The Institute’s fall 1997 season is exciting in prospect, diverse in style, and luminous in content. Although the newsletter highlights some of our upcoming events, you can find even more information in our on-line magazine about our newest schedule of award-winning novelists, poets, journalists, and filmmakers, as well as in-depth articles on and interviews with such writers as Mary Gordon, Paul Metcalf, Don DeLillo, Carolyn Forche and William Gaddis.
Of all the recent developments at the Institute, the most exciting is the airing in the Albany and upstate region of our new Public Television series, The Writer, on Sunday evenings at 7:00 p. m. on WMHT (channel 17) beginning September 7. The show, which will have twelve episodes throughout the fall, consists of in-depth documentary portraits of well-known writers affiliated with the Institute, among them Joyce Carol Oates, Shelby Foote, Frank McCourt, Russell Banks, Edna O'Brien, Wole Soyinka, and Jamaica Kincaid. Each episode of The Writer contains readings, interviews, and reflections, deftly assembled to highlight the writer’s principal interests, qualities of expression, writing process, and personal beliefs. Much livelier in style than the traditional “talking heads” format, the show distills hours of footage into a quick-paced, yet smooth and profound exploration of the writer at work.
With the support of WMHT, and the capable efforts of Hugo Perez, our producer/director, we believe we have hit on a format that is both new and lasting. It also addresses a need for intelligent and energetic literary television; no regularly aired program of its kind currently exists. After a pilot run of some six shows on WMHQ this past summer, we have received such an enthusiastic response from both audiences and television personnel, and such high praise for our design and production values, that we feel the show will receive wide regional recognition and national exposure.
As we expand our reach to communities attuned to television, the Internet, and beyond, we continue to thank the audiences that have made our live events so successful. Your ongoing support and enthusiasm sustain our endeavors. Thanks.
Donald W. Faulkner, Associate Director, New York State Writers InstituteTop of Page
Terminal Velocity, by Blanche McCrary Boyd, begins with a staged production of Alice in Wonderland put on by members of Red Moon Rising, a radical lesbian commune in the early 1970s. Rain, formerly a married junior book editor named Ellen Burns Sommers, currently the Ten of Hearts tripping on psilocybin, is approached by two FBI agents seeking her fugitive lover, Jordan Wallace.
Boyd’s novel is a down-the-rabbit-hole adventure that traces Rain/Ellen’s initiation into the anarchy and merriment of the counterculture. She plunges into this new life with reckless energy. Artemis Foote, the commune’s original organizer, tells her: “No gears. You’ve got no gears, Ellen, and I can tell that about you. You’ve got stop and go, that’s all.”
After outwitting the FBI agents, Rain and Jordan hit the road. With the aid of Jordan’s underground connections, other self-proclaimed revolutionaries, they hop from motel to motel until Rain’s sloppy attempt at stealing a Hershey bar lands her in a mental ward and Jordan in prison. After her “recovery,” she moves to the “real world” of L.A., where she works on a late-night soap opera and begins to snort cocaine.
Boyd’s fiction and nonfiction are marked by a taste for peculiar characters, and Terminal Velocity provides a veritable circus of them, from humorless Marxist/Leninists to ecstatic mystics. While the novel appears to celebrate the joyous freedom of sexual revolution and “mind-expanding” drugs, it also explores the darker side of a “world-without-boundaries.” Many characters self-destruct, and Ellen, a compulsive thrill-seeker, comes extremely close. She manages eventually to find a measure of peace in the sport of sky-diving and the notion of terminal velocity, “no faster way to fall.”
“My arms yielded, my legs yielded, my heart yielded, and I closed my eyes. With my eyes shut I rose above my falling self. My self was in darkness, the darkness swallowed me, and it was not so bad.”
Terminal Velocity, which Boyd calls her “war novel,” is a glimpse of the female experience with power and self-determination during the second rise of the feminist movement. Ellen/Rain is a loosely-based autobiographical figure, and her experiences reflect some of Boyd’s own. Boyd’s previous novel, The Revolution of Little Girls, first introduced the many-faceted Ellen and many of Boyd’s themes: “Southern girlhood, lesbian feminist awakening, psychic rupture” (Voice Literary Supplement). Terminal Velocity is the second novel in what the author considers a trilogy. The third novel, about Ellen’s brother Royce, will be, according to Boyd, “all the fiction for this lifetime.”
Boyd regards herself primarily as a journalist and essayist. The Redneck Way of Knowledge, a collection of mostly nonfiction pieces, became an underground classic after its 1982 publication, and was reissued by Vintage Contemporaries in 1994 with an introduction by Dorothy Allison. The reviewer for The Nation called it “impressive . . . superb . . . the best kind of social criticism.” The Philadelphia Inquirer dubbed Boyd “a cross between Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson.”
Elaine Kaplowe is a masters student in the University at Albany’s English Department.
Klara Sax, one of many characters in Don DeLillo’s massive new novel, Underworld, is an artist who specializes in reclaiming and beautifying garbage. Her chef d’oeuvre is an arrangement of B-52 long-range bombers scrapped at the end of the Cold War, rainbow-painted and planted in an old weapons testing site in New Mexico. The novel is itself a kind of Cold War monument, monumental in size (827 pages), and encyclopedic in its commemoration of that period in America--from Soviet A-test to Soviet break-up.
The novel begins with the historic third game of the 1951 pennant playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bobby Thompson hits the winning home run into the stands where it is recovered by a Harlem streetkid named Cotter Martin. The baseball changes hands a number of times in the days and decades that follow, and its journey unifies the novel’s many stories.
