Baltimore: City of Dirges and Elegies

This week about 100 or so F. Scott Fitzgerald scholars and aficionados convene in Baltimore for the conference of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. Madison Smartt Bell will give a keynote address, John Barth and Alice McDermott will attend a buffet dinner, people will give presentations like “Classy Cars: Automobiles as Representations of Class Tensions in The Great Gatsby,” and visitors will get a bus tour of the city where Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived for five years, starting in 1932. According to a preview piece on the conference in the Baltimore Sun, he spent a much of that time drunk or getting there, hanging out either with various women or writer pals like H.L. Mencken, who published his first short story.

“It’s a little dark,” society vice president Kirk Curnutt tells the Sun of that period. More detailed proof of that comes from the work of another conference attendee, Scott Donaldson, the author of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days, a new critical biography of the two authors. Donaldson details how Fitzgerald finally wrapped up Tender Is the Night while in Baltimore, but also fell into the alcoholic despair that would eventually result in the autobiographical essay collection The Crack-Up:

Fitzgerald wrote his three “gloom articles,” as he referred to them in his Ledger, in the fall of 1935. He finished “The Crack-Up itself in October 1935, “Pasting It Together” and “Handle with Care” in December. At the time he was suffering through an extremely low period in his life, during which he attempted to deaden with liquor and sex the awareness that Zelda would never be wholly well, the realization that his earning power had drastically diminished while the bills mounted ever higher, and the sense that he’d let his life and his talent waste away. In 1935 and 1936, he observed, “all my products were dirges & elegies.”

When [Esquire editor] Arnold Gingrich came calling in Baltimore one day in the spring of 1935, he found Fitzgerald in a “ratty old bathrobe” moaning about having to write another story of young love. He couldn’t do them with enthusiasm any more, and the idea of having to produce one brought up his “cold gorge.” “Well, why not write about that?” Gingrich suggested, then thought no more of the matter until, in the fall, the first of the three “Crack-Up” pieces turned up on his desk.

Another Green World

People who dismiss fiction because they don’t know “what it’s good for” or argue that “it doesn’t accomplish anything” (I know a few such folks) might want to take a look at Robert Macfarlane‘s essay in the Guardian on Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Macfarlane points out that the book, which follows a tribe of activists taking their revenge on those who’ve abused the land in the southwest desert, not only influenced a generation of environmental activists (Earth First! in particular), but was intended to do so:

Every now and then, the imaginary forms of literature feed back into the lived world with startling consequence. They assume real-world agency in ways that exceed the cliché of “life imitating art”. Abbey’s novel triggered one of these unusual feedback events. “This book, though fictional in form,” he wrote in an enigmatic epigraph, “is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all began just one year from today.”

From there, Macfarlane largely muses on why Britain doesn’t have an environmental literature to call its own, but also suggests that the theme has endured in American literature. If it has, I’m not sure Macfarlane’s examples prove his point; the only example he provides from the last two decades is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which he writes has a “vast and as yet unmapped influence.” (How do you know it’s vast if it’s unmapped?) I think of The Road more as an apocalyptic novel than an environmental novel; the two overlap, but the former has been around since the Cold War (or the Bible, if you feel like being cute about it), while books like Abbey’s were very 70s products.

To the extent I can think of examples, novels about the environment and environmentalists aren’t the deliberate calls to arms that The Monkey Wrench Gang was. Back-to-the-landers certainly don’t come off as especially admirable in T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, and the slow environmental wreckage noted in Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker registers as an inevitability, not something to be agitated against. It may be more that Abbey’s book was more of its particular moment than of any long-running American tradition that continues today. And the book’s brand of environmentalism has been corrupted in the years since, novelist Joy Williams suggests in her 2001 essay collection, Ill Nature:

Joyce Carol Oates suggests that the reason writers—real writers, one assumes—don’t write about Nature is that it lacks a sense of humor and registers no irony. It just doesn’t seem to be of the times—these slick, sleek, knowing, objective, indulgent times. And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart. A word increasingly disengaged from its association with the natural world. Urban planners, industrialists, economists, developers use it. It’s a lost word, really. A cold word, mechanistic, suited strangely to the coldness generally felt toward Nature. It’s their word now. You don’t mind giving it up.

