both on the page and in life. A bereft child, a conflicted adult, and a difficult, demanding old woman, she managed to remake the dark places of her life into the stuff of fables, herself into their fearless conjurer. And her time in Africa, which ended in bankruptcy, illness, and heartbreak, became poetry. When Eugene Walter, in a 1956 Paris Review interview, asked what had taken her so long to write about her experiences, she explained, "I was a painter before I was a writer. . . and a painter never wants the subject right under his nose; he wants to stand back and study a landscape with half-closed eyes." Dinesen studied her landscape well, and over time, she became “her own heroine,” severe and uncompromising, an iconic role she earned with some of the last century’s most evocative writing. And we are all the more fortunate for that.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: The Stories of William Gay

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

Post-40 Bloomers: Yvvette Edwards and A Cupboard Full of Coats

Click here to read about "Post-40 Bloomers," a new monthly feature at The Millions. Yvvette Edwards’s first novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats, was among four debuts long-listed for the Man Booker Prize this year. Of the four, Ms. Edwards stands out as the only woman, the only person of color, and – most relevant for our purposes here – the only one whose first book was published when she was over 40 (Patrick McGuinness, b. 1968, has previously published books of poetry). I was drawn to Edwards’s novel initially because of a sense that she’d struggled above and beyond to birth it; and not only did she succeed, at age 45, but she was recognized for it with the prestigious Booker nomination, a game changer in the world of letters. "It was a very surreal moment,” Edwards said in an interview with the BBC in August. “I feel like I've gone from 0-60 mph in five seconds." I suppose we all struggle, “above and beyond,” and there’s no sense in comparing one struggle to another. And yet Edwards’s official bio grabbed my interest, along with my admiration: YVVETTE EDWARDS was brought up in Hackney and is of Montserratian-British origin. She works for the Housing Benefits office and lives with her family in London. This is her first novel. It's an unadorned description of a life, but there seemed to me a rich story, and a journey stacked with obstacles to a creative life, contained in those few sentences. In a personal essay for the Daily Mail last spring, Edwards wrote: I have always loved writing, but really, it wasn’t a credible ambition for a black single mother [she became pregnant with her daughter, Danielle, at age 18] who’d grown up in an inner-city area. I lacked the self-belief, time and confidence to have a serious go at making a career out of it. So like my mother’s desire to be a teacher [her mother, too, was a single parent, pregnant at 18, and worked many different jobs to earn a living], it remained a hope on simmer. Instead, I wrote as a hobby, found myself a reliable job in housing with my local council, and focused my energies on holding that down and paying my bills. The reviews for A Cupboard Full of Coats have been glowing. Edwards has been praised for her “pellucid prose” (Kirkus), her ability to give us a story that is both “gut-wrenching and gorgeously lyrical” (Publishers Weekly), and the skillful way in which she weaves her narratives, past and present. Her narrator, Jinx, is a young woman living alone (in every way) in London’s East End; she is estranged from her five-year-old son and bears the guilt of her mother’s death 14 years earlier, when she was a teenager. A visitor – Lemon, the best friend of her mother’s abusive lover, Berris, from those days long ago, and the man to whom she lost her virginity – knocks on her door one day and sets in motion the novel’s intricate journey into the past when he informs her that Berris has been released from prison. The story of Jinx’s mother’s life and death, and each character’s part in both, thus unfolds. What impressed me most about Cupboard was what some readers and reviewers have called Edwards’s “unflinching” treatment of her subject matter: Jinx’s mother makes a clear choice – in her actions – to favor her lover, and her own needs as a woman, over her daughter; Jinx herself does not take to motherhood and finds time with her son more aggravating than anything; Lemon urges Jinx to forgive both her mother and Berris, despite the physical and emotional brutality she suffered (and with which the reader becomes painfully intimate). Underlying all these brittle realities is a more complex, profound reality, which is that love and hate, selflessness and selfishness, are somehow not so different or far apart. The novel’s awful and yet ultimately hopeful truth is that love is always tainted and ugly, and yet still it never ceases to be love. Following is a Q&A that Yvvette Edwards was kind enough to grant us: The Millions: What do you think of the term “late bloomer,” and do you consider yourself one, as a writer? Why or why not? Yvvette Edwards: I suppose I qualify as a late bloomer in terms of having my first book published at the age of 45, but I don’t feel like one. That may be because for me the term has connotations of stagnation, finally followed by some kind of transformation. Perhaps because I’ve been writing my whole life I feel that eventually being published was a natural and inevitable progression. Also, my abilities have been continually evolving and maturing. I am able, literally, to chart the development of my capacity to write through the work I’ve produced in my lifetime, if I