Baseball is only one of many games that figure prominently in Underworld , all of which embody the American drive to win. Everything is a game: the adman’s pitch, the conman’s hustle, the adulterer’s come-on, all efforts to overcome the opponent’s resistance. Games transcend their actual importance to become outsized exaggerated life-and-death struggles. One of the main characters, a Dodger fan named Nick Shay, comments, “Whenever they lost, I died inside.” Games define lives; they are the “Rosebuds” of DeLillo’s novel. Marvin Lundy, a retired clothing store mogul and collector of baseball memorabilia, plays an epic hide-and-seek with the fabled ball, stalking it with the tenacity of an Ahab, squandering his accumulated wealth along the way. The most important game of all proceeds in the background: the Cold War itself, the superpowers sizing each other up like wrestlers, circling warily, preparing to seize advantages. Not accidentally, Nick’s brother Matt is both a nuclear weapons designer and a former chess prodigy.
Garbage, in all its myriad forms, is another big preoccupation. While Klara Sax aestheticizes it, Nick Shay, a waste disposal professional, gets rid of it. In addition to handling the most mundane varieties of garbage, he entombs nuclear waste in salt domes and blows up superfluous warheads at a facility in Kazakhstan. Garbage represents the vast accumulation of matter and information upon which America is built, that shapes and undergirds its civilization, the overflow of its excess and the material record of its history. The novel’s title, Underworld, refers to America’s buried past; like Schliemann at Troy, DeLillo excavates this past layer by layer.
DeLillo is surely one of America’s foremost “pop-archaeologists,” an expert on everything from magazine ads to Jello recipes to sports trivia. He buries us in the bounty of his knowledge, simulating a modern-age bombardment of media messages and product packaging. As the fans at the baseball game bury the New York Polo Grounds in a blizzard of paper waste, DeLillo provides a kaleidoscopic catalogue of the contents:
“The pages keep falling. Baby food, instant coffee, encyclopedias and cars, waffle irons and shampoos and blended whiskeys. . . the resplendent products, how the dazzle of a Packard car is repeated in the feature story about the art treasures of the Prado. It is all part of the same thing. Rubens and Titian and Playtex and Motorola. And here’s a picture of Sinatra himself sitting in a nightclub in Nevada with Ava Gardner and would you check that cleavage. . . . It is coming down from all points, laundry tickets, envelopes swiped from the office, there are crushed cigarette packs and sticky wrap from ice cream sandwiches, pages from memo pads and pocket calendars, they are throwing faded dollar bills, snapshots torn to pieces, ruffled paper swaddles for cupcakes, they are tearing up letters they’ve been carrying for years pressed into their wallets, the residue of love affairs and college friendships, it is happy garbage now, the fans’ intimate wish to be connected to the event, unendably, in the form of pocket litter, personal waste, a thing that carries a shadow identity--rolls of toilet tissue unbolting lyrically in streamers.”
DeLillo celebrates American excess in all its forms. The book is a word-feast, an avalanche. The author’s breath-taking verbal riffs owe as much to jazz as they do to the irrepressible Lenny Bruce. The comedian makes a couple of appearances in the novel, talking a perpetual blue streak:
“Lenny switched abruptly to ad lib bits. Whatever zoomed across his brainpan. He did bits he got bored with five seconds in. He did psychoanalysis, personal reminiscence, he did voices and accents, grandmotherly groans, scenes from prison movies, and he finally closed the show with a monologue that had a kind of abridged syntax, a thing without connectives, he was cooking free-form, closer to music than speech, doing a spoken jazz in which a slang term generates a matching argot, like musicians trading fours, the road band, the sideman’s inner riff, and when the crowd dispersed they took this rap mosaic with them into the strip joints and bars and late-night diners, the places where the nighthawks congregate, and it was Lenny’s own hard bop, his speeches to the people that rode the broad Chicago night.”
DeLillo is the author of eleven novels, including White Noise (1985), which won the National Book Award, Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991). He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Mark Koplik is a doctoral student in the University at Albany’s English Department.
Don DeLillo’s Early Work
Don DeLillo has written eleven novels. All of them show a love of language and a careful shaping of exquisite sentences. In an interview by Thomas LeClair in Contemporary Literature, DeLillo said that one of the most satisfying things to him as a writer was “working at sentences and rhythms.” He started in his first published story in Epoch in l960, and has continued through Underworld. But DeLillo is not just a master of the insightful, precise sentence. He is a master of language. He loves slang, jargon, wordplay, babble, slogans, and the specialized vocabularies of various professions. In the course of his career he has used them all. Ratner’s Star uses the specialized language of mathematics. In End Zone, DeLillo spells out the grunts and chants of college football players running out onto the field for the big game. Players gives you the fragmented, non-answer, intimate dialogue of a young married couple. In White Noise you get one-liners from the television as the sound reaches the narrator’s ears, five-way exchanges of misinformation in the family stationwagon on a drive, commands and ploys over the supermarket PA system, and much more.
In his early novels, DeLillo had a tendency to start with a domestic or enclosed plot and then abandon it in favor of a journey, usually involving espionage. Almost all the novels before White Noise are split in half in this way. In Americana the narrator leaves his TV station office to travel across the country on assignment. In The Names the husband leaves his wife on a Greek Island to investigate cult murders. DeLillo has said he doesn’t like domestic plots, but he’s good at them. The problem with these previous novels is that when the hero leaves the domestic stage to embark on his quest, the plot derails and the reader feels dissatisfied. But in White Noise the domestic plot remains intact; it is used for the quest and the espionage, instead of abandoned. The book is whole; all DeLillo’s usual elements -- the domestic setting, contemporary subjects, espionage -- work for each other, instead of pulling the book apart. For this reason I believe White Noise is DeLillo’s most successful early novel.
