I received the call late on a Saturday night. I live in Europe, far from my home in the U.S., so receiving a call from my mother at 10 p.m. my time (1 p.m. her time) was never unusual. But when the tone of her voice on the other line was a distinct “Hi,” choking the usual sing-songy enthusiasm to follow, I felt a lump in my throat. “They found your dad,” she said, “He’s gone.” I then immediately collapsed into my wife’s arms. After a night of sobbing and pacing, I managed to fall asleep. The next day, I found odd ways to cope: I rewatched funny YouTube videos in order to escape from reality. I watched old detective shows that would normally keep my mind occupied and soothe my anxieties. Following a few messy, stumbling phone calls from friends and family, I found myself unable to carry my own bones through this particular loss. I don’t have a religion or god to fall back on. I turned my back on that as a teenager, and ever since, I’ve managed so far to find peace in music, poetry, and philosophy. Metaphors about death and grief are a dime a dozen; you’ll find plenty of words that are, as I discovered, virtually helpful to no one—“all that lives must die” (Shakespeare), or “death doesn’t change us more than life” (Dickens). Once I found myself confronting the complexity of grief, tepid words from my literary heroes didn’t seem to do the heavy lifting I originally hoped for. Another famous literary phrase that comes to mind when we think of death is “So it goes.” This is, of course, the quasi-absurdist response found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, given after every instance of death in the novel (a novel about World War II, so you can imagine it happens quite a lot). Although this phrase is hardly a comfort, it bespeaks the way I had always approached death—sometimes scratching my head, sometimes with cynicism, and sometimes with a shrug. What happened during the grieving period wasn’t so much answer-seeking. I wasn’t cursing the heavens, kneeling in the dust and beating my breast, asking, “Why, God, why?” Instead, I found myself wondering how I could simply exist comfortably anymore. How can I act kindly toward others, when I felt nothing but anger? How can I avoid blaming the world and the people around him for taking him away from me? I then remembered what Vonnegut once said to a group of students at Case Western Reserve University. After asking what life is all about, he delivers the answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing … whatever it is.” This short phrase seemed to solidify for me something I was missing: a philosophy of life that, in its lightness and simplicity, told me exactly what I ached for during the grieving period and epitomized the type of person I should aspire to be. This echoes, as well, the beautiful phrase Malachi Constant utters in The Sirens of Titan: “The true purpose of life, no matter who is in control, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” It’s no secret that Vonnegut was not religious. A self-described humanist, Vonnegut became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president in the early ’90s, succeeding Isaac Asimov in what he described as a “completely functionless capacity.” In the short text God Bless You Doctor Kevorkian, originally read as a radio broadcast, he says, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead.” Vonnegut, though, didn’t seem to have the acute hostility toward religion that one expects from us atheists, especially today. I share, in fact, his fascination with and affinity for the anodyne symbols, imagery, and comforts that people find in religion. This idea comes through full-force in his novel Cat’s Cradle. The novel depicts the story of Jonah, a writer whose growing fascination with the scientists involved in the atomic bomb leads him first to meeting the children of a famous physicist, then eventually to the fictional island San Lorenzo. The novel reflects a uniquely blended critique of both religion and science. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be based on lies,” Jonah says in one of the beginning chapters, “will be unable to understand this book.” The significant part of this passage isn’t the “based on lies” part—rather the word “useful.” Useful things that make life bearable can nevertheless be based on lies. The name for this, according to Vonnegut in a later collection, is “Foma”—“harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls”. Scientists, on the other hand, are not depicted favorably in the novel. While science as such might engender a curiosity with and concern for truth, often enough the human cost has been cast to the wayside. The same people who gave us efficient means to connect with one another also gave us efficient means to blow each other up. While Jonah is interviewing Dr. Asa Breed—the supervisor to the (fictional) Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker—she defensively replies to his questions, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.” Jonah’s reply: “That’s putting it quite strongly.” The point is that, while religions derive from fictions and lies, they nevertheless bring peace and comfort. They do make us perform silly rituals and spout meaningless mantras, imparting false assurances through fanciful stories. But these alone hardly harm anyone. Science, by contrast, with the hubristic pursuit for technological advancement, has a track record of grave human consequences—the expression of which we can find in such catastrophes as, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other such nuclear disasters. When my father died, he was alone. At the time of his death, an illness which controlled much of his life ultimately led him to collapse on his bedroom floor. It wasn’t until his brother called for a welfare check that he was discovered in his house. Alone. Probably dead for a few days. So it goes. Although I have some idea of what his last moments were like, I still don’t have clarity. What I do fear, and what causes me the most pain, is the realization that he must have been so afraid. He wasn’t ready to die. Not then. Throughout his life, my father was a man of little complication. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Midwest. He came close to joining the Naval Academy, but then instead moved to New York in his early 20s to become an accountant. When I was growing up, my father had a light touch about him—an openness and willingness to laugh that was utterly contagious. My sister and I never had to be extraordinary, and it was almost impossible to disappoint him. My parents divorced when I was a teenager. In the years since, I saw my father go through more divorces, setbacks, and job lay-offs. During my adolescence and into adulthood, I witnessed his losing battle with his body. I watched him sink even deeper into alcoholism while the cirrhosis slowly took his liver, his mind, and then his life. At his memorial, my sister and I both read eulogies. She went first, and I followed. After telling a few stories about my dad and even making a few jokes at his expense, I read a passage from Cat’s Cradle. In the novel, the people of San Lorenzo follow the fictional religion of Bokononism. And when their dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is on his deathbed, Dr. von Koenigswald arrives to deliver the last rites of Bokononism. It’s a prayer that beautifully expresses gratitude toward life and beauty, and to me, it stood as the perfect way to end a eulogy. Although it’s originally written with two voices, with “Papa” repeating each line, I cut out the second voice and read it more as if it’s a singular prayer: God made mud. God got lonesome. So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!" "See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars." And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud. I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done. Nice going, God. Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have. I feel very unimportant compared to You. The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and look around. I got so much, and most mud got so little. Thank you for the honor! Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep. What memories for mud to have! What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met! I loved everything I saw! Good night. I will go to heaven now. I can hardly wait... To find out for certain what my wampeter was... And who was in my karass... And all the good things our karass did for you. Amen. I concluded my eulogy with this, crying through the line, “thank you for the honor!” (I also skipped over the last three lines about “wampeter” and “karass”—other Vonnegut-isms for aspects of religiosity.) For weeks after my father died, I realized that these lines were helping me cope with his death. Because I don’t know what my father’s last words were—or if he even had any final words—I continue to read these lines as if my father said them to himself. I know full well that this is false (not least because, as far as I know, my father never read Vonnegut), and I don’t convince myself that it’s true. Rather, imagining that my father loved everything he saw, and that he felt it such an honor to be alive, is consistent with the man he was and the life he wanted. As for me, reinterpreting his final moments with the Bokononist prayer may be a falsehood, may be a lie; in fact, it’s a foma—a harmless untruth meant to comfort my simple soul. Image: Flickr/Seabamirum
Never curse a slow elevator. Like a book or a song, it may offer lessons in grace or about growing older with truth and dignity. I was once on an aging contraption wheezing its way from floor one to two … to six, when the unobstructed honesty of a child under age 7 and a person over age 70 was revealed. Following long contemplation entirely void of self-consciousness, a young boy accompanied by his mother asked the elderly woman sharing our ride, “Why are you wearing a mask?” She, a ballet company director whose lined face grew even more wrinkled as she bent forward and smiled, answered with a gentleness that defied what I knew was her usual habit—of shouting maniacally at dancers whose failed pirouettes or bent arabesque legs she took as personal insults. “I am not wearing a mask,” she crooned. “I’m just very, very old.” The boy eyed his mother, perhaps wondering when her face, too, would turn into a map grooved by time, regret, smiles, the sun’s rays. He regarded the older woman, this time not staring, but actively, his eyes exploring each nook and cranny of her face. Accommodatingly, she remained nearly nose-to-nose. “It’s a very, very nice old,” he said at last. The woman straightened her spine, pleased a misconception had been shed and at the compliment. I, the observer, admired the straight-speaking pair and the care of their slow-paced exchange. Taking that lesson into the literary world, childlike wonder, adult wisdom, and good humor are never lost in the work of two wordsmiths: Ursula K. Le Guin and Donald Hall. These artists died in 2018. The only comforts are found in the works they leave behind. In addition to Le Guin’s poems, essays, book reviews, nonfiction, fantasy and award-winning science fiction novels (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Earthsea Cycle series and more), she, in her last years, wrote blog posts. A marvelous collection, No Time to Spare (December 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was inspired by Le Guin’s reading of The Notebook, Portuguese writer José Saramago’s blog-turned-book. No Time to Spare divides into four sections interrupted by blogs about Pard, her cat. “The Annals of Pard” serve at the most superficial level as respite—breathers from what are mild to heavy duty miniature essays on “Going Over Eighty,” The Lit Biz,” Trying to Make Sense of It,” and “Rewards.” Read deeply (to read Le Guin any other way is foolishness), the storytelling