Links: The Big Tent

The National Book Festival is this Saturday on the National Mall. Enough people have confused me for an expert to ask if I have tips regarding what to do there and how to do it, but my suggestions are all pretty obvious and simple. Bring an umbrella, regardless of what the forecast says; make a point to at least walk through the Pavilion of the States, in which every state has a table plugging its literature (it’s as close at the event will get to promoting small-press books); and get a seat early for the bigger names. (There are probably people already parked for James Patterson.) Lastly, don’t stand in line for those C-SPAN tote bags; C-SPAN brought plenty, and one must preserve one’s dignity. The lineups are largely big names and self-explanatory, but seek out David A. Taylor, who’ll be discussing his history of the WPA Writers’ Project, Soul of a People; I interviewed Taylor for the blog earlier this year.

Marianne Wiggins‘ list of the best works of American fiction.

John Krasinski discussed his film version of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men shortly before David Foster Wallace died.

The Wall Street Journal has an excerpt from Look at the Birdie, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s unpublished short fiction.

The most powerful influence on David Updike‘s fiction wasn’t his dad—it was Ann Beattie.

The Guardian uses Granta‘s Chicago issue as an opportunity to wonder if the big-city novel is dead.

Mark Twain, animal rights activist.

It’s the 25th anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany, where Mary Gordon may or may not have tried to slug Norman Mailer in the middle of a panel discussion.

Catherine Corman‘s photography book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City, which has a preface by Jonathan Lethem, sounds fascinating, and it has a stellar Web site to match.

What He Could Live With

Jeff Baker‘s lengthy feature on Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver‘s widow, closes with a sweet detail—there’s a little mailbox at Carver’s grave, and visitors can use the pen and paper nearby to leave him a message. (“I wanted to thank you in person,” one note reads.) But the feature exists thanks to a controversy—namely, Gallagher’s ongoing fight to have the stories in his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love published in their original form, before they were heavily edited by Gordon Lish.

The pre-Lish stories now exist in the new Library of America Carver edition, but not in its own standalone version. Gallagher believes that such a collection, titled “Beginners,” is what Carver would’ve wanted; others disagree, for both legalistic and personal reasons, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that when it came to all this Carver was, to pick the most precise term available, wishy-washy. Carol Sklenicka‘s forthcoming biography of Carver shows how much his moods changed when it came to Lish’s enthusiastic blue-penciling. He was by turns the nervous up-and-comer grateful for any editorial attention; the fragile alcoholic in a panic over what the What We Talk About edits would do to his psyche; and, toward the end, relatively disinterested in turf wars and seemingly aware of Lish’s positive contributions to his reputation. Carver didn’t take well to Lish’s actions early on, but as he neared his first publication in Esquire he cooled off slightly, Sklenicka writes:

A year earlier [in 1969], Carver had cringed under Lish’s criticism and begged for simple rejections, but now he thanked Lish for taking a pen to his manuscripts. In his glee, Ray compared Lish’s work to the corrections he’d received from John Gardner when Ray was his student. The stories were now “first class,” Ray told Lish.

By 1987, when Carver was famous and assembling his defining collection, Where I’m Calling From, he and his editor Gary Fisketjon agreed to a mix of old and new stories, many Lish-free but eight from What We Talk About that were edited by Lish. Sklenicka writes:

The volume of thirty-seven selected and new stories would be called Where I’m Calling From. These, Ray told Maryann [Burk, his first wife], were stories he felt “he could live with. And, yes, be remembered by.” In an introduction for the deluxe edition, he emphasizes that the stories were written over a twenty-five-year span, and concludes that “any writer will tell you he wants to believe his work will undergo a metamorphosis, a sea change, a process of enrichment if he’s been at it long enough.”

The open question—and Sklenicka wisely renders no judgment on the matter—is how critical Lish was to that “process of enrichment.”

Comedic Powers

Richard Powers, for all his talents, isn’t much for laughs. The only true clunker of a moment in his new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement is when he attempts to mimic a late-night comedian’s gags. This is something of a blessing. Like many big-idea novelists, Powers has an interest in mass culture, but he’s less interested in mocking or satirizing it than explaining why it has such a pull on people; his obsession with viral messages in Generosity matches his longtime obsession with diseases and genetics.