Domestic setting, contemporary subjects and espionage are the three basic ingredients of a DeLillo novel. Players, Running Dog and The Names are spy novels, little gems of mystery and intrigue, page-turning whodunits. DeLillo believes "the soul of the spy is the model for us all." He grew up on Goddard movies and knows enough about the JFK assassination to have been a gumshoe himself. DeLillo’s penchant for espionage makes for suspenseful reading, and it is at its height in White Noise. At the same time it makes a very contemporary statement, revealing to us a model of our souls.
Contemporary subjects recur in DeLillo novels, and if you read them all, they form a litany of social unease. DeLillo is funny, hilarious, suspenseful, entertaining, but he brings up subjects that make us uncomfortable. Hitler is a good example. After figuring in Running Dog he reappears in White Noise. John F. Kennedy’s assassination is discussed in White Noise and remembered in Americana. If politics don’t make you uneasy there are lots of drugs and murders to trouble your sleep, modern drugs like Dylar, modern murders like cult murders. There’s plenty of sex too, all of it as contemporary and disturbing as the politics, drugs and murder: the alleged porno film in Running Dog, the bedtime erotic reading in White Noise, the stunning and grim seduction on an outdoor stairway in The Names. But DeLillo doesn’t just tackle the concrete, newsworthy malaise in contemporary life. He writes about feelings too. Like the fear of death. And the fear of death. And the fear of death. And the hostilities between men and women. There are men and women at war in every DeLillo novel. In Players they were married, in The Names getting divorced. In White Noise they are remarried, living happily with each other’s children from previous marriages, but still arguing about lies, infidelity and who is going to die first, since no one wants to be alone in DeLillo’s world -- and why would they?
If you asked eight different people what Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise was about they would tell you:
It’s one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
The DeLillo novel “came of age” through the sixties, seventies and eighties, expanding and evolving its disturbances as it progressed. White Noise is the culmination of DeLillo’s early novels.
Laura Marello is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University at Albany
Steven Millhauser, American Dreamer
In the spring of 1997, when Steven Millhauser first heard news he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel, Martin Dressler, he thought it was a hoax. Notoriously reticent, he seemed a bit unaware that the world had been following his endeavors. Although he is the author of four novels and three collections of stories, and although his readers, as one critic said, “tend to grapple him to their soul with hoops of steel,” he had worked in relative obscurity, quietly writing, raising a family, and teaching at Skidmore College for the last ten of his twenty-five year writing career.
But that career has produced some of the most wonder-filled writing in contemporary American literature. From his earliest novels, such as Edwin Mullhouse and Portrait of a Romantic through his most recent, Millhauser has explored the worlds of childhood, youth, and dreams with a sense of magic that calls to mind a unique admixture of Salinger’s serious adolescents, Nabokov’s sacred art of memory, Lewis Carroll’s fantasies of logic, Proust’s epiphanous evocations, and Blake’s homage to innocence.
Edwin Mullhouse, which won France’s Prix Medicis Etranger in 1972, the award for best novel by a foreigner, is subtitled, “The Life and Death of An American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright.” Cartwright, Millhauser’s narrator, and Boswell to Mullhouse’s Johnson, explores his subject with all of the passion, diligence, and psychological insight that a literary biographer would use. What’s odd is that the two are variously nine and eleven years old, and that Mullhouse’s “writing” is composed in stick-figured comic books. And yet, though the novel is a parody of a literary form, it would be difficult to find a more thoroughgoing phenomenology of childhood in literature. What one marvels at is how seriously, delicately, and genuinely, Millhauser explores the realities of childhood and its wisdom, whether it be in amusement park trips, in the first fascinations of love, or in looking at books after school in a friend’s basement.
In Portrait of a Romantic, Millhauser extends his explorations into adolescence. With an unmatched blend of satire and earnestness, Millhauser explores both a nineteenth-century romantic spirit and modern teenage life. Simply put, imagine a conversation among Keats, Byron, and Shelley, fraught with strange fits of passion, and melancholia, in a latter-day public high school cafeteria over some lunch, the contents of which lunch are generally brown and indeterminate. Throughout his work, including 1993’s Little Kingdoms, l990’s The Barnum Museum, From the Realm of Morpheus and In the Penny Arcade, both published in 1986, Millhauser brings the serious passions of an adult perspective to bear in moments of childhood and youthful elan.
Martin Dressler is only different in that it takes the Millhauser design into yet another literary convention, the Dreiser-like novel of American optimism and rise to success. We watch young Martin grow from bellhop to hotel magnate, seeking, as he builds the Grand Cosmo, “a creation so vast that it will rival the world itself,” to bring dream into reality.
Perhaps in order to actualize dreams of novels of the sort Millhauser writes, one has to work out of the public eye. His public readings are as rare as hen’s teeth, and even though he has won the Pulitzer Prize, it is quite likely that his reading for the Institute, with which he has been loosely affiliated over the years, will be his only American reading in 1997. It will indeed be a special event.
Donald W. Faulkner is the Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute and Associate Professor in the English Department at the University at Albany
Amos Oz, Israel’s best-known novelist, is renowned both for his portraits of ordinary modern Israelis and for the perceptive social and political commentary that pervades his work. Indeed, Oz is regarded both in his native land and abroad as a leading spokesman for Israel’s secular Left. One of Oz’s most striking talents as a writer of political allegories, however, is his unobtrusiveness. His fiction need not be read through a political magnifying glass in order to be enjoyed and admired. His stories are concerned primarily with “everyday life” in the best sense of the term: marriage, family, work, community, youth, mid-life and old age.