swings with signature humor and forthrightness from territorial battles with a feline to self-reflective wrestling or victories involving beliefs, curses, music and not writing “the great American novel.” Throughout, mortality (Le Guin’s eventual and that of a very dead mouse) rattles and moans or ironically, affirms Le Guin’s childlike vitality upon reaching eight decades of life. Among the essays, “The Diminished Thing” defines fortunate aging as retaining intellectual, practical and emotional vigor and gaining extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. Aged intelligence, she writes, is recognizable and “if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.” Relatedly, “Catching Up, Ha Ha,” written on the eve of Le Guin’s 85th birthday, protests the idea “that anyone over seventy-five who isn’t continuously and conspicuously alive is liable to be considered dead.” Confronting PR people, tired teachers and lazy students who might wish for the author to identify if not produce “the great American novel,” Le Guin asks, “Who cares?” Art, she later states in “TGAN Again,” is not “a horse race” and literature is not an Olympic competition. If every essay does not hit with equal thrust, it’s impossible to overlook the craft behind the writing itself. The language on occasion is deliberately polemic, edgy and rhythmically irregular, but rarely preachy. Combining craft and profound content, there are “Belief in Belief” and a double-header on the music of Philip Glass and John Luther Adams. Le Guin constructs deep philosophical arguments over the misuse of one word in the former and captures the lyricism and rapture of a live performance in the latter’s few hundred words. It’s no easy task, but Le Guin makes it appear so. Going over 80 with Le Guin is wondrous. Reincarnation would be a fine belief to have, but short of that, thank goodness Le Guin’s books are immortal. [millions_ad] Hall died in June 2018 at age 89. Foreswearing poetry in 2010, he continued to write and live in his New Hampshire farm. A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety (July 2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) chronicles Hall’s exploits on the cusp of becoming a nonagenarian. Like his Essays After Eighty, the new collection offers the many pleasures of reading Hall: song-like phrasing, quick wit mixed with anger that rides a bitter border but never plunges into mean-spiritedness or hate. There’s raw emotion and vulnerability, especially discoverable in confessions related to loss, professional envy, and essays in which he engages in self-loathing or laughing-at-self over his aging physique. Hall’s protests are more subtle but equal to Le Guin’s. From the opening essay: “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.” And there are victorious proclamations: “As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember.” From 1957 to 1975, Hall was an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan. In Ann Arbor, he met poet and student Jane Kenyon. Eventually, they married and in 1975 moved to Eagle Pond Farm. (A delight in Carnival is the 119-word essay “Dictaters,” which involves the farm’s name. Even the spell-check generation will appreciate the typo-angle and will not object to its short, internet-era length.) Hall often wrote about his life with Kenyon before and after her death in 1995 due to leukemia. Her work and death serve as an underlying touchpoint in essays on selected poets and absolutely in “Necropoetics,” a chapter about resuming his poetry after her death. “In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the unforgivable absence of flesh.” As always in the work of Hall, shadowy nostalgia, tender personal memories, and a deep love of things old and slow, like baseball, uplift. A reader who might otherwise become morose is therefore comforted by the stories’ underlying warmth. Hope steeped in truth arrives in the book’s final essays, “Way Way Down, Way Way Up” and “Tree Day.” As it is with Le Guin, Hall acknowledges that “emotional intricacy and urgency of human life expresses itself most fiercely through contradiction.” Messy human life and vulnerability exists in the fold: In the skin of a newborn or in old age wrinkles, in skewed or straightforward perspectives, in honest words plainly spoken. I was thinking about artists and aging when I learned the great Aretha Franklin had died all too early at age 76. Franklin, for many of us, changed the significance and meaning of the words “think” and “respect.” The song, “Think,” was written by Franklin and is both a protest and declaration on freedom. Her emphatic version of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, based on Otis Redding’s original song, erects seven letter-size monuments that add up to dignity. The power of Franklin's words changed and changes hearts and human behavior, as did and do Le Guin’s or Hall’s finely written phrases and sentences. So the next time you’re on a slow-moving elevator, don’t curse; take a moment to think. Speak to and respect the people riding along, regardless of age, gender, facial wrinkles, or other classifications. And on the chance that elevator gets stuck between floors, carry a book by Le Guin or Hall or hum a Franklin tune to pass the time. Image: Flickr/Gwydion M. Williams
One of the pleasures of reading critic and fiction writer Yahya Haqqi’s essays in Arabic is that I am always astonished by the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his experience, the nimbleness of his mind and his eloquence. In the collection Crying, Then Smiling, he has a number of eulogies, one of which is for his uncle, Mahmoud Taher Haqqi, who wrote the first Egyptian novel, The Maidens of Denshawi, about the tragedy of Denshawi in 1906 where British soldiers carelessly killed a villager while they were shooting pigeons—the incident ended tragically when villagers were rounded up and executed by the British. Haqqi points out that it was the first novel to focus on fellaheen, peasants, and their problems and opened the way for Mohamed Hussein Haykal’s novel, Zeyneb (1913). Haqqi wrote that his heart trembled when he read The Maidens of Denshawi—which is what good stories should bring about. Haqqi deserves a eulogy, much like the ones he so generously wrote for others, about his place in Egyptian literary heritage. This seems appropriate in light of the recent celebration of the classic black and white film Al-Bostagy, or The Postman, directed by Husayn Kamal (1968), featuring Shukry Sarhan, based on Haqqi’s novella. But one cannot write about this poignant film without mentioning Sabri Moussa, the talented novelist who translated the spirit of Yahya Haqqi’s novella into a suspenseful screenplay. (He also wrote the screenplay for Yahya Haqqi’s Om Hashem’s Lamp.) Sabri Moussa, who died recently, January 2018, deserves a eulogy as well for his film scripts, short fiction, and novels—the unusual sci-fi tale The Man Arrived from the Spinach Field, the mythic fable Seeds of Corruption, and Half-Meter Incident. Interior monologues so crucial to building a psychological portrait of a character in fiction have to be handled differently in film, another genre. Much of Yahya Haqqi’s novella The Postman relies upon the interior monologues of the male hero, the postman, Abbas, and the thoughts of Gameela, the young girl who has fallen in love with a young man named Khaleel who promises to marry her. The isolation of the postman is shown through the scenes where he is sitting alone in the dusty, decrepit house he is renting—steaming open the letters while alone drinking cheap booze and reading about the romance of Gameela and Khaleel, or even riding his donkey to deliver the mail. An educated Cairene, he cannot relate to the people in the village and feels he has been banished to Mars. Moussa also added certain scenes to the screenplay that were not present in the novel to augment dramatic tension linked to sexuality in a village in upper Egypt in the ’40s. For instance, the servant girl who is raped by Gameela’s father is taken away by her relatives and will certainly be killed. Abbas invites a Romani woman to his house and she is almost murdered by a mob. Both of these scenes foreshadow the murder of the young girl Gameela when her father discovers she is pregnant. At the end of the novel, Abbas hears the church bell toll for someone who has died, but Haqqi, the author, does not state explicitly that it is Gameela who has died—that is left ambiguous. However, in the screenplay, Moussa added a scene of the father carrying his daughter’s corpse through the village after he has killed her. The addition of this extra scene is reminiscent of King Lear carrying his daughter Cordelia in his arms: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?” However, this is the antithesis of the scene in King Lear since Gameela’s father intended to kill her to save the family’s honor—the price is still dear. The mother trails behind, wailing. The Egyptian classic The Postman reminds me of the 1954 film thriller Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and featuring Grace Kelly and James Stewart. James Stewart plays a photographer with a broken leg who cannot move—he sits at his apartment window in New York City, watching his neighbors. At first, it is entertainment. The game becomes dangerous when the killer realizes he is being watched—and stalks the photographer and his lovely girlfriend. The lonely postman who resides in a village town in upper Egypt alleviates his boredom by reading the letters of the villagers and then stumbles upon the letters of two young lovers and their secrets. The photographer also stumbles upon a deadly secret: His neighbor has killed his wife, cut up her body, and crammed it into a trunk. Abbas in The Postman realizes that Gameela, the unmarried young girl, has committed herself too wholeheartedly to a feckless, immature lover. Pregnant, she is in danger of being killed for dishonoring the family, yet Abbas is helpless to save her. Both men are isolated bachelors who entertain themselves by spying on their neighbors. Despite the fact that one story is set in America in the ’50s, the other in an Egyptian village in the ’40s, they both focus on the universal themes of solitude, voyeurism, and disorientation. We may think we know our neighbors, but often are surprised. Unfortunately, the novels of many exceptional writers are not known to a wide audience unless their works are adapted to film. At the same time, the revival of The Postman on its Golden Jubilee recently in Cairo can inspire viewers to return to his written word.