Given his typically respectful tone, it’s a pleasant surprise to see Powers succeed at bringing the funny in a new story in the latest issue of the Paris Review, “Enquire Within Upon Everything.” It’s not online but worth seeking out (same goes for the lengthy “Art of Fiction” interview with James Ellroy). “Say a boy is born in a middle-class suburb of the large Midwestern metropolis of C,” it opens, and from there details the life of the man, affecting a “Shouts & Murmurs”-ish tone to show his increasing immersion in the soup of online information. As he grows older, he “discovers that the entire Web is tending toward an accuracy of about fifty-five percent. His estimate itself turns out to be about seventy percent correct.”

Powers’ quips serve a familiar message: Our willingness to allow electronic messages to control and define us makes our existence absurd. (“Over the course of his lifetime, the boy is told forty-seven times by humans, and two hundred and thirty-one times by bots, to read the stories of Borges, but somehow fails ever to do so.”) And eventually the tale becomes somber enough to let the gravity of that message come through. But there’s plenty of playfulness in the story as well, and it’s fun to see Powers reveal that side of himself. The story will be published next year in un-funnily titled collection Switching Codes: Thinking Through New Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, edited by Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover.

On American Rust

Few good novels come as stuffed full of lectures as Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, which tracks the lives of a handful of people in the economically decimated Monongahela Valley after a murder. Every once in a while, after the plot has moved along sufficiently, a bit of dialogue like this springs up:

“You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore.” He shrugged. “There’s only so good you can be about pushing a mop or emptying a bedpan. we’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses. Personally I don’t care for it, but those things are inevitable. The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country.”

The only person on Earth who actually says things like that out loud is David Simon—and only then in front of an audience, I suspect. Passages like that should spell trouble for a novel that deals in realism, one that attempts to accurately portray the gritty truth about prison life, train yards, cops, bars, and doublewides. I read the first 75 or so pages skeptical about Meyer’s ability to have it both ways—would he write a novel or a jeremiad? Ultimately Meyer opts to write a novel, and one that succeeds in part because he has two sharply defined lead characters: Billy, a high-school football star and local troublemaker wrongly accused of killing a drifter; and Isaac, who actually did the deed and attempts to escape by hopping trains out west.

Meyer spends a lot of time in the heads of both men, and their characters are distinguished as much by their interior monologues as by what actually happens to them. Billy’s thoughts are earnest but simple. (“He would go to the library and fill out the applications for schools, April 10th now, another day advancing, it would not stop until he died. Only even then it would not stop, the day he died would be like any other day. He hoped that was a long way off.”) Isaac is the bright one, and he swims from thought to thought, scraps of information popping into his head, allowing Meyer to keep the language colorful while also capturing Isaac’s mindset. (“Internal pain, turns the stomach. Better to break an arm. Depends. Good rib-break better than bad arm-break. Leg-break the worst—can’t move—done for. Plus lose a quart of blood per femur. Reason they break your legs on the cross—act of mercy.”)

That kind of rigorous insularity extends to the remaining handful of characters in the novel. Poe’s mother, Isaac’s sister, and the local police chief, together with Isaac and Billy, make for a tight knot of characters, and if five interior monologues seem like two or three too many to keep track of, it’s doesn’t seem like a lot when five people encompass a world. Meyer’s loudly broadcasted messages are matched by a more subtle one: Lacking large economic engines and lacking social supports, people turn tribal, and each moral decision one member of the tribe makes affects everybody else. Meyer’s great achievement in the novel is showing how those small decisions radiate outward so strongly.

Meyer spends enough time drilling deep into the heads of his characters to earn the right to his mini-essays on death of America’s manufacturing base. That’s smart thinking: Journalistic strategies and novelistic strategies don’t tend to mix well. Meyer only makes the mistake of attempting to explicitly blend the two only once, toward the end of the novel as Isaac hitches a ride with a trucker:

The driver winked at him again. “You mind holding on a second? You ought to listen to this guy who’s coming on.”


“You know him?”

Isaac could hear the voice chattering away. “I think my dad likes this guy.”