Oz’s most recent novel, Don’t Call It Night, which appeared in English to extraordinary critical praise in 1996, presents the reader with an unmarried couple living together in a small apartment: Theo, a nearly-retired civil engineer, and Noa, a school teacher fifteen years his junior. Chapters mostly alternate between perspectives. Theo is somewhat world-weary and skeptical of everything (he is perpetually sniffing the milk in the refrigerator, “suspicious both of the milk and of his own sense of smell”), while Noa is blindly energetic and exuberant. Theo imagines her as a bird that has mistakenly flown into the apartment “. . .and now she’s in such a panic that she can’t find the window. Which is open as it has always been. So she flutters from wall to wall, crashing into the lampshade, hitting the ceiling, bumping into the furniture, hurting herself.” Noa regards Theo as a patronizing old uncle and remarks that, “almost everything he says irritates me now.” In spite of numerous complaints and mutual irritations, they manage to remain quietly in love.
The story is set in Tel Kedar, a half-empty, sun-baked townlet in the Negev Desert. Noa is invited to chair a community board to establish a drug treatment center after one of her students dies of an overdose. The project is hampered by neighborhood resistance (a “not in my backyard” movement), municipal noncooperation, tentative financing, and squabbling among the board members. Theo regards the project with the realistic pessimism of a veteran city planner, but Noa forges ahead, purchasing a ruined building to house the clinic with Theo’s nest egg.
The novel is preoccupied with projects that neither entirely succeed nor entirely fail. These projects are emblematic of Israel itself as it copes with social division, an unfulfilled peace, an unpredictable economy and an inefficient political system. The relationship between Theo and Noa is one such project; like Israel (in Oz’s view), its success depends on a willingness to make daily compromises. Symbolically, Theo’s name recalls the original Zionist visionary Theodore Herzl. The town of Tel Kedar is also representative of the nation; it is tiny and claustrophobic, its grand ambitions (its broad tree-lined boulevards) clash with its shabby day-to-day realities. The names of its businesses betray a longing for other more enticing places: “The California Cafe,” “The Paris Theatre,” “The Champs Elysee.”
As in all his work, Oz provides a big eccentric cast, deftly portrayed in economical language. Here is one local portrait from Theo’s point of view:
“Batsheva Dinur, the mayor, a woman of my own age, strong, pink faced, with short-cropped silvery hair, a solidly built, oddly proportioned figure, sitting deep in [an] armchair, looked like a range of mountains with extensions piled up in every direction, as though she had more than four limbs. Her large horn-rimmed spectacles had slid down her nose. Her solid red arms looked rough, like old bookbindings. She always reminds me of a plump Dutch grandmother, or an innkeeper’s wife ruling with a firm hand all those around her.”
Amos Oz is the author of a number of internationally well-known works, including My Michael (1972), Black Box (1988), To Know a Woman (1990) and Fima (1993). Black Box, a depiction of kibbutz life, won the Prix Femina Etranger, France’s top annual literary award for best foreign novel. Oz has been translated into over thirty languages, writes frequently for the New Yorker and The New York Times, and holds the S. Y. Agnon Chair in Literature at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva. A 1979 collection of essays on Israeli politics and literature, Under This Blazing Light, was published in 1995 in its first English edition by Oxford University Press.
Mark Koplik is a doctoral student in the University at Albany’s English Department.
Paul Metcalf’s Collected Works, the third and last volume of which will be published in the fall of 1997, constitutes a profound and necessary history of America. If one wants to look up a fact, of course, there are better sources, but for the curious reader interested in the meaning of American history, there are few better places to begin. It is history, on the one hand, of an on-going trauma, a cannibalism, a ruthless squandering of riches, and on the other hand, of a wonder and beauty of highest order.
The story of this contradiction cannot, of course, be told in the usual narrative. Metcalf’s technique is collage and his form is the book. The Collected consists of twenty-two books. The first two, Will West and Genoa, can be called “novels” without doing great violence to the term, but the third, Patagoni, is something else, perhaps a book-length poem. In Middle Passage and Apalache, a unique new form appears—an inspired scholarship, a way of thought. These books belong to a tradition of the peculiarly American art that includes Moby Dick and Clarel, the author of which happens to be Metcalf’s great-grandfather, the music of Charles Ives, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain and Paterson, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Guy Davenport writes, “Pervading all of Metcalf’s work is a tragic sense of the past, of a grief for how far wrong we’ve gone, how uselessly bloody our past has been, how ignorant we are of that past, and how inscrutably strange our biological nature is.”
In many of the books, the interest derives directly from unlikely juxtapositions. In Genoa, which is perhaps Metcalf’s masterpiece, he juxtaposes a meditation on Melville, on Columbus, and a famous kidnapping case of the 1950’s; The Middle Passage juxtaposes a consideration of the Luddites, the slave trade, and the whale fisheries. Of Apalache and the later works, which depend almost entirely upon collaged materials, Metcalf says in an interview, “The more disembodied it becomes, the more personal it becomes? This was not a conscious action on my part, but simply something that happened. . . . In other words, there is an overriding consciousness there. . . . It falls or stands on the presence of that organizing consciousness.” Metcalf’s books are the product of extensive research, a kind of archaeology. Most of the books have extensive bibliographies. Metcalf offers some measure of how useful information can be in the hands of one who knows what it is for, of one who takes the responsibility of consciousness.
Perhaps it is possible to think of Metcalf’s books as excerpts from the encyclopedia of some future culture which has learned to use information rather than allowing itself to be used by it.