1. He walked into the room, leaning hard on a cane, and hung his leather jacket on the back of his chair. He was big at the middle; buttons on his sweater vest hung tough across his belly, and he wore a T-shirt under his vest, which I thought was funny. He pulled a stack of papers from his briefcase and flapped it on the table in front of him, taking one copy then sliding the stack to his left. We all took a copy. It was a one-sided photocopied syllabus that looked like it was originally punched on a typewriter. He looked down at the sheet in front of him; white tufts of hair surrounded his dome like a Julius Caesar wreath. He cleared his throat. “Hi, I’m John Goulet. You can call me John.” He recited this and the following syllabus like he had a thousand times. His voice was dynamic—calm sometimes, gravelly or squeaky. The entire syllabus covered just one side of the page. It was a schedule, a reading list and a warning not to be late. He wouldn't be posting online or spending much time on email. The objective of the class was simple: for the students to read and talk about stories, to put words down on the page and to ask questions. He had rules: Don’t talk about movies or television, and don’t say, “This isn't really my thing, but...” Which made sense to me. The stories we workshopped were rarely anyone’s “thing.” John was funny. His hands and face were always chapped. He wore a mustache under a round nose and glasses that made his eyes small. Every so often he would pull his glasses off and polish the lenses on his shirt but continue talking, effortlessly, like he was repeating lines from a play he’d acted a thousand times but still loved. At the end of class, John said, “OK. Tear off half a sheet. It doesn't even have to be half a sheet! Write something about yourself, what you’d like me to know about you.” It was a raw time. I had an infant son named Theodor and had just finished a two-year stint at the U.S. Cellular store downtown. On that day in the classroom, it had been two years since I stepped foot in Curtain Hall, a cement building, too brutal for brutalism, a couple blocks from Lake Michigan on the UWM campus. I had dropped out of school twice already. I couldn't quit again. At 29 years old, I had to make something work. I was a part of things in Milwaukee. I played in a band. I directed music videos and my film, Heavy Hands, had premiered the year before at the Raindance Film Festival in London. After Theodor was born, things changed. I lost touch with a lot of old friends (which I didn't understand), and my band kicked me out (which I did). So on the first day of school, I was just returning to the world. I felt far from my goals and alien. I wrote: My name is Sean. I have a baby son. I’ve been away. I’m excited to be here. 2. Workshop is funny. You don’t know what is helpful or what anyone is saying much of the time, but you read the story, say some things, and try to work it out. Some of us talked; some of us showed off; some of us missed the point entirely. John nodded along like he had a million times before, sometimes holding his cane over his lap, sometimes drinking coffee. At the end of critique John would hold the story in front of him and look on it like it was a photo. “Well, we have some interesting characters. The fire at the beginning is captivating, but some of us were wondering if the metaphor really worked by the end. Overall, some really nice imagery—grammar is a fixable problem. Would the writer like to say a few words?” The previously anonymous writer would step in. We would all nod, and John would tell us what we needed for the next week, satisfaction in his voice that we learned something. Then he’d say, “OK. Thank you, everyone.” We’d leave: to the bus, to the union Burger King, to another class in another building, to the library, to our houses just off campus. John would walk slowly to the elevator, pushing on his cane, then across the windy parking lot where he would lower himself into his car. 3. Twice a semester, John held conferences in his office on one of the top floors of Curtain Hall. It was a nice office. Carpeted with full bookshelves. It wasn't like other offices, where books slid onto the floor, where wastebaskets overflowed with paper coffee cups, where The Far Side comics were crookedly tacked to the wall. It was simple and clean with two long picture windows overlooking Downer Avenue, the long grey of the lake and the wall of bursting yellow, orange, and red trees that stood between the two. It was the most beautiful view. Cars moved down the street, students across the sidewalk. I had lived in Milwaukee for 10 years and never imagined a life that peaceful. During most conferences, I would remark on the view and, for a few moments, space out, hungover or exhausted because I stayed out late with my friends from the restaurant, or because I got up early with my son—usually both. I had stopped working at the cellphone store and got a job waiting tables, but I felt more trapped than ever. Bills were stacking up. I was unreasonably annoyed by my girlfriend, Heather, and son. I had plans before any of this happened: Alaska, Colombia, Colorado, Argentina—somewhere! But I couldn't do that now! Now I was just some dope in a classroom, and any chance I had was gone; I had accidentally kicked it off a cliff! What was going to happen— “Sean, are you OK?” John asked. “Yes.” I looked back from the window. “OK. I was saying your story is good. It's funny. The main character is compelling and believable. Have you ever thought about applying to grad school?” “Um, yeah. I was kind of taking it one day at a time.” “OK. There are some good ones out there. I went to Iowa 40 years ago. I don’t know anyone there now, but I think that’s a very good program. You don’t want to go just anywhere. But I could write a letter for you.” One of John’s books, Oh’s Profit, was behind a glass case next to the elevator on the fourth floor. The copy was old and the cover was fading. Other works by other faculty members were in the glass case, too, much newer, like they could have been placed yesterday. “I think you have what it takes, but who knows,” John said. I had been thinking of going to grad school. I thought the book I was working on, a first-person narrative about a new father working in a cellphone store in Milwaukee and suffering from apocalyptic dreams, had some legs. “I’ll think about it.” John had a way of casually motivating me. I would leave those meetings feeling lifted and head to the cafeteria for a popcorn-chicken wrap before taking the bus home. 4. I crammed out a draft of the book in the year we worked together, and when I emailed John over the summer, he said he was being forced/forcing himself into retirement. He explained it in his usual noncommittal, nonvindictive way. “Well, they don’t have a spot for me this semester. I was only teaching the one night class as it was, and I don’t know how much longer I want to do that anyway.” Heather got a day job, so I watched Theodor all day. In the summer when I didn't have class, I would walk for hours with him in the stroller. Sometimes I sang to him so he would nap; sometimes we would go to the library or ice cream parlor. In the grass at Humboldt park, he would toddle on the hill in grass-stained overalls, long blond hair tumbling on the wind. Theodor would laugh and fall. I would give him crackers and juice and listen to Stephen King books on tape or podcasts about Charles Manson. Most days I didn't talk to anyone. Unless John bought me lunch at Harry’s on Oakland. Then, sometimes, I’d tell him about my family, how I was laying off booze. Sometimes, I’d tell him I was having another child, and we’d drink bourbon. John would laugh, wearing short-sleeved breezy button ups. The front windows on the restaurant open. Sometimes, he was the best friend I had. John paid me to do a read on his new novel, a captivating but messy noir about a private detective in New Haven. I figured the job was more about helping me out, but he seemed genuinely pleased with my thorough notes. We would talk about teaching. He told me that teaching made his life better, though he hadn't planned to do it very long. He met friends through teaching. “Like you,” he’d gesture, which always made me feel good. A couple times, he told me how when he taught James Joyce; he’d say, “You know I love Joyce and I’ve taught Joyce a hundred times over the years. That’s not half bad.” He was how I imagined old writers to be, and as our friendship grew, I found myself trying to mimic his attitudes, his occasional defeatism, only to have him wave me off, stating: that I was a nut job, that I had my whole life ahead of me, my whole career ahead of me, and I should get on with it. [millions_ad] 5. Once, I brought my family to his house for dinner. He also invited another writer, another former student, Chris Fink, and his family. We sat on the back patio area, and John’s wife Susan got us drinks while we talked about school, writing, and we stayed a long while like that. Theodor and Chris’s daughter playing in the yard. John and Susan told us about Susan’s granddaughter, who they would talk to on Skype. Chris was John’s student in the ’90s and John told me I would like him and his work, and I did. They talked about people from the old days. I think they were wilder back then, more drinking, more carrying on. I imagined, in the days after the dinner, what those classes were like. John sitting at the head of the table in the same room in Curtain. Who else had John taught? Who else remembered him? 6. Before he was really sick, I visited John in a hospital room. He emailed me the day before my visit and asked me to bring a handle of bourbon, which I ignored. John was in rehab after a knee surgery. I brought my equipment to record his story, “The Drowning Bear.” The story was from a collection John was trying to have published, so far without luck, and was about a man coming across a bear that had fallen through the ice. The man thinks he recognizes the bear from his dreams years ago. I held a microphone just under John’s chin as he read the story propped up in his hospital bed. He read the story perfectly by the third take. If people just listened to this story and how he read it, I thought, his collection would be published, no problem. We talked for a while, and he read the new intro to his novel out loud. I gave him some pages I was working on. This was what we had. We were writers. We were friends. “Did you bring the bourbon?” “No. I did not. It’s important to me you live. But it’s more important that I’m not the one that kills you,” I said. 7. Three years after I met John, I moved to New York City with Heather, Theodor, and a new baby, Sawyer. I emailed with John; we stayed in touch. Then, for a couple months, I didn't hear from him. I emailed to see how he was doing, how the newest draft of his noir was going. A few weeks later he responded. John had stage 4 throat cancer and a few months to live. He asked me to do another pass on his book. I said, “Yes, of course.” We talked on the phone and he sounded good, in better spirits than I expected. “They are going to try this chemotherapy. The doctor says it will be a miracle if it works. So I guess that’s what I have going for me.” “Fuck, that sucks.” “Yeah, it’s crummy.” We both laughed. What could we say? John sent presents for my kids on Christmas. 8. The last time I talked to John, he sounded faint, far off and beaten. I was driving an old mail van full of restaurant supplies from Bushwick to Park Slope for work. It was dark and cold as the old van beat down broken streets, side to side. The van smelled like gasoline. I had one earphone bud in, and though John’s voice was weak, he was right there in my ear. “It’s not what you want to be doing. You want your life, your freedom,” John said. I felt like he was warning me not to die. There were no jokes this time. “If it means anything, I’ll make sure your book is right.” “I want that. I want you to do that.” We both hung up, and I knew that was it. 9. I sent John an email and got a reply from his wife. John is no longer responsive, the email said. I talk to his son on the phone; John is in hospice, out of consciousness much of the time, he said. It won’t be long. I checked the internet for an obituary. I wished a dumb wish—that he would turn it around. I saw him, skinny probably, his throat invaded, his body invaded by a sickness that seemingly takes us all. I wished he wasn't dying. Even when I accepted he was dying, I thought there was time. I never believed it would come. We always assume the world will wait for us. We look forward to our best moment, when we’ll really see someone and share something. We’re unaware that our best moments have already happened: former students and teacher sharing drinks, recording stories at a rehab center, Reubens at Harry’s, talking in an office with a beautiful view. Now that John is gone, I know how sweet that moment really was, watching the wind twirl tops of Autumn trees from his window, lost in a fretful daydream about fatherhood, about the unexpected turn my life had taken, as John tried to tell me something. John Goulet was the author of two novels and many short stories. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.