“G. Gordon Liddy.” He shrugged. “I don’t always agree with him but he’s interesting.”

Isaac settled himself while the driver turned the radio up. Then suddenly he turned it down again.

“I realized my point,” he said. “There’s no mystery for your generation. But back to our programming.” He turned up the radio again.

Removed from the novel proper, that’s a reasonable enough exchange, the kind of chatter that might really happen in a semi cab. But by this point, Meyer has led the reader to pay attention to big statements, and the one that arrives after all this signaling—hang on, he’s turning down the radio!—couldn’t be emptier. “There’s no mystery for your generation” could just be some dumb thing chatty truckers say about society, but preceded by all the smart things others say about society, it reads like a noisy statement of theme, and a banal one at that. Mercifully, tough, Meyer doesn’t dwell on it. One page later Isaac’s out of the truck and walking down the highway, alone with his thoughts, a better place for him and the novel to be.

Links: First Family

The Center for Fiction has announced the finalists for its first novel prize: Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, Patrick Somerville‘s The Cradle, Paul Harding‘s Tinkers, Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, and John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner. I can strongly endorse both The Vagrants and American Rust—more on the latter soon.

Daniel Menaker catalogs the various agonies of working in the publishing business today. “When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public,” he writes, which rankles Michael Orthofer: “Why not give literary discernment a try?” he asks. I suspect the books reflecting literary discernment don’t get financed without the largesse that’s facilitated only when you luck out at making books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like.

Case in point: MacAdam/Cage, a small press that prides itself on publishing fiction of literary discernment, is having financial troubles. Unfortunately, this means a delay for Jack Pendarvis’ upcoming novel, Shut Up, Ugly, but he’s taking it in stride.

On October 13 in New York, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and others will participate in a reading of documents relating to the torture of detainees.

In related DeLillo news, the new cover for the paperback edition of White Noise is both very attractive and uncannily appropriate—something about illustrator Michael Cho’s style slyly echoes the satirical, pop-culture-soaked tone of the novel.

Leonard Gardner recalls his work on Fat City, both the book and the film. Regarding the fact that he never wrote a second novel, he has a stock answer: “Sometimes you only get to win one championship.”

A reminder that John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t admired in all quarters when it was first published.

In 1908 when burglars broke into Mark Twain‘s home in Redding, Connecticut. Twain would quip shortly after the incident: “Now they (the burglars) are in jail, and if they keep on, they will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can never tell where he is going to stop.”

And American Agriculturist would like to call bullshit on people who compare the works of Michael Pollan et al to Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle.

The Nonfiction Turn

A couple of days ago the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean noted on Twitter that she was preparing to teach a course in nonfiction writing and was looking for great examples of it. The list of responses she received is a long one, which is heartening, though the fact that so many of the examples come from previous generations isn’t—-much as I like Royko and Kidder and Didion and Mitchell (not to mention Orlean), it’s a familiar hit parade. (I contributed to the problem by recommending Norman Sims‘ two great anthologies, The Literary Journalists and Literary Journalism, both a few decades old at this point.) All this may simply be a function of people being inclined to recommend books instead of individual pieces, and it takes forever for good nonfiction to earn its way into hardcover; when it comes to magazine articles, heaven knows there’s still lots of great, great, great stuff being published.

Orlean’s list also got me thinking about good examples of fiction writers who’ve successfully transitioned into nonfiction. It’s a dodgy category—Nicholson Baker‘s Double Fold and Haruki Murakami‘s Underground both take on serious subjects but have a surprising lack of narrative thrust, swallowed as they are by the parade of details; though I’ve tried to crack both William T. Vollmann‘s The Atlas and Poor People, both felt so loosely formed that I couldn’t keep going (the latter mainly reminded me of how much I preferred Ted Conover‘s Rolling Nowhere).

Fiction writers seem to do better when they’re talking about themselves and their craft. First-person features are rarely as funny and thought-provoking as when David Foster Wallace stepped on a cruise ship or into a state fair; Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life and Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking both address transformative moment’s in a writer’s life, albeit at very different points on the spectrum.