arrange them in chronological order. I’d probably prefer to equate myself to a fine wine or good cheese, something that takes time, passion, and dedication to mature perfectly. TM: Was there a moment or series of moments you recall as a turning point of resolve regarding completing this novel? Did you always know that you’d finish it? YE: I think I committed internally to seeing this book through in the year that followed my 39th birthday, which was, for me, an intensely introspective period. Having toyed my whole life with the notion of being a writer, I found myself at a junction where I felt forced to make a choice: write your book or get moving and build a "proper" career. Maybe it suddenly dawned on me that I was in fact mortal, but when I started writing this book, I had no doubt I was going to finish it. Before I made that decision I think I had dreams of writing, but no determination. Determination was the key factor that made a difference. TM: For how long in total did you work on it? YE: The idea had been knocking around inside my head for a couple of decades before I finally got going on my novel. I had a false start, during which I absolutely knew the way I was writing my book was not right. I persisted in the false hope that my efforts would not be wasted and it could all still somehow come good, till finally, painfully, I accepted I would have to start again. My first draft, (my second attempt really), took about eight months to write from that moment, then another year to edit and fine-tune. TM: What was the most difficult part? YE: The most difficult part was entering Jinx’s head and probing around inside it. In order for me to be able to write her realistically, I had to inhabit her reality, and it was very grim, filled with so much hatred and rage. I had to wade around in that for a while, before finding her vulnerability and the core of her humanity. I have to confess that affected me for a while, but only for a while. I’m acutely aware that there are people whose whole adult lives are stuck in that place. TM: Tell us a little about your work at the Housing Benefits Office. I wondered what it means to you to have that detail in your author bio. What other jobs/vocations/studies have you pursued along the way? YE: My work in Housing Benefits helps to pay my bills and in that respect, it is a means to an end. Like most jobs, it has its problems and triumphs, but it is not a passion. I’ve done many jobs in the past. I’ve worked as a homeless persons officer, as a housing and welfare benefits advisor, as a child minder, a support worker with adults with learning difficulties. I’ve had many fleeting occupations, in telesales, reception work, antisocial behavior, finance, administration. The only theme really is that most of the jobs I’ve done have involved much contact with the public, and that at some point, I’ve moved on to something slightly different. TM: Most writers would say that if they could afford to quit their day job and write full-time, they’d do it in a second. Do you share this feeling, or do you find something productive for your creative life in having a “real world” job? YE: Very generally, I believe that nothing is wasted, and every experience you have shifts and shapes you. I’ve enjoyed "real world" jobs during the periods I’ve done them, and done them wholeheartedly, to the best of my ability. But for years now, I’ve been whittling the work I want to do down to just the single choice. More than anything else, I love writing and I want to be able to make a living from doing that thing I enjoy most. That is my ultimate ambition. Given the opportunity, it is inconceivable that I would pass it up. Having said that, much of the work I have done has helped me to understand people and the real world. It has informed and enriched my creative life. I’m not sure I could walk away from it completely, even if I was in a position to make that choice. I’m confident I would still do some kind of work, voluntarily, in something I believed in. TM: I read that you’ve studied various genres – screenwriting, stage plays, TV writing, etc. Do you feel you’ve found your “home” in novel writing? If so, tell us about the process of getting there. YE: I think I have found my home in novel writing. Although I’ve tried other genres, I found them restrictive. There are so many other factors to bear in mind that I don’t want to concern myself with, like costs, and set changes. In novel writing, I am freed to have as few or as many characters as I like, in whatever location I fancy. And the ultimate satisfaction of producing something just the way I want it, immortalized that way forever. For me, it is a heady liberation. I’ll probably dabble with other genres again at some point, but for now, novel writing suits me down to the ground. TM: What would you say to a room-full of aspiring, unpublished writers who are 40 and over? YE: Congratulations on having arrived at an age where you have the experience to recognize what’s important, and the maturity to write something truly valid and meaningful. You are beyond any notion of wanting to write to impress your mates, and this means you are excellently placed to please yourself. So do that. Think about those things you’ve learned on your life’s journey and what of that you want to bring to your writing. Over the last four decades or so, you’ve definitely earned some "me" time, so grab it, with both hands. Lift your pens and do it. Write what you like. Start wherever you want and just keep going till you finish. You are stronger and wiser now than ever before, and you CAN have this.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: “Late” According to Whom?