Wandering the aisles made of beige steel and unrememberable carpet that was the poetry section of my local suburban library, I waited for poetry to come to me. What arrived was The Painted Bed, a collection by Donald Hall. I could’ve opened it to any poem. The title poem. “After Three Years” or “Kill the Day,” maybe. It was an unraveling, the first time I had witnessed language bearing the pain that lives in the wake of immense loss with such incisive vulnerability. I checked it out and consumed the whole thing immediately. I was 17. A decade away from that moment, Donald Hall is now dead. The event that consumed so much of his writing has now arrived for him. From the earliest poems—the ones written during his first marriage and the years spent teaching before his second, great marriage to the poet Jane Kenyon—it was a nagging subject. Death haunted his poems from his returning to the ancestral farm with Kenyon, a purposeful separation from the world of the academy, through his long and happy hermitage until his diagnosis with cancer, which he survived, and then Kenyon’s diagnosis with leukemia, which she did not. The poems after that, until Hall turned 80 and decided he no longer had the capacity for poetry, are absolutely steeped in it. Saying that Hall was some kind of apostle of grief is to mischaracterize him, though. There were many Donald Halls. There was the early Hall, first poetry editor of The Paris Review and poetry anthologizer of particular staunchness who ensured the ongoing legacy of the greats who stood just behind him like T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. In his early years, Hall wanted to impose his taste upon the poetry world at large, fiercely advocating for contemporary poetry, with a particular fondness for poets like Geoffrey Hill and Thom Gunn, even as writers outside of the nation’s universities were creating poetry in their own image. There was the Donald Hall that left the world of higher education to wholly dedicate himself to his ancestral New Hampshire farm, where his attention was upon the daily devotion to his now-hallowed relationship with Jane Kenyon and his writing. Though present throughout his early poetry, the focus of his writing sharpened onto themes of grief, lingering and ever-present in the ghostly shadow of Mount Kearsarge—a place where the spirits of the past seemed to mingle with the heat of the living, and desire, as the long-blooming flower of Hall’s deep affection for Kenyon grew along with her own career as a poet as it eventually eclipsed his own. Then there was Donald Hall, alone. The final third of his career was almost entirely defined by absence. His own miraculous cancer survival moved nearly immediately into Kenyon’s leukemia diagnosis, her dying, and her death. The elegiac qualities moved from the tinged shadows of his work and onto the main stage, consuming it as he chronicled the slow descent into the valley of a Jane-less life and his long wait there. The other Donald Halls—the baseball writer, the poet laureate, the endless correspondent—revolved in peripheral moons around the great preoccupations of his life. It’s tempting, at the end of his long life, to simply take the memory of Hall and quietly place him in the corral labeled “Pastoral Poets.” In the wake of his death, many have eulogized him while confining him there. Though Ted Kooser and Wendell Berry may have some shared images with him, Hall’s writing on his roots, the landscape of New Hampshire, and the people who populate his world were much darker and deeper, much stranger than what can simply and neatly be patted on the head and deemed pastoral meditation. His writing is much more aptly compared to his forebear, T.S. Eliot, or the fellow native New England poet Elizabeth Bishop than to his rural contemporaries. What makes Donald Hall a remarkable poet, what assures him a lasting place in an American literature that looks much different from when he began to edit The Paris Review or his purposeful anthologies, was his dedication to honesty. This sounds banal to state, but to read Hall, from the very beginning right up until the end, is to watch a writer grow into a kind of honest and forthright form. The way Hall laid bare and excavated the guts of humanity, ripping wide open the tepid surface of the most conservative annexes of society to reveal how it all dripped with raging grief and aching desire was, and remains, profound. As a writer, he seemed to really take to heart the words the sculptor Henry Moore once said to him, quoting Rodin as he quoted a craftsman: “Never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume.” An important part of his dedication to honesty was that it demanded humor, and Hall’s was wry and midnight dark. In the poem “Letter with No Address,” one of his many odes to life after Kenyon’s death, he describes yet another day of crushing grief, and he ends on this image: “Sometimes, coming back home / to our circular driveway, / I imagine you’ve returned / before me, bags of groceries upright / in the back of the Saab, / its trunk lid delicately raised / as if proposing an encounter, / dog-fashion, with the Honda.” Hall was a master at this, disorienting an entire poem to crushing ends with apparent glee, but to a purposeful end. As he says in another poem nearby: “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.” Donald Hall is now, after it all, the posthumous Donald Hall. He is now the deceased Donald Hall, as he so looked forward to being in many poems. He’s now, if not with his beloved Jane Kenyon, at least no longer in a world without her. Only the words they wrote are left behind, breathing without them. Several years before his death, long after Hall stopped actively writing poetry, he published what would be the final collection of his poems before his death. For a constant, lifelong editor of his own work, this is a far more monumental and immutable work than any that preceded it (particularly the door-stopping, career-spanning collection White Apples and the Taste of Stone that coronated his brief moment as poet laureate). On the back of the collection, “Gold”—an older poem, published after his cancer diagnosis but before Kenyon’s—ends with this stanza: “We made in those days / tiny identical rooms inside our bodies / which the men who uncover our graves / will find in a thousand years, / shining and whole.” Image: Vitro Nasu
Al Alvarez, Joyce Carol Oates, John Cheever, and others remember Philip Roth, the creator of iconic characters Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman. 1. Intense [University of Chicago English professor Joan Bennett] invited us to tea to meet one of her students; it was Philip Roth and the stories he was working on in Joan’s class became Goodbye, Columbus. He was very intense and had pronounced views on the department; his wife seemed rather silent. (Chicago, mid-1950s) —From First Generation: An Autobiography, by Ernest Sirluck (University of Toronto Press, 1996) 2. Prince to My Pauper On the first day of a course on Henry James [at the University of Chicago] in the fall of 1957, I found myself sitting next to...a dark debonair fellow in a jacket and tie who...looked like he had strayed into class from the business school...Phil Roth. With the antenna of New York/New Jersey Jews, we quickly tuned into each other. ... Phil wore GI khaki gloves inside his leather ones, but otherwise dressed like the junior faculty member that he also was, having been given a job in the College that the rest of us Ph.D. students would have killed for. ... Around the second week of class, one of the students was going on about the religious allegory that underlay Daisy Miller. [Professor Napier] Wilt asked me what I thought of this interpretation. I said that it was idiotic to read James as though he were Hawthorne. Then Phil jumped in and proceeded to show how eschewing the concrete for the symbolic “turned the story inside out,” that Daisy had to be established as an American girl of a certain class and disposition before she became of any interest as a sacrificial figure. Like two players early in the season who find they can work together, Phil and I passed the ball back and forth, running up the score of good sense. ... The one time he came to our flat, he sat there like a social worker on the edge of a couch over which I had nailed an old shag rug to cover the holes. Though we both came from the same hard-pressed Jewish middle class, his clothes, his place in the College, and the money he made from writing cast us in adult prince and pauper roles. ... During our humor binges, Phil would suddenly slip the moorings of his gifts of precise mimicry, timing, suspense, and imagery and get carried away—or better, swept away—into a wild dark sea of vulgarity and obscenity, as far out and obsessed as Lenny Bruce himself. —From First Loves: A Memoir, by Ted Solotaroff (Seven Stories Press, 2003) 3. Meticulous Invigilator When Philip Roth was living in London, I went to the little apartment where he worked to collect him for lunch. While he was putting on his coat, I glanced at a page of manuscript lying beside his typewriter. Philip has one of the strongest voices of any novelist alive, effortless and apparently unhesitating, yet the page was black with tiny corrections. “Who’s going to notice the difference?” I asked. “You are,” he answered. “I am.” Meticulousness is just one of the obsessions Philip and I share. When we first met 40 years ago [circa 1960] we were both angry young men with bad marriages, troublesome parents and a yearning for shiksas and literature. We had both been good students, full of high seriousness, and even now when we talk about books it’s usually about the masterworks we were taught to admire back in the fifties when we were at college—Kafka, [Nikolai] Gogol, [Henry] James. Since then I have written three novels, yet whenever I am with Philip I realize I lack the novelist’s temperament. A real novelist is an invigilator, constantly on the watch, listening, making mental notes, using whatever happens to happen and weaving it into stories. Maybe that was what James meant by “loose and baggy monsters”: the novel can accommodate everything. —From Where Did It All Go Right? A Memoir, by Al Alvarez (Morrow/HarperCollins, 1999) 4. Boys’ Talk I have a drink, go to meet Philip Roth at the station with the two dogs on leads. He is unmistakable, and I give him an Army whoop from the top of the stairs. Young, supple, gifted, intelligent, he has the young man’s air of regarding most things as if they generated an intolerable heat. I don’t mean fastidiousness, but he holds his head back from his plate of roast beef as if it were a conflagration. He is divorced from a girl I thought delectable. “She won’t even give me back my ice skates.” The conversation hews to a sexual line—cock and balls, [Jean] Genet, [John] Rechy—but he speaks, I think, with grace, subtlety, wit. (Ossining, N.Y., 1963) —From The Journals of John Cheever, by John Cheever (Knopf, 1990) 5. Vigilant Spectator and Critic July 28, 1965 [Yaddo writers retreat, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.]. In the evening, to see the William Wyler film The Collector. Afterwards the Yaddo boys [and two girls] sat around in the Colonial and dissected the film, Roth as usual giving the lead…Roth is a sharp, logical analyst of character and motivation in whatever he sees and reads. I remember that in discussing Herzog he spotted all sorts of illogicalities; when he discussed The Collector, he took it apart, spotting every possible implausibility and moral confusion. He is always outside, vigilantly himself as the spectator and critic and judge. Everything is consciously sized up all day long. This extraordinary conscious intactness! —From Alfred Kazin’s Journals, selected and edited by Richard M. Cook (Yale University Press, 2011) 6. Tall and Handsome We had first met in East Hampton, Long Island, in 1966. Rod [Steiger] and I had taken a house for the summer months, and we had a good time there...bicycle-riding, swimming, performing a host of healthy summer activities. Neighbors invited us over for a drink; one of their houseguests was Philip. Already a highly acclaimed young writer—the author of Goodbye, Columbus, a fine volume of short stories—I recognized his tense, intellectually alert face immediately from photographs. Tanned, tall, and lean, he was unusually handsome; he also seemed to be well aware of his startling effect on women. I was immediately attracted to him, and he would tell me years later that he also had felt the same toward me... —From Leaving a Doll’s House, by Claire Bloom (Little, Brown, 1996) 7. Casual I was talking to Philip Roth for the [Toronto Telegram]. He spoke in the tapered tone of a man who wanted to convey a casual intelligence and amiability, a man deft with an idea. Slender, a little balding, wearing a pullover V-neck sweater and a shirt open at the neck, he paced back and forth on the burgundy plank floors in his flat, and then sat at his writing desk—heavy oak, somewhat awkward to sit at—a gray metal elbow lamp clamped to the desk top, jutting into the air, it angled back over his typewriter. (New York, late 1960s) —From Barrelhouse Kings: A Memoir, by Barry Callaghan (McArthur & Company, 1998) 8. Swarthy Glory As JH [companion James Holmes] and I were finishing our chowder at The Tavern, toying with the notion of leaving next day, stopping our ears against an aggressive accordion and trying to compare notes on our mutual loathing of the local Catholic dishwater-blond fauna, and exclaiming, My God, there’s not one Jew in this town, much less anyone we’d ever want to know! Who should enter in all his swarthy glory but Philip Roth, and Barbara. So they sat and chatted a while, cheered us up some (we’d seen no humans hitherto), and we made a date for Wednesday, but didn’t keep it because we fled instead. (Siasconset, Mass., 1972) —From The Later Diaries: 1961-1972, by Ned Rorem (North Point Press, 1983) 9. Completely Likeable Person May 15, 1974...Met Philip Roth. We went to his apartment, then out to lunch. Attractive, funny, warm, gracious: a completely likeable person. We