Don Byrd is a Professor in the Department of English, University at Albany
Author of six books and winner of the O’Henry Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award, Tobias Wolff is deeply rooted in memoir and autobiography: “All of my stories are in one way or another autobiographical. Sometimes they’re autobiographical in the actual events which they describe, sometimes more in their depiction of a particular character . . . you could say that all of my characters are reflections of myself,” he says.
Wolff is perhaps best known for his 1988 memoir This Boy’s Life--a coming-of-age tale which became the basis of the 1993 film of the same name starring Robert DeNiro and Ellen Barkin. The memoir begins in 1955 with young Tobias and his mother Rosemary driving an unpredictable Nash Rambler from Florida to Utah, getting away “from a man my mother was afraid of. . . hoping to get rich on uranium.” The mother-son duo eventually ends up in Chinook, Washington--a tiny village north of Seattle where Rosemary marries a sadistic mechanic who humiliates Tobias on a regular basis; stealing his paper route money and shooting his dog. Taking a cue from his real father, a con man whose activities ranged from passing bad checks and stealing cars to compulsive drinking and gambling, the memoir ends with Tobias on his way back East on a scholarship to the exclusive Hill School--acquired entirely through the forging of both academic transcripts and letters of recommendation.
After being expelled from the Hill School, Wolff later enlisted in the special forces and became an advisor to the South Vietnamese from 1964-68. After the war he accompanied a friend to England and fell in love with Oxford. Eight months later he passed the entrance exams and enrolled in the University. Following graduation, Wolff worked an unsuccessful stint as a reporter in Washington before being awarded a Stegner fellowship to Stanford University, where he began seriously writing stories. “Smokers,” his first story, appeared in 1976 in the Atlantic Monthly, followed by stories in Vogue and TriQuarterly before publication of his first book In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1984).
Wolff cites his greatest influences as Hemingway, Chekhov, John Cheever, and the late Raymond Carver, whose work gave him a sense of confirmation: “I felt an immediate affinity for his standards of honesty and exactness, his refusal to do anything cheap in a story.” Wolff attributes his affinity to short stories over the more sedentary novel to the rather nomadic life he lead as a child: “I found stories better suited to my particular gifts . . . I liked everything about them--the power, the directness, the unity of impression, the ability they have to conjure up a whole world in a few pages.” Often taking as long as three months to feel satisfied with a particular story, he describes his pace as glacial. Working in a sound-proof attic for “at least six hours” a day, he makes use of frequent revisions in order to learn more about his characters: “That’s why I re-write, to try to find ways of getting closer and closer to my characters.”
In his latest collection of short fiction The Night in Question (1996), Wolff’s characters seek desire, love, and authenticity, encountering both external and internal barriers along the way. A number of the collection’s stories reenter the familiar terrain of boyhood, with all of its bittersweet hope and disappointments. In “Firelight,” the narrator and his mother tread precariously on the fringes of poverty: “My mother swore we’d never live in a boarding house again. . .but circumstances did not allow her to keep this promise.” Instead boy and mother are kept awake nights by a retired merchant seaman, coughing his lungs out below, and spend weekends shopping around for apartments far out of their price range. While combing the university section of town one Saturday, a particular domestic arrangement rivets the narrator, haunting him well into adulthood. As the present occupants of the house, a university professor and his doting wife, show his mother around, the son takes a seat beside the fire where the couple’s daughter sits, eating brownies and reading books. Years later he recalls: “I have my own fireplace now. . .this is my dream of home, but in the very heart of it I catch myself bracing a little, as if in fear of being tricked. As if to really believe in it will somehow make it vanish like a voice waking me from sleep.”
The jaunty “Bullet in the Brain” finds a cynical book critic in the midst of a bank robbery. Annoyed by the robbers’ cliched, inauthentic language, the narrator fails to suppress laughter, and in so doing loses his life. What the narrator remembers in the last moments of his life has nothing to do with his vocation but rather with the nostalgia of a summer afternoon spent as a child: “Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree, as the boys of the neighborhood gathered for a pickup game.”
Wolff’s stories consistently stir the reader with musical poignancy. Above all, they approach humanity with an unforgettable generosity, reminding us, as Wolff contends, that writing is ultimately an optimistic act: “Writing assumes that someone cares to hear what you have to say . . . the ultimate despair is silence.”
Christine Atkins is a doctoral student in the University at Albany’s English Department.
Douglas Bauer’s newest novel, The Book of Famous Iowans, will appear in the autumn of 1997. It presents the reader with the disintegration of a family in a small town in America’s heartland. LeAnne Vaughn, a married woman, falls in love with the star pitcher of the local baseball club. Will Vaughn, her son by her first marriage, examines the causes and painful consequences of this romantic entanglement from a remove of fifty years.
Bauer’s novels are preoccupied with the darker side of recent American experience. His first, Dexterity (1989), recounts a harrowing working class tragedy set in a small town in upstate New York. His second, The Very Air (1993), traces the career of a medical con artist in Texas who makes a fortune selling surgical implants of baboon gonads to impotent men.
Bauer talked about The Very Air during a Book Show interview with the late Tom Smith in December, 1993 (excerpts follow).
Tom Smith: The Very Air is the gripping and curious story of the rise and fall of charismatic doctor Luther Matthias, Texas medicine man, who possesses the remedy for male sexual impotence, but the story does have real historical roots, is that correct? There was a Doctor John Brinkley who more or less inspired your character?
Doug Bauer: The historical figure John Brinkley flourished in the West Texas-Mexican border area throughout the decades of the Twenties, Thirties and into the Forties in the same way that my fictional Luther Matthias does, and his biography provided the genesis of the book. At that point, however, the comparison between the novel and the real character ends because it was important to me to create a wholly fictional life for my character, but the essential scheme is one that actually occured.