Here at The Millions we’re pleased to launch a new monthly feature, “Post-40 Bloomers,” which will highlight authors – living and deceased, new-on-the-scene and now long-established – whose first books debuted when they were 40 or older. In this column we will review recent debuts, look broadly at the legacy of later-blooming authors, present author interviews, ruminate essayistically on an author’s life and work, and/or all of the above at once. In the spirit of Martha Southgate’s recent post here, “Older and Wiser,” we offer not so much an answer as a small contribution, a counterbalance, to Southgate’s question: “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?” Herewith (I personally hope) is a bit o’ good stuff for 40 and over writers. Fortunately, I don’t feel I have to make a detailed or impassioned argument here for the value of this column. Others have done so recently, and eloquently, in response to the New Yorker’s publication last summer of the “20 Under 40” list – young writers whom the editors believe “are, or will be, key to their generation” and whose writing exhibited “a palpable sense of ambition” – and the correlating anthology of stories. I refer you in particular to Matthew Hunte’s review of the anthology in The Observer, and to Joe Schuster’s post at Work-in-Progress. Both Hunte and Schuster (along with Southgate) provide terrific counterexamples to the prodigy/precocity paradigm and remind us that slow, later, and older produces as great if not greater literary work than fast, early, and young. In other words, by focusing too much on youth when bestowing awards and recognition, we miss out – we readers and we writers and we critics, that is. We generate cultural blind spots, and we even have the power to thwart possibilities for alternative creative paths by influencing market and career viability in favor of the young. In his essay “Late Bloomers,” published (ironically) in the New Yorker in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell makes the useful distinction between late bloomers, late starters, and late-discovereds. You’ll likely see a mix of these appearing in this column, but my personal curatorial bias is toward the late starters. Gladwell writes mostly about artists who require a long, reiterative, “experimental” approach to their work – artists (Cezanne is his primary example) who might begin work on a novel or a painting at a relatively young age but need 10, 15, 20 years to fully develop and execute their vision, to attain a level of noteworthy excellence. My bias toward late starters – people who have lived a whole life, or two, or three before seriously devoting themselves to write a book – relates to the collision of life and art; I’m interested in writers who perhaps had the inkling, or the deep desire, to write, to pursue a creative life, for a long time, but for myriad reasons were impeded – internally, externally, a combination of the two. I am excited and inspired by individuals from whom a determined self-reinvention – a digging in, a deep breath, an about face or leap off a cliff – has been required at some point in order to pursue the vocation that has called from within but for which there has been little native tailwind. Perhaps it is clear by now that this was very much my own experience. But then again, the distinction is ultimately artificial: is the individual who, say, has a full-time job as a bookkeeper and who scribbles at a novel, or at notes for he-knows-not-what, sporadically, for 20 years, before something resembling an "a-ha" moment strikes him and suddenly the notes come pouring out in waves and consistently and then he finds he’s really writing it – the background of his life has transitioned to the foreground – is this individual a late bloomer or a late starter? Perhaps it’s the timing of that transition moment that I’m interested in, the point at which someone not only puts both feet into the writer’s boots but in fact begins to walk – shakily, but unmistakably – on a literary path. It’s the point where “may” morphs into “must,” where the obstacles begin to fade in power and importance. I myself am hesitant to use the word “late” (or “older,” for that matter) in reference to writers over 40, which is why the column is not called “Late Bloomers.” Late relative to what and according to whose definition of early or on-time? Writers we plan to feature include, tentatively, Penelope Fitzgerald, Daniel Orozco, Isak Dinesen, George Eliot, William Gay, Walker Percy, Helen DeWitt, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and Harriet Doerr. And we’ll kick off later this month with Yvvette Edwards, whose debut novel A Cupboard Full of Coats was longlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize. There are more in the works, so worry not if your favorite late-bloomer/late-starter is not mentioned above. Thanks in advance for reading. May we all bloom in good time.   Image credit: George Eliot via Wikipedia