talked about books, movies, other writers, New York City, Philip’s fame (and its amusing consequences), his experiences in Czechoslovakia meeting with writers. Ray [Smith, husband] and I liked him very much. His apartment on 81st St. is large and attractive, near the Met. Art gallery. He has another house (and another life, one gathers) in Connecticut. My Life as a Man irresistibly engaging. But one wonders at Philip’s pretense that it isn’t autobiographical. —From The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982, by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2007) 10. Handshakes Received and Avoided Philip Roth came with Claire Bloom to [film and stage producer] Patrick Garland’s wedding to [actress] Alexandra Bastedo in the Chichester Cathedral and to the reception afterwards in Bishop Kemp’s quarters in the cathedral grounds. Edward Kemp, the youngest teenage son of the bishop approached him. “Mr. Roth,” he asked, “may I shake you by the hand?” After his wish had been granted and he slipped away (to become in time an excellent writer/director), Philip Roth whispered, “Women at literary luncheons across America have run a mile rather than shake the hand of the man who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint. (West Sussex, England, mid-1970s) —From Ned Sherrin: The Autobiography, by Ned Sherrin (Little Brown, 2005) 11. Inward-Looking Self-Explorer A feeling of authentic French provençal with faded ochre walls and pine tables where you can sit as long as you like…Thompsons, as this modest establishment on the corner of Portobello Mews and next to a new dry-cleaner’s, soon becomes known. … Today Philip Roth is sitting at the back of Thompsons in the gloom. Like an ant-eater’s, his long snout and bright eyes are trained downwards, on the food he consumes. A book is held up close to his face; Roth most definitely does not wish to be disturbed. I’ve heard this most inward-looking and remarkable of self-explorers has a room where he writes in Stanley Gardens, up the hill. I know, despite the fact of his apparent great distance from the talk or excitements around him, that every word one says goes into the long, this head, shaped like a quill with its tufty feathers of black hair, and lies waiting to be inscribed in stone. … The other day, Roth went so far as to invite me to join him in the dark recesses of the restaurant. We talked of nothing much, except Roth’s first wife and the novel, My Life as a Man, that he’d written about her violent and untimely death. My sympathy was brushed aside; Roth declared himself unperturbed by the outcome of his spouse’s tragic accident… After lunch, Roth suggests I “see” his Stanley Gardens workplace. I go up the hill with him, and then up three floors to the minute flat where he sits over his desk, deep in Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego. There is hardly any space, between desk, armchair and wall, to stand in; but somehow Roth his fitted a rubber mat, green with a swirly pattern, in this tight space, and I find myself—there is nowhere else to go—standing on it. “For my exercises,” Roth says. A silence falls, and I leave, suddenly aware I don’t want to be here at all. Whatever the “exercises” are, I definitely do not want to be a part of them. (London, 1976) —From Burnt Diaries, by Emma Tennant (Canongate Books, 1999) 12. Monk’s Cell With a Great View Roth’s face is lined now, his mouth has tightened and his springy hair has turned grey, but he still looks like an athlete—tall, lean, with broad shoulders and a small head. Until recently, when surgery on his back and arthritis in the shoulder laid him low, he worked out and swam regularly, though always, it seemed, for a purpose—not for the animal pleasure of physical exercise, but to stay fit for the long hours he puts in at his writing. He works standing up, paces around while he’s thinking and has said he walks half a mile for every page he writes. Even now, when his joints are beginning to creak and fail, energy still comes off him like a heat haze, but it all driven by the intellect. It comes out as argument, mimicry, wild comic riffs on whatever happens to turn up in the conversation. His concentration is fierce, and the sharp black eyes under their thick brows miss nothing. The pleasure of his company is immense, but you need to be at your best not to disappoint him. ... The New York studio…where me met to talk…is on the 12th floor, a single large room with a kitchen area, a little bathroom and a glass wall looking south across Manhattan’s gothic landscape to the Empire State Building, with a wisp of cloud around its top. The lectern at which Roth works is at right angles to the view, presumably to avoid distraction…There is a bed with a neat white counterpane against the wall, an easy chair in the center of the room, with a graceful standing lamp beside it, all of it leather and steel and glass, discreetly modern. It is a place strictly for work, spare and chaste, a monk’s cell with a great view. (2004) —From “The Long Road Home,” by Al Alvarez, The Guardian (Sept. 23, 2004) 13. Missed Opportunity I went to hear Hermione Lee, an Oxford University English professor, speak at Columbia University this evening about her just published biography [of Edith Wharton]… I arrived early at Low Library and took a seat in the third row of the nearly empty rotunda. Soon afterwards, a professorial man in a tweedy brown jacket sat down in the seat right next to me, which struck me as odd, considering that he might have been expected to leave an empty seat between us in such uncrowded circumstances. I glanced at him, thought he looked vaguely familiar, couldn’t place him, and went back to working on some writing. (I now blush to think he might have been looking at the page.) Fifteen minutes later, along came my husband, who sat down in the seat on my left. The “professor” soon moved one seat over, laying his coat across the seat between us. When Hermione Lee took her seat onstage, I noticed her nod in greeting to the man on my right. Then, the person who introduced her mentioned that she had once written an essay on Philip Roth. And then, of course, I knew. I cast a sidelong glance at “the professor,” and realized the person I had studiously ignored while I continued my own scribbling was arguably our country’s most famous living literary novelist… I had just missed the opportunity to have a 15-minute tête-à-tête with the perpetrator of Portnoy. After the Wharton talk concluded, I lamely inquired if he was Philip Roth and told him it was nice to see him. He returned the pleasantry and was off to commune with the academic types up front. (New York City, 2007) —From “Philip Roth: Another Missed Opportunity,” by Lee Rosenbaum, Arts Journal’s CultureGrrl blog (April 12, 2007) Image credit: Flickr/hye tyde http://images.amazon.com/images/P/B004J4WLU0.01.MZZZZZZZ.jpg
Beloved American novelist Philip Roth has died at age 85. Author of more than two dozen novels, including Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, and American Pastoral, Roth garnered every accolade (except, famously, The Nobel--read our plea to the Swedish Academy here), and his passing marks the end of an era in American letters. Some Roth pieces from our archives: -An Open Letter to the Nobel Committee -Ten Lessons from the Professor of Desire -Staff Pick: Sabbath's Theater -Philip Roth's Bleak Theater -Life and Counterlife Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
Henry Grunwald, Joyce Carol Oates, Taki, Ned Rorem, Annie Leibovitz, and others recall encounters with Tom Wolfe, the dandyish inventor of New Journalism and novelist, who died Monday at age 87. 1. Tidewater Virginian Gentleman …into the clackety-clack chaos of the [New York Herald] Trib’s city room…Every desk was occupied by a man and every man wore the same shirt and tie. Except two. I spotted Tom Wolfe. He looked different [as did the tie-less and rumpled Jimmy Breslin]. His longish silky hair curled over the well-turned collar of an English-tailored tweed suit. He looked like a Tidewater Virginian gentleman, which he was. His lips were locked in a concupiscent smile. Of course, I thought he must be flicking open his satirical switchblade to dice up the status strivings of some sacred cow who had no idea he was about to be skewered. (Tom had not yet effected the wardrobe of a contemporary Beau Brummell in white suits and spats, not on a salary of $130 a week.) Wolfe’s prose was the opposite. He invented unforgettable code phrases—“the right stuff,” the “statusphere,” and “social x-rays.” He exuded excesses of hyperbole never before seen on a black-and-white page. He spotted the first “Tycoon of Teen,” Phil Spector, and he was the first to explain the vision of Marshall McLuhan. The most mind-blowing of Wolfe’s early articles examined the LSD life of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. …Tom Wolfe did exchange a few words with me, in passing, and I hung on them. “The Herald Tribune is like the main Tijuana bullring for competition among feature writers,” he told me. “You have to be brave.” (New York, 1964) —From Daring: My Passages, by Gail Sheehy (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014) 2. Many White Suits On my third trip to New York I bought the publishing rights in a book of essays called Candy Stream Line Flake Baby [sic]. The author was a leading exponent of the ‘new journalism.’ His name was Tom Wolfe. In addition to being an excellent essayist and a superb stylist with a range from art to astronauts, he was something of a celebrity about town and a famous ladies’ man. A trademark of Tom’s, then and now, has been the wearing of white suits. I remember our [Jonathan Cape] Publicity Director asking him when in London how he managed to keep his suit so immaculately white. He took her to his dressing room and opened the cupboard. There, hanging in a row, were six perfect white suits. …He is exceptionally gracious, soft-spoken and well-read, and has immaculate manners. He is also outstandingly intelligent, with the enquiring mind of a superb journalist. He is a passionately caring person. Many years ago [TM’s wife] Regina had a mysterious ailment that we thought the Mayo Clinic in America might cure. Tom went out of his way to introduce us to not one but two of the leading professors there and he wrote to them as if we were his closest friends. —From Publisher, by Tom Maschler (Picador, 2005) 3. Conversationally Frugal The form [“New Journalism”] was invented by Tom Wolfe, a young writer of genteel Virginia background who had become a familiar character on the New York scene in his white suits. As I came to know him—we were never friends but friendly dinner party acquaintances—I was struck by his extreme frugality in conversation. He obviously saved his words for his writing and used his slightly absurd, dandyish appearance as effective camouflage from behind which he observed his surroundings with merciless precision, precision that was heightened by an almost surrealist imagination. There were other practitioners of the New Journalism, some with greater literary credentials and fewer stylistic quirks, including Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. There were also Wolfe imitators for whom the New Journalism came down to writing themselves into an article, tediously going on about their reaction to the wallpaper or to being kept waiting. Wolfe remained the master. While he was unfailingly polite, I sometimes imagined him as poking me in the ribs and saying: “How are you fellows at Time going to keep up with me? I’m skating circles around you.” (late 1960s) —From One Man’s America: A Journalist’s Search for the Heart of His Country, by Henry Grunwald (Doubleday, 1997) 4. What He Was Trying to Prove …The genre [New Journalism] was famously pioneered by Tom Wolfe in his experimental articles published by the long-defunct New York Herald-Tribune and his books about the 1960s with their wigged-out titles like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test…”One of the points I wanted to prove,” Wolfe told me when I interviewed him in Vancouver in 1972, “was that novels and non-fiction should be written the same way. You are bringing some news to the reader, and you have a solid grounding in fact and detail. It ascends from here.” His boyish, preppy head incongruously sticking out of his signature white suit and stiffed-necked collars, Wolfe kept asking me polite questions about Canada and Marshall McLuhan. —From Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power, by Peter C. Newman (McClelland and Stewart, 2004) 5. Very Proper, No Sweat On one level, Tom Wolfe operated very much like Hunter [Thompson] did. Tom got his stories from odds-and-ends moments. But Tom wasn’t at all like Hunter temperamentally. Tom was very proper. He always wore long-sleeved shirts, and even if it was 95 degrees out and a 100 percent humidity he never sweated. Everyone was sweating through their clothes and Tom was completely dry. Hunter sweated a lot… I went with Tom to Florida to cover [for Rolling Stone magazine] the launch of Apollo 17, NASA’s last manned flight to the moon. That’s when Tom started doing the research on astronauts that led to The Right Stuff. It was interesting to be with Tom because you got in everywhere. There were all these parties before the launch. (1972) —From Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz (Random House, 2008) 6. Flow of Fashion Everyone has a different definition of what the New Journalism is. It’s the use of fictional techniques, it’s composite characterization, it’s the art form that’s replacing the novel, which is dying… …along comes Tom Wolfe, the Boswell of the boutiques, with a history of the New Journalism that never mentions Kempton, Cannon, or Stone. Or Lillian Ross and Joe Mitchell, who wrote for the rival New Yorker. Or any [Village] Voice writer, for that matter. Like any faithful Boswell, Wolfe only mentions his friends. …He is a gifted, original writer, but he has the social conscience of an ant. Wolfe is a dandy. His basic interest is the flow of fashion, in the tics and trinkets of the rich. But if Wolfe represents a