Tom Smith: Now the inspiration for Luther Matthias’s miraculous remedy for sexual impotence was the Steinech book, Sex and Life and Veronoff's The Conquest of Life, and these men really existed and started a whole medical fad. Let me just read a passage from The Very Air:
"In his office on his desk lay Veronoff's The Conquest of Life. He opened it, removed his bookmark and read, 'Decrepit old men are in reality eunuchs, they have been emasculated not by the criminal hand of man but by the cruel hand of nature. When they cease to function, when they lose their affective ardor, there occurs in their physical moral and intellectual condition a characteristic modification that makes them for all practical purposes akin to eunuchs.'"
Tom Smith: Just a footnote. Was not the great William Butler Yeats one of the people who made a pilgrimmage to Steinech’s clinic for monkey gland injections?
Doug Bauer: He was indeed.
Tom Smith: Now, what summoned your muse? What grabbed you most about this story that led you to mythologize it and make a novel out of it?
Doug Bauer: I heard about it appropriately enough listening to the radio one morning. There was a feature on NPR that talked about this character Brinkley, and it seemed to me at the time that this was something so metaphorically rich that I could make something of it. My initial reaction was no more specific than that. I thought about it as a way of talking not just about America’s past, but using history metaphorically in order to explain what goes on in the current culture, America’s obsession with “the quick fix” to make us all etenally happy, the whole idea that media so profoundly shapes how we think and feel, those are quite current preoccupations of mine and this provided a way to talk about them through the metaphor of history.
Tom Smith:The figure of the confidence man is a great force and almost has a sacred history in American myth and culture, does it not? Why is that? Are we, more than most cultures, vulnerable, fascinated, taken with conmen?
Doug Bauer: I think the evidence would suggest that we are. For me, the most compelling parallel is the political conmen of our own time and throughout recent history. As a character in my novel says at one point, one thing that’s so great about America is that if you don’t like the history you were given you’re free to invent another one. We as a culture are so willing to accept what we’re told that the conmen flourish. I think that the idea of the conman as a mythic figure is something I was less interested in. What I was trying to do with Luther was to not make him of heroic stature but rather of deeply human stature and to talk about the way that humanity is represented in the conman mentality.
Tom Smith: Speaking of self-invention, it was not at all accidental that this novel was inspired during the Reagan years, was it?
Doug Bauer: You’ve got it. You’re right on the money. (Laughter).
Tom Smith: Let me read these two little epigraphs to your book. The first is from the biblical Book of Hebrews. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Then comes this little wonderful line from Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, “Illusions need not necessarily be false.” I have two questions about Luther. Is there any evidence first of all that this kind of monkey gland implant, baboon gonad as it was in Luther’s case, really helped anyone regain potency and power or was it a state of mind?
Doug Bauer: From everything I’ve been able to read about it, it had in some cases a profound placebo effect. In fact, when the real character Brinkley was on trial, he in a fit of hubris brought suit against the American Medical Association for slandering him. A trial resulted and he lost the case, which precipitated his downfall. But there were hundreds of former patients who came down to Del Rio to testify in his behalf who claimed the procedure had indeed worked. Every sound medical discussion of it both then and since suggests that not only was the surgery ineffectual, but impossible at the time, given the attachment of tiny vessels, the vascular procedures that the practitioners described. Something very bogus was going on but there were many satisfied clients.
Tom Smith: Is Luther Matthias self-deceived? Does he think of himself finally in heroic and messianic terms? There are some scintillating passages toward the end that suggest that he might.
Doug Bauer: Yes. I think so, Tom. And that was one of the great points of interest for me as I was writing the book. The overriding questing is whether such a figure as Luther ever comes to believe in what he does. One of the great luxuries of a fiction writer is that he does not have to answer that question, he only has to pose it. I do believe that Luther, although he would never come fully to believe in what he did, does believe utterly in himself, and for a character like that the distinction between the two is immaterial.
Tom Smith: Let me ask you about the setting, the Southwest frontier and the Mexican border. Del Rio is a real town on the Mexican border, right? Is there something about the Southwest frontier, the Texas desert, that somehow casts a spell and aura of its own on the story?
Doug Bauer: It certainly cast that spell on me. I was not familiar with that part of the world at all until I got interested in doing this book. I went there and spent altogether about a month on research trips in Del Rio, and found the terrain-- which was marvelously flat and filled with desert vegetation-- had a size and peculiar beauty that I wasn’t prepared for. I had sort of an Eastern notion of what I supposed natural beauty should be and this was the opposite of that but no less lovely and arguably more powerful by the very vastness of it. There’s also something in the culture there that is related to being on the border-- the arbitrary notion of where the border is, and the laissez faire attitude that the border inspires.
Tom Smith: Luther makes his radio pitch from inside Mexico to avoid the regulations and restraints of American broadcasting. Now, the novel covers the early years of radio broadcasting, and the medium of radio made the figure of the salesman and the entrepreneur absolutely heroic, of the same stature as the politician or the evangelist who also took advantage of it.
Doug Bauer: Yes, as I was contemplating the whole idea of this particular novel I was struck by what an unprecedented presence in the culture radio was in its introduction, because unlike any medium since it requires not only a kind of attention to what’s being said but the listener’s imagination too in order to fill in what the sound alludes to. Unlike TV, which hands us everything so completely and dulls the imagination, radio has the oppposite effect and that’s partly why the radio pitchman was so successful. He not only drew the listener in but he required him or her to participate.
Tom Smith: Another significant topic in the novel is Hollywood, the transition from silent to sound, the end of the Golden Age. Two major characters in addition to Luther are Billy Boswell and his wife Alice Ray who becomes Luther’s goddess-figure, his romantic desire. Is Billy based on somebody who didn't make it in the sound era?