All three of those writers are mentioned on Orlean’s list. In the interest of expanding that list and getting a few more suggestions, a handful more by writers better known for their fiction: Edwidge Danticat‘s Brother, I’m Dying, an excellent piece of reportage about both her childhood and her uncle’s ill-fated attempt to escape Haiti’s turmoil; Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth, still one of the best portraits of the white-knuckle fear that comes along with trying to make it in publishing; Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer, among the most thoughtful and analytical writer’s guides available (sharper than Stephen King‘s On Writing, less persnickety than James Wood‘s How Fiction Works); and Nelson Algren‘s prose poem Chicago: City on the Make, a beautifully turned but brutal critique of his hometown.

“David Goodis is my favorite writer though I hardly know why.”

A nice thing to stumble over: For about a month now Lou Boxer has been keeping a blog dedicated to the life and work of crime novelist David Goodis. It’s a worthy project, and Boxer is the right person to do it (he helped put together Goodiscon, a festival dedicated to Goodis’ work, and his research was helpful when I was working on an a piece on some Goodis reissues a couple of years back). The Writer in the Gutter is a little all over the place, stuffed as it is with photos, pulp-magazine covers, essays, and some overly enthusiastic use of the highlight tag. But it seems determined to capture a lot of elements of Goodis’ life—personal, literary, and potboiling—and it includes Robert Polito‘s fine introduction to The Street of No Return reissue, which helps explain why he’s worth all this obsession:

David Goodis (1917-1967) appears to be the figure always most in need of reclamation, his books drifting out of print, his status shadowy, ever elusive…. [S]entence-by-sentence, I would argue, Goodis is our most crafty and elegant crime stylist. Noir is characteristically a language of objects, places, and names, an idiom that in a few bluff words summons worlds. Listen to the opening sentence of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me: “I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him.” William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley: “Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.” But noir language just as distinctively proceeds by chipping away at the world and itself until there’s only a vanishing distress signal from a void. Early on in Dark Passage (1946) Goodis advanced a vernacular prose of rococo repeated phrases that limn, then all but erase his characters.

When Jim Met Jack

In 1998 I spent about a half hour in the dressing room of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco interviewing the Jim Carroll, who died of a heart attack last Friday. It happened at the last minute, unsolicited, and I wasn’t very well schooled in his poetry. But I did admire his memoir, The Basketball Diaries, and loved “People Who Died.” So we talked about those things and about his years in the Bay Area, where he finished up that book, got clean, and started his punk band. My recollection of him is hazy—thin, smoking a lot, very engaged, with a voice that’s a strange mix of lilt and gravel. I recall encouraging him to talk more about his days in the town of Bolinas partly because I liked how he pronounced it, stretching the middle syllable out. Boh-leeeen-iss.

I’m not sure how trustworthy the factoids in the brief article that resulted are, though it would be nice if the Dalai Lama were indeed a fan of “People Who Died.” He certainly didn’t sound like he was bragging, and his discussions about his literary heroes generally seemed to be earthbound. Jack Kerouac blurbed The Basketball Diaries, writing that “at 13 years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89% of the novelists working today,” and in 1999 he told an interviewer how he scored that blurb. He wasn’t actually a big reader of Kerouac, but he was a great admirer of the beat poets who circled around him (h/t Steve Silberman):

I got to see him … in New York, between six and eight months before he died. He had to come into New York once in a while to see his agent. He was at Larry Rivers’ house, and of course he was surrounded by all his old friends. I went up to him, and he said he had gotten the manuscript. He said he would write me a letter of introduction. I didn’t want to publish the book then. I wanted to establish myself not as a street writer, but as a poet. What he was essentially doing was giving me a blurb. When I did decide to publish The Basketball Diaries, Anne Waldman solicited a blurb from Burroughs for the jacket of the original edition.

Kerouac sent me this letter, and said, if your publisher wants a blurb, here. I feel funny about blurbs. Myself, I don’t like to use them. But now, I get sent books from people who want blurbs, and I feel like I should reciprocate. Maybe it is bad form not to, but I usually don’t do it. I try to avoid it. Certainly, that quote from Kerouac has been wonderful for me. I feel he was being very generous. I know he wouldn’t have written it if he hadn’t liked the work; I think he felt I was carrying on a certain spirit that was influenced by him. He thought I was carrying a torch, and in a spiritual sense, I was.