conservative, or perhaps apolitical approach, there is also the committed school of Stone, Kempton, Royko, Halbertsam, Wicker, Cowar, Hentoff and many others. … —From The Education of Jack Newfield, by Jack Newfield (St. Martin’s Press, 1984) [millions_ad] 7. Nice Person April 13, 1978. Yesterday, to Ann Arbor, there to meet with Tom Wolfe, who gave the Hopwood Address in the Rackham Bldg., the same building I spoke in two weeks ago exactly (surprising, that the seats weren’t all filled for his talk): Wolfe in his trademark vanilla ice cream suit with pale blue shirt and pale blue socks and white shoes (rather rushing the season, those shoes), a nice person, warm and congenial and, offstage, not at all pretentious. His talk was low-keyed and superficial, perhaps aimed for a somewhat younger (or less intelligent) audience. I am thinking of writing him a letter…We talked a bit, though not at great length. The two of us were “guests of honor” at the Inglus House dinner following the reception, which meant that we were many yards apart, at either end of a very long table. From The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982, by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2007) 8. Working Stiff …Tom Wolfe works his ass off... I used to read Wolfe and think, “Well, fuck you! God touched you and made you a fucking genius, and that’s the end of it!” Then in the mid-eighties I walked in to the offices of Rolling Stone one afternoon and saw him working at a desk. He was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments at the time, and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look I know I have in my eyes when the shit is hitting the fan. And I thought to myself, “God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all.” (New York, mid-1980s) —From The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, by Robert S. Boynton (Vintage Books, 2005) 9. No Prima Donna 11 February 1985 …a short note from [wife] Alexandra saying that Tom and Sheila Wolfe had called to offer their support. The great Tom had already rung me while I was waiting for my appeal [of a conviction for cocaine possession, which resulted in three months in London’s Pentonville Prison], a kindness I shall not soon forget…Like all large talents, Tom is supportive of lesser ones. And he’s no prima donna. He is as kind and considerate and gentle in his dealings with people as his literary style is precise and devastatingly accurate. He and his wife and their two children live across the street from us in Southampton [N.Y.], but they prefer a quiet life and I don’t see much of them. But I treasure their friendship. … I like everything Tom has ever written, but my favorite remains his demolition job on the ‘radical chic’ of Mr. [Leonard] Bernstein’s cocktail party… —From Nothing to Declare: Prison Memoirs, by Taki (Viking, 1991) 10. Candle in a White Suit Had a terrific drink tonight with Tom Wolfe, who is tall and thin like a candle in his white suit, with a dryness suddenly illuminated by joyous shafts of pure malice…I told him I was having dinner with Martin Amis. “Ah, the rising novelist of thirty-four. Funny how you are a hardened thief at thirty but a rising novelist at thirty-four.” Outside it was pouring rain and we lingered over our drink at Le Périgord. He told me he is finishing his new novel about New York and the “masters of the universe” of Wall Street [The Bonfire of the Vanities]. (New York, 1983) —From The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992, by Tina Brown (Henry Holt, 2017) 11. Lost Scene …Wolfe’s attack on The New Yorker [in the New York Herald Tribune in 1965]… …In the lead paragraph of his first part, he had described in lavish detail a scene in [editor William] Shawn’s office. A prospective contributor was visiting. While Shawn huddled behind the stack of manuscripts on his desk, the visitor, nervously and unthinkingly, lit a cigarette. After a couple of drags, he noticed to his dismay (though Shawn said nothing) that there were no ashtrays in the room. Desperately he reached for an empty Coca-Cola bottle and deposited the offending cigarette, point down, into its base. The barely smoked weed—all smokers will recognize this picture—continued to burn, and, as the visitor watched in mounting anguish, and Shawn smiled enigmatically from behind the barricade of his manuscripts, the brown smoke curled acridly into the unventilated room. … And yet, as we learned from Dwight MacDonald, Wolfe had never been there. He had, unforgivably, made the incident up. … …Wearing his trademark white suit, Wolfe is as insouciantly charming in our [1987 CBC] interview as his writing is energetic in print. After much palaver…I pop the question. Does he remember the scene? Of course. Where did he get it? He has, he confesses disarmingly, no idea now. He’d have to look at his notes. Concerned lest I take an already self-indulgent interview further down the lane of autobiography, I turn to other matters. (Toronto) —From The Private Voice: A Journal of Reflections, by Peter Gzowski (McClelland and Stewart, 1988) 12. Sartorial Splendor 24 February 1990. Lunch with Tom Wolfe, who is here [Tokyo] to work up a novel. It has some Japanese in it, and he has come to see some Japanese. Tallish, wide forehead, gray eyes, and much sartorial splendor. He mentions this. “I guess I am old-fashioned,” he says in reference to his Edwardian vest, his watch chain, and his wide-brimmed hat. But it is also a way of dress that alerts people. I had taken him to the Press Club, not the brightest or liveliest place, and everyone recognized him at once and several came sidling up. He is also interested, understanding, curious. Says very little about himself unless one asks. Wants to learn. Is here for that reason. Is particularly interested in what happens to art here, how it turns into money… From The Japan Journals 1947-2004, by Donald Richie, ed. by Leza Lowitz (Stone Bridge Press, 2004) 12. Eye Contact Avoided Nantucket, 8 June  …to be an honoree at a find-raiser for Marymount College… The pre-prandial cocktail hour at the swanky Palace mezzanine…Wolfe, whom I’ve never met—nor were we introduced—sitting three chairs away, arranged for his famously friendly eyes never to cross with mine, which made clear that he would not be extending his hand, nor encouraging me to do so. What, I wondered, have I ever done to him? Ah yes, it must be that crank letter to the Times, years ago, when I took to task his review of Cecil Beaton’s memoir wherein he twitted queers. Still, is that enough for him to ignore my presence now, rather than, like a suave European, to separate professional feuds from social niceties? He meanwhile might argue he didn’t know who I was. (New York) From Lies: A Diary 1986-1999, by Ned Rorem (Counterpoint, 2000) Image Credit: Flickr/Cliff.
The revolutionary science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away January 22, understood something important about ideal worlds and societies: Utopia is not perfection. Utopia is process. It is reflection and adjustment, learning and growth. It is communication and respect, self-awareness and honesty. This concept echoes throughout her body of work, but she explores utopia-as-process fully in one of her most radical novels, Always Coming Home, published in 1985. This novel, more accurately described as a fictional anthropological study, has no singular narrative and no main character. Certainly, we hear life stories from individuals in the Kesh society depicted in the book, but traditional narrative isn’t the only means by which Le Guin tells this story—she includes poems, plays, illustrations, musical notation, and other ephemera as part of the tale. This nonlinear narrative structure, along with the stories included therein, synthesizes Le Guin’s beliefs on the unavoidable, destructive outcomes of a patriarchal, capitalist society by rejecting them whole cloth. In a 2015 essay for Motherboard, Le Guin wrote, “Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.” Much of her fiction concerns itself with finding a better way, a way mutually beneficial to humans and the earth. Indeed, in Always Coming Home’s utopic society, the Kesh live in a reclaimed post-apocalyptic California. Although some land remains arable, much of what was formerly the United States is inhospitable to human life. The text implies that the conquest-driven, consumptive culture of the 20th century directly led to the continent’s ruination. Despite the harshness of their environment, the Kesh thrive. But how do you build utopia from destruction and ruin? Here’s where the book becomes difficult, radical, and complex. The hinge spiral, a two-armed spiral circling out from a single center point, is the key to understanding both the novel and Le Guin’s vision of utopia. Not only does the spiral form the central motif for the Kesh, but the narrative structure itself echoes the spiral. Always Coming Home is a study in what a complete and utter rejection of capitalism and patriarchy might look like—for society and for the art of storytelling. For the Kesh, poverty is non-existent because the society supports all of its members. Artists, artisans, and other creative types are valued as highly as hunters and farmers. The people work with the land, not against it, and certainly not in dominion over it. Greed is unnecessary because every person has what they need to be happy and healthy. Crime is so minimal as to be nonexistent. Although many of Le Guin’s other novels contain utopias, her most well-read novels are not quite as grand in vision as Always Coming Home. The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, chiefly addresses the singular topic of gender/sex and the consequences of favoring one biological sex over the other. The Dispossessed, a 1974 novel written in response to the Vietnam War, explores an anarchist utopia and what a world without capitalism might look like. But it, too, stops short of completely re-envisioning society. In addition, these novels—along with the majority of Le Guin’s books and short stories—follow a semi-traditional narrative structure. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They have protagonists and antagonists. They use the language of patriarchy, albeit subversively. By avoiding a linear narrative in Always Coming Home, Le Guin escapes the trap inherent in all would-be subversive texts: the use of language, which is controlled by patriarchy. Always Coming Home avoids the patriarchal conventions of storytelling by first eschewing a traditional narrative arc detailing a protagonist triumphing over an antagonist. Instead of one arc, Always Coming Home consists of many smaller arcs. The text’s longest section, “Stone Telling”—the life story of a woman of the same name—takes up only slightly more than 100 of the text’s 525 pages. The inclusion of other life stores aside from Stone Telling’s, such as those in the “Eight Life Stories” section, shows that no one narrative should represent an entire group of people or a place. Rather, diverse voices should be given a space in which to share their experiences and stories, whatever form those stories might take. In The Left Hand of Darkness, we are privy only to Genly Ai’s reactions to the ambisexual Gethenians. In The Dispossessed, we follow Shevek in his studies and experiences with anarchism and capitalism. In Always Coming Home, Le Guin presents an entire world of stories and perspectives. (This is not, of course, to say that Le Guin’s other novels don’t have value and meaning—they absolutely do, and are great in their own ways.) [millions_ad] Always Coming Home also escapes the patriarchal convention of linear storytelling by situating the creative and autobiographical works of the text, which constitute its bulk, within a socio-historical context. Pandora’s commentary and informational sections lend weight to those creative works by giving them extra layers of symbolic and historic meaning, and more importantly, by revealing the processes through which Kesh society maintains its utopia (this is also a subversion of the concept of “utopia,” which by patriarchal storytelling tradition cannot exist and always ends badly). The novel’s arrangement is not, however, without shape, and its shape allows the text to communicate with itself. The “Stone Telling” section, broken into three parts, is the hinge around which Le Guin spirals the historical, societal, literary, and biographical sections of the text, many of which are also broken into multiple parts. These sections do not exist independently of each other, although they can be read separately. Instead, they wrap around each other and reflect upon each other, building meaning as they go. At the very end of “Time and the City,” the Archivist at the city of Wakwaha tells Pandora, “Tell about the Condor. Let Stone Telling tell her story.” Linearly speaking, though, Stone Telling’s story began on page seven, and part two begins on page 173, immediately after this exchange between Pandora and the Archivist. The narrator’s introduction to “Stone Telling,” the hinge, comes one-third of the way through Stone Telling’s tale, effectively cycling back to that section rather than simply providing a preface for it. Because there are many stories, readers can enter the text at multiple points, unlike a traditional novel. The lack of a dominant narrative voice gives the reader freedom to choose her entry point and makes her an active participant in the text. Not only do multiple entry points undercut the idea that there is one “right” story—that of the hero—but create a text in which exist nearly infinite possibilities for the interpretation of meaning. “Readers, after all,” Le Guin said in an interview included in the collection At the Field’s End, “are making the world with you. You give them the materials, but it’s the readers who build that world in their own minds.” Regardless of where a reader starts reading and what choices she makes, she is in effect swirled back into the text and into communication with it at the end of each section, not marched out of it as in a traditional point A to point B narrative. Capitalism and patriarchy embrace