Doug Bauer: No. He’s entirely the product of my imagination, but he has that sort of Valentino aspect to him.
Tom Smith: Let me say just as a footnote that what generates a lot of the plot is that Alice Ray, the movie star, wanders into Del Rio Texas suffering from amnesia and Billy her husband is summoned from Los Angeles and of course it is revealed that he is impotent and everything follows from there...
Doug Bauer: I think it is. This whole idea that we are still the great young energetic state on the map, American “vitality,” that’s at the heart of our self-definition.
Tom Smith: One last item. Luther Matthias is a kind of artist and America is seduced and fascinated by the whole art of self-invention, whether it’s Jay Gatsby or Madonna. Is there a sense that if you claim to be somebody, magically enough it will come true?
Doug Bauer: I think that’s right, but what I most wanted to do in this book is to expose the lie. I think it’s the culture that makes these figures heroic, and it’s assumed that a figure at the heart of a story like mine is intended to be heroic, and that’s exactly what I did not want to say. What I wanted to say was that through a combination of public attitude and the character’s own great desperate energy a kind of heroic status can be built, but these are, when all is said and done, alarmingly human figures with conventional if outsized needs.
The Book of Famous Iowans
Douglas Bauer’s reflective third novel, The Book of Famous Iowans, recounts a man’s attempts to understand the failure of his parents’ marriage. Will Vaughn returns as an adult to his boyhood home, rural New Holland, Iowa, and reconstructs in memory the events that prompted his mother, Leanne, to abandon the family. Bauer, an Iowa native and author of a nonfiction portrait of his own boyhood home, Prairie City, Iowa (1979), brings the fictional New Holland and its inhabitants vividly to life.
Bauer’s characters are defined in terms of their hopes and dreams. Will’s father, Lewis, must give up his plan to be a pilot in order to take over the family farm. The abandonment of this dream grounds him both literally and metaphorically: his aspirations never again rise above his farm chores. Will’s mother, on the other hand, refuses to abandon her dream of becoming a singer on the big stage--as a result, her life in New Holland never ceases to rankle. Bobby Markum, Will’s mother’s lover and the star pitcher of the local baseball club, shares and understands her unfulfilled ambitions--a missing knuckle of his index finger assures Bobby will never make the majors.
The novel is about shedding illusions as well as dreams: young Will Vaughn must come to recognize shabby truths about the people he idealizes most, notably his mother and baseball hero Markum. In a similar vein, he must assimilate the knowledge that pro wrestling, his favorite sport, is entirely faked.
The novel’s most powerful illusion is Bauer’s inventive prose: it provides a richness that mimics immediate thought and experience. Here, young Will ponders his mother’s abandonment, alone at the ballfield in the rain:
I was too soaked and too chilled to feel more of either, but looking
Bauer’s first novel, Dexterity (1989), set in upstate New York, established him as a major new talent. The Washington Post reviewer exclaimed, "Dexterity abounds with skein upon skein of brilliant prose . . . a most impressive debut." Kirkus Reviews called his second novel, The Very Air, "rough and tumble fiction that exults in its inventiveness." The novel tells the tale of a medical charlatan at the beginning of the century.
Bauer is also a free-lance journalist whose articles, essays and criticisms have appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Book Review. He received his doctorate in English from the University at Albany in 1983, and taught subsequently at Harvard and Ohio State. He is married to the novelist, Sue Miller.Douglas Bauer
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University President H. Patrick Swygart: Good afternoon, on behalf of the New York Writers Institute of the State University of New York and the University at Albany, it is my pleasure to welcome each and everyone of you to this very important ceremony . Today’s ceremony marks the presentation of the 1993 New York State Edith Wharton Citation of Merit as State Author to William Gaddis, and the 1993 New York State Walt Whitman Citation of Merit as State Poet to Richard Howard. Each will be introduced shortly with a special tribute and following the two tributes, the Governor will make the formal presentations to our two honorees....
Excerpt from William Kennedy’s Tribute: ...I met Bill Gaddis in Chicago in 1983 at a social event. And we sat in the corner and we never discussed originality. We just talked about writing and sometimes about the other people in the room who had the misfortune of not being writers. We got along. Sometimes when I talk to writers I invite them to come to Albany and speak at the NYS Writers Institute. I didn’t this time because the Writers Institute had not yet been invented. As soon as it was invented, I asked Gaddis to come and visit and speak, and he said, “Absolutely, positively, no!” I didn’t give up, and some years later, I tried again and his “no” wasn’t quite so resounding and then the following year he said, “maybe,” and then one day, in 1990, he was talking to an Albany newspaperman, and he said, “there is nothing more distressing or tiresome than a writer standing in front of an audience and reading his work” [Patrick Kurup, “Gaddis, Reluctantly, to Address His Readers, The Times Union (Albany, N.Y.), 2 April 1990: B-12]. Two days later, there was Bill Gaddis on stage at the Recital Hall at the University, not reading his work to the audience but reading from index cards why he didn’t read his work to audiences. William Gaddis has published three novels and his fourth will be along in January.... ...When he was writing J R, he was so in need of money that he ghost wrote articles for a dentist in exchange for root canals....