a binary: rich/poor, right/wrong, male/female, etc. “Success” refers only to vocational and financial success, never the successful raising of children or creation of art (whether or not anyone sees or appreciates said art). Le Guin cracks these binaries open, from the way the Kesh keep records (anyone can give anything to the library, and it is kept as long as people are interested in keeping it) to the way she structured the book as a spiral. Le Guin takes the idea of multiple entry points to another level entirely by including non-lingual aspects in the book, thereby further evading the problem of language and dominant discourse. Scholar Robin Roberts points out that the novel itself is a collaborative work, since others composed the music, drew the pictures, and helped Le Guin with the maps, further avoiding the problem of “univocality,” as she calls it. Roberts says—and I agree—that, “Through her amalgamation of diverse materials, Le Guin emphasizes the act of interpretation.” In Always Coming Home, even the arrangement of sections provides a clear critique of patriarchy by juxtaposing Kesh society with that of the Dayao, or Condor, people. The Dayao people believe in an immortal god called One. One created the world, and will eventually unmake it. On page 190, Stone Telling says, “Human men are imitations of him. One is not the universe; he made it, and gives orders. Things are not a part of him nor is he part of them, so you must not praise things, but only One.” Instead of the Valley’s animistic beliefs that hold all things sacred, the Dayao worship one god and follow a strict hierarchy of power and authority. The above passage from page 190 brings to mind two particular passages from The Bible. The first is John 1 verses 1-3, which states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” The second passage is Genesis 1:7, which states, “So God created man in his own image.” The Bible teaches, like the One, that a supreme being created the world, and that humans were made in his image, and exist to glorify him. Since a supreme being created the world for human use, they do not need to respect or show honor to the more-then-human world, let alone communicate with it. By echoing the language of The Bible, the text makes the parallel between the Dayao society and our own clear. The Kesh, in contrast, call all living things people, and differentiate between species. There are human people, and cow people, and coyote people. By calling these species the same word used for humans, the Valley people show that they hold animals in equal regard to themselves. They do not kill mercilessly or without cause. Only wild animals who, according to “The Back of the Book,” “allowed themselves to be hunted, who responded to the hunter’s singing and came to meet the arrow or enter the snare, had consented to come into the Second of the Earth Houses, the Blue Clay, in order to die. They had taken on mortality sacrificially and sacramentally.” The ways the hinge motif can be applied to Always Coming Home would fill volumes. The novel’s content and structure echo one other so closely that they, too, become arms on the spiral. Even the physical book acts as a hinge, connecting reader to author, and reader to content, and author to content. Without the others, the existence of one becomes meaningless. It is not the final product that matters, but the process by which author and reader give the story life. Le Guin understood that if we seek a limited version of success defined by the values of capitalism and patriarchy, we will never progress beyond these self-destructive ideals. Instead, we should revel in the cyclical nature of things, in self-reflection and growth, in living with the natural world instead of against it. We should embrace the interconnectedness of life and reject the idea that if one person is rich, another must be poor. It is only by engaging in the never-ending process of reflection and growth that we can achieve utopia, or some version of it. That is Le Guin’s final, and greatest, gift to all those who dream of a better way to live.
Poets, editors, songwriters, teachers, journalists, novelists—some great writers and some under-sung ones left us this year. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2017. Bharati Mukherjee Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, educated in England, Switzerland, and India; she earned advanced writing degrees in the United States, and lived more than a decade in Canada—a peripatetic life she mined to write fiction about the aspirations and dislocations of immigrant life. Mukherjee, who died Jan. 28 at 76, grew up in a rich Hindu family, “bubble-wrapped in innocence,” as she would say later. Shortly after arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Philip Roth, Mukherjee informed her parents that she was not going through with the marriage they had arranged for her and that, in fact, she had recently married a white American writer, Clark Blaise. Her first-hand knowledge of the immigrant’s yearnings was captured in the title character of her breakthrough novel, Jasmine, a poor girl from Punjab who arrives in America “greedy with wants and reckless with hope.” Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, explored the immigrant experience through the stories of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Middle East. As she was writing those stories, she was developing a credo: “Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.” Given that we now live in a world with 60 million refugees, driven from their homes for reasons ranging from terror to desire, it’s hard to argue with Mukherjee’s claim that “the narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.” Derek Walcott Some writers are lucky to have a singular place that forever nourishes their art. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. Patrick Modiano has Paris. And Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, had his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It provided Walcott with ample raw materials for his vivid, musical poems—the sea, the pulsing sun, the land and its fecund vegetation, and the people who live there in the wake of slavery, colonialism, and forced exile, snagged in the mesh of commingled cultures. Walcott, who died March 17 at 87, published his first poem when he was 14 while operating under the influence of Christopher Marlowe and John Milton. Over the next seven decades he became an accomplished poet, playwright, and watercolorist, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, producing a body of poems that ranged from compact to epic, always spun from the weather, the history, and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott was also a wanderer, and, like all exiles, he knew the twinned aches of leaving home and returning. These lines are from In a Green Night, the 1962 book that announced him as a major writer: The hospital is quiet in the rain. A naked boy drives pigs into the bush. The coast shudders with every surge. The beach Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam. There is a belt of emerald light, a sail Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef, The hills are smoking in the vaporous light, The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief. It could not change its sorrows and be home. Jimmy Breslin Though he’ll be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist of the New York City persuasion, Jimmy Breslin, who died on March 19 at 88, was also a gifted novelist, memoirist, biographer, and writer of nonfiction books about subjects both light and dark, from the ineptitude of the early New York Mets baseball teams to the sins of sexual predators in the Catholic priesthood. His biography of Damon Runyon reads like Damon Runyon on acid. Breslin produced more than 20,000 newspaper columns in his long and fluorescent career—a staggering number, I can attest, having produced about 600 of the things myself. Many of Breslin’s were written on behalf of the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten. When someone asked him why he kept going back to the well, he replied: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.” Breslin’s was an only-in-New-York life. Born in Queens, he knew the streets and the saloons, the mobsters and the cops like nobody else, and he was among the vanguard of writers who birthed what has come to be known as the New Journalism, though he scoffed at the term. Too high-minded for this burly son of the outer boroughs. He ran (unsuccessfully) for New York city council the same year Norman Mailer ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. His fame reached its peak in 1977, when the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, began sending letters to Breslin, which he published in the New York Daily News. For all the warmth he felt for the little people, Breslin could be as cold and hard as iron. His father abandoned the family when Jimmy was young, and when his father died, the son paid for the cremation. “Good,” he said afterward. “That’s over.” Jean Stein Jean Stein died on April 30 at 83, an apparent suicide. She grew up amid Hollywood luxury—her father founded Music Corporation of America—and she returned to that milieu in her later work. But it was her 1982 book, Edie: An American Biography, that upended my understanding of what a book can be. It tells the story of Edie Sedgwick, who also grew up wealthy, became a Andy Warhol superstar, then spiraled into drug addiction and death by overdose at 28. Her story is told by dozens of people whose lives crossed hers (and her patrician family’s). Stein does not elicit conventional answers to conventional questions, as in Studs Terkel or Oriana Fallaci; instead she acts like a camera, unflinching, mutely watching and listening as people talk. There is no authorial intervention, seemingly no point of view. In time, the lack of affect becomes the affect. The book is a flat yet sneakily rich portrait of squandered American privilege and the cult of celebrity. It’s an act of dissection. An X-ray. A masterpiece. Stein was not a one-hit wonder. She worked at The Paris Review (where she interviewed William Faulkner), Esquire, and the literary quarterly Grand Street. She produced another oral history, American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, and West of Eden, a study of the influences of Hollywood, oil exploration, and real estate on the city of Los Angeles. Stein was shy by nature but she threw glittering parties, including one at which Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a fistfight. She was an unobtrusive but brilliant interviewer. Of the technique behind Edie, she once said, “Each person is speaking directly to you…Nobody is ever telling you, the reader, what to think.” Denis Johnson The news that Denis Johnson had died on May 24 at 67 sent me back to two pieces of writing. The first was Johnson’s masterly short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” from his 1992 collection about drug-addled drifters and losers, Jesus’ Son. Like all great fiction, “Car Crash” conjures a world that’s unlike any other and yet instantly, even shockingly, familiar. Words pop out of nowhere and ambush the reader. It’s the story of a lone hitchhiker stuck in a downpour who gets a lift from a young couple. As the hitchhiker dozes in the back seat with the couple’s baby, the car is involved in a ghastly crash on a rain-slicked bridge. Clutching the baby, the hitchhiker staggers from the wreckage and is taken to a hospital, where this unforgettable scene unfolds: Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere. The second piece of writing was Geoff Dyer’s review of Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. Dyer makes the point that nothing in Johnson’s earlier output, not even Jesus’ Son, had prepared readers for this teeming, meandering mind-fuck of a novel about America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Dyer compares Johnson to Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Graham Greene. Far more astutely, he calls Johnson “a junkyard angel,” a writer who, “at some level, did not know how to write at all—and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” I can’t imagine more apt, or higher, praise. Gregg Allman Three days after Johnson’s death, Gregg Allman died at 69. If Bob Dylan is worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature, then Allman, the keyboardist and lead songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, surely merits inclusion in a list of noteworthy literary obituaries. He wrote many of the band’s signature songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Melissa.” Some of his song lyrics rise to the level of art, including these from “Ain’t Wastin’ No More Time,” written shortly after his beloved big brother, Duane, the band’s lead guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia: Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain. Week before, they all seemed the same. With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly. And oh, I ain't wastin’ time no more 'Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things. The news of Gregg Allman’s death, like the news of Johnson’s, sent me back to a piece of writing—in this case, “Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band,” Grover Lewis’s Rolling Stone chronicle of being embedded on tour with the band in 1971, shortly before Duane’s death. It was a deep-pore examination of life on the road with a big-name rock band, a string of identical days and nights full of “pure listless boredom” and plane flights and concerts and groupies and TV and piles of comic books and cocaine. Despite the grind of the road, Gregg Allman’s life did not lack for color. He avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting drunk and shooting himself in the foot. He had a long solo career. He married, recorded with, and divorced Cher. (She was the third of his six wives.) He contracted hepatitis and arthritis. He got a liver transplant. Late in life he wrote a memoir, My Cross to Bear, with Alan Light. As a writer, Allman may not be in a league with Patti Smith, but the book has its moments, including a line that would have made an unbeatable epitaph: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life.” Clancy Sigal If you favor writers who live long colorful implausible lives, Clancy Sigal, who died on July 16 at 90, is your man. Sigal’s resume reads like overcooked fiction: he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; he was Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood agent; he was noteworthy enough to make the anti-Communist blacklist; he had to dodge FBI agents; he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he was Doris Lessing’s lover (and the model for Saul Green in her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook); he underwent therapy and dropped acid with the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing; he organized Detroit autoworkers; he was a popular commentator on the BBC. Somehow, Sigal also found time to write, producing essays, novels, memoirs, and the screenplay for the 1992 Salma Hayek movie, Frida. His best known book was 1961’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir, an autobiographical account of a blacklisted Hollywood agent’s picaresque cross-country trip aboard a DeSoto convertible, during which the hero discovers a fractured nation and his own fractured self. It was seen as a rebuttal to Jack Kerouac’s effervescence, and it became a finalist for the National Book Award. The critic John Leonard offered this praise: “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” Sigal never stopped working. He was busy blogging a couple of days before he died. Dick Gregory Dick Gregory didn’t hector or lecture about America’s racial divide but went at it sideways, with a dagger instead of a sledgehammer. Classic early Dick Gregory has him going into a restaurant in the segregated South, where the waitress informs him: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.” To which he replies: “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people nowhere. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.” Gregory, who died on Aug. 19 at 84, wrote a dozen books, and his 1964 autobiography, nigger, was built on this strategy for neutering an epithet through frank exposure and overuse: “I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?” Gregory was soon on the front lines of the civil rights movement, which led to beatings and a dozen arrests, a gunshot wound. Other issues that inspired his activism included the Vietnam War, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment, South African apartheid, and the rights of Native Americans. Sometimes he flirted with the bizarre, speculating that “whoever the people are who control the system” were behind the killings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then again, there are more than a few people don’t find anything bizarre about such suspicions. Gregory famously embraced various diet fads, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. At the end, he was still able to laugh. “Here’s how you can tell when you’re getting old,” he said late in life. “When someone compliment you on those beautiful alligator shoes you’re wearing—and you’re barefoot.” Kate Millett Kate Millett’s polemical bombshell, Sexual Politics, burst on the scene in 1970. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel soon graced the cover of Time magazine, which was then the gold standard of a writer’s anointment as Truly Important. Sexual Politics began as a doctoral thesis, and it used literary criticism and historical analysis to dismantle such supposed avatars of sexual liberation as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, and Norman Mailer. Millett, who died on Sept. 6 at 82, portrayed such men as cogs in a masculine machine designed to establish and perpetuate the inferior status of women. Patriarchy, Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy, the nuclear family—all, in Millett’s view, led to the “interior colonization” of women. [millions_ad] The book, out of print for many years, was reissued in a new edition last year—just in time for the avalanche of revelations of sexual misconduct that have borne out Millett’s original premise. The machine, as we seem to learn anew every day, was indeed set up to ensure the inferior status of women. It ran—until now—on women’s enforced silence. Nearly half a century after the original publication of Sexual Politics, the silence is finally being broken. Lillian Ross Lillian Ross, who died on Sept. 20 at 99, was the fly who came off the wall—with disastrous consequences. In a celebrated six-decade career as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Ross followed this reporter’s dictum: “Do not call attention to yourself.” Her unobtrusive interviewing techniques resulted in a tall stack of superb journalism, on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway to a group of rural Indiana high schoolers’ first trip to New York City. Some believe that the best book ever written about Hollywood was Ross’s Picture, from her New Yorker articles about John Huston’s tortured effort to bring Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, to the screen. But in 1998, the fly on the wall did something out of character: she called attention to herself by publishing a memoir, Here but Not Here, which revealed her 50-year love affair with the late William Shawn, the married editor of The New Yorker, whose widow and children were still alive. Many in the New York literary tribe were incensed. Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, dissed the book as “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions.” Jeremy Bernstein, a 31-year veteran of The New Yorker, called it “a deeply hurtful, self-indulgent, tasteless book that never should have been written at all.” Ross claimed to be mystified by the uproar. As she told the gossip columnist Liz Smith: “The controversy doesn’t make any sense to me.” Jim Clark Jim Clark may not be a household name, but for more than four decades, as a student, teacher, editor, then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clark was an outsize influence on generations of writers. He carried a torch passed down by the school’s earlier writing teachers—Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Bob Watson and, now, Michael Parker and Terry Kennedy, among many others. The word “generous” keeps popping up when people remember Clark, who died on Oct. 30 at 72. I experienced that generosity firsthand when Clark, who was also an ordained minister, helped me put together an essay about Greensboro’s peculiar allure for writers. Clark pointed me to a quote by Jarrell, who called the town “Sleeping Beauty,” adding that “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I join hundreds of writers in saying, “Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.” William H. Gass William H. Gass, who died on Dec. 6 at 93, is regarded by many as a father of postmodern writing (unless you think the title belongs to Miguel de Cervantes for that house of mirrors called Don Quixote). Gass, after all, coined the word “metafiction” for his favored ploy of inserting a character known as William H. Gass into fiction written by William H. Gass. But I think Gass should be remembered for four very different reasons. First, he believed sentences were sacred objects and every one should be as perfect as the writer can possibly make it. Second, while he will be remembered for his novels, especially The Tunnel, and his short stories, I’m partial to his essays, on everything from suicide to Malcolm Lowry’s epic (and suicidal) drinking, which are the work of a brilliant mind that wears its erudition lightly. Third, Gass was a metaphor machine; he said the things came at him in “squadrons.” Of the insane he wrote that “their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns.” Metal threads, he wrote, were “glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier.” And fourth, in our careerist, prize-drunk age, Gass had a refreshing disdain for literary awards, even as many were bestowed on him. “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” he wrote, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.” Simeon Booker My father was working as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1952 when the paper hired its first black reporter, a Baltimore native named Simeon Booker. But Booker lasted just two years at The Post, becoming frustrated by the limited assignments from his white editors in the nation’s rigidly segregated capital. He yearned to write about the black experience in America, and so he started contributing to the weekly Jet and the monthly Ebony, both aimed at black readers. Booker’s timing was superb. Over the next six decades, he covered many of the defining stories of the 20th century, including the brutal murder of the black teenager Emmett Till and the acquittal of his white killers, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the Bloody Sunday melee on the Pettus Bridge. He also wrote about politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people. Booker, who died on Dec. 10 at 99, found time to produce books in his long and decorated life, including Black Man’s America (1964) and Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were many courageous and talented reporters, black and white, covering the civil rights movement (see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s fine book, The Race Beat, or the memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter who also died on Dec. 10, at 87), Booker seemed to get there first, and he had access, guts, and drive that few rivals could match. And his words carried major weight. One long-time reader said she and others eagerly awaited Booker’s dispatches in Jet and Ebony, which they regarded as nothing less than “the gospel according to Simeon.” Other notables who left us this year, in alphabetical order: John Ashbery, 90, was a giant of American letters, an inimitable poet who was often imitated but never equaled. He was also an insightful art critic, and in 1976 he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award in the same year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. William Peter Blatty, 89, author of the 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, which sold 13 million copies. Blatty won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay two years later for the movie version of the book, which shattered box office records thanks to its ingenious use of projectile pea-soup vomiting and a girl with a spinning head. J.P. Donleavy, 91, whose bawdy 1955 novel The Ginger Man was banned and burned before it became a contemporary classic, with 45 million copies in print. Donleavy, who lived for many years in Ireland and was an accomplished painter, had this to say about old age: “It’s not nice, but take comfort that you won’t stay that way forever.” Paula Fox, 93, was dubbed one of America’s “least appreciated” novelists by The Nation, but she received some overdue recognition in 1999, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction to a popular reissue Fox’s signature novel, Desperate Characters. Nancy Friday, 84, author of the bestsellers My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, built her writing career on the earth-shattering premise that women have sexual fantasies. To the dismay of many feminists, Friday argued that it was by ridding themselves of shame that women can achieve professional, political, and economic equality with men. Some of Friday’s ideas have held up better than others. In 1996, appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she dismissed the importance of on-the-job sexual harassment. “The workplace,” she said, “is the meeting and mating place.” Try telling that to Salma Hayek. Sue Grafton, 77, didn’t quite make it to Z. Her so-called alphabet novels, featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, began with 1982’s A Is for Alibi and reached Y Is for Yesterday last summer. Grafton, whose influences ranged from Nancy Drew to Mickey Spillane, was at work on Z Is for Zero at the time of her death. Clifford Irving, 87, who became a millionaire, briefly, but then went to prison when his early 1970s book, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, was blocked from publication after it was proven to be one of the most sublime literary hoaxes of the 20thcentury. Robert M. Pirsig, 88, who captured the schizoid zeitgeist of the 1970s with his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies and remained on bestseller lists for a decade. Sam Shepard was that rarest thing: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—and an accomplished memoirist, musician, screenwriter, and songwriter—who became an Oscar-nominated, heart-throb movie star. His posthumous final work, Spy of the First Person, is narrated by a man suffering from a degenerative disorder much like the Lou Gehrig’s disease that killed Shepard at age 73. Robert Silvers, 87, was a founding editor of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life shaping it into one of America’s most influential literary publications. The self-effacing Silver had this to say about the editor’s role: “The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.” Richard Wilbur, 96, was a poet, translator, and opera lyricist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his meticulous, unshowy poetry. In 1988 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the nation’s poet laureate. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 83, was the un-Richard Wilbur, a Russian whose showy, defiant poems and theatrical delivery turned him into poetry’s version of an international rock star. Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism were early targets, though some grumbled that the Soviet government tolerated him while sending other dissidents to Siberia. Some went so far as to call Yevtushenko a sellout. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said of him, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Millions of fans worldwide disagreed.