Governor Mario M. Cuomo: ...William Kennedy, who is the vital force here at the Writers Institute and an institution in Albany, like the Capitol Building itself, only more productive and a lot more fun, and ladies and gentlemen. I regret very much President Swygart’s introduction of me; it presumed to suggest that I am here as a writer. God forbid; I’m not here as a writer. I did nothing to earn my position here—I’m the Governor. [Laughter] And I thought about being here. I did the first time I was invited, and felt out of place and wondered about rationalizing why the Governor should give out the Award. The Governor didn’t make the selection; the Governor wasn’t terribly decisive when it came to instituting the group in the first place, so why should you have the Governor? I resolved that question for myself by remembering the advice I’d received from the Reverend John Flynn, the University of St. John’s, as president years ago, a man who married me and Matilda and a wonderful friend. When I was asked to do a commencement , and it was the first that I’d ever been challenged by, and so I went to Father Flynn, and this is the truth, and I said, “Father, I’ve never given a commencement; what advice do you have for me?” And he thought a little, and he said, “Mario, think about yourself as the body at an old-fashioned Irish Wake. It is necessary to have you in order to have the party, but they don’t expect you to say a great deal.” [Laughter]
Despite that, I’m going to add my own layman’s words of appreciation for the works of the two awardees. Notwithstanding that you have heard already from two authentic super celebrities of thought and word and pen and computer. Not just because they’ve asked me to do it, whoever they is that sends the instructions from places unseen, but also because I have that trait that was described by a poet whose name I’ve forgotten now, a Jewish gentleman, I think, as “chutzpah,” which is what it takes to stand up here and follow these two. But as I attempt to add my own words of description about the awardees, remember that it makes at least this point: it will show that some talent is so formidable that it can make its way through even the crass and blunt sensibilities of a practicing politician.
About this time two years ago, we came together to install a new State Author and a new State Poet. On that occasion, we had the privilege of hearing some witty and incisive words from Norman Mailer about the public responsibilities and obligations of independent writers, and to be stirred by the late Audre Lorde’s compelling address on behalf of the disenfranchised everywhere. Now, once again, we gather together to honor two New York citizens who in their long and impressive careers have established their own reputations for the uncompromising frankness and instinct for justice that has characterized so many writers from New York. William Gaddis and Richard Howard have together won virtually every honor and distinction available to those who make a career of putting words on paper. They are appropriately renowned for the endearing quality of their literary contributions and especially for their intense dedication and integrity as artists. Without a trace of cant or pretense, there is great moral purpose in their work. William Gaddis’s novels are ingenious, funny, uncompromising, but they are also beacons of implacable candor. Gaddis seems to have charged himself with the role of unmasking deception where ever he sees it and with dissolving some of the fog of absurdity that creeps into the language of all our cultural institutions—art and religion, politics, science and especially the law. His books are formidable but hilarious encyclopedias of enlightenment. It is an indication, I think, of his stature and his extraordinary depth that people boast about having read his books cover to cover; and some of them may even be telling the truth. So when we designate William Gaddis as State Author, recipient of the New York State Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writers, there is a sublime continuity and logic to it. Wharton’s bright, dry satires expose the poses and the illusions of her own day, and demonstrated, as does William Gaddis in our time, how the pursuit of money and power tears to pieces not only the inner life of individual people but the very fabric of society itself....
New York’s cultural history is sprinkled with giants. Today, we are pleased to be able to acknowledge two more, for their dedication to their art, for their eloquence and powers of invention, and for their unflinching presentation of the dark and the bright in human conduct, we honor two great truth-bearers and two great New Yorkers. I ask William Gaddis and Bill Kennedy to join me at the podium.
This is the Citation of Merit: the New York State Edith Wharton Citation of Merit, we honor William Gaddis as one of the exemplary artists of our time, and celebrate his unswerving dedication to the integrity of his work. Throughout his career, he has pursued the craft of fiction writing with inspiring independence and honesty. Although his work is informed by a deep seated humanism, he is a satirist with an ingenious ability to expose the many masks society devises for absurdity and ignorance. As an artist, William Gaddis has taken the lonely but intrepid path at the expense of commercial success and popular exclaim. In doing so, he emerges as one of the genuine masters of the twentieth-century American literature. And so today, we celebrate this event of a valued craftsman and honorable New Yorker. Now, therefore, I Mario Cuomo, Governor of the State of New York, do hereby award this Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writers to William Gaddis and designate him State Author of New York for the years 1993 through 1995. [Applause]
William Gaddis: Well, I just feel like I have a few footnotes to add to these remarkable speeches I’ve just heard. I want to first thank Governor Cuomo and President Swygart for having me here today. And William Kennedy for all that he’s done, for making writing a respectable occupation and encouraging maybe too many people. On the other hand, I next certainly have to thank the, my judges—I guess, advisory panel is the phrase that they use. Because...the...point of my...chose by one’s peers, of course, is what one wants beyond-–well, I won’t mention the daily book reviews, but you know what I mean. So I also, I’m awfully sorry that Dick Howard isn’t here today. I could not have asked for a better companion in this situation. We join the New York official flower—I don’t know what it is in New York; I think the New York official bird used to be the bluebird, which I think has been declared extinct, but now is making a comeback. And I feel a certain kinship with this bluebird of happiness. I also think it is unfortunate that Norman Mailer couldn’t be here. I did see him a couple of weeks ago, and he said he might not because he was working on a book and he had a deadline, and.... The last time I’d seen him you heard mentioned earlier the National Book Award, so it was twenty years ago; and I received it, and I was even more shy than I am now; got up and mumbled something about writers should be read rather than seen and heard, and of course the next person to speak was Norman. [Laughter] But I must say he does what he does all three things that he does well. He even went so far—I was handed the envelope with the stipend that went with the National Book Award at time—and held it up to the light to make sure that there was a check in it. And my children were mortified...and the audience.... But my son later said, “Don’t worry, pop, the NBA...most people think it’s the National Basketball Association, so it’s not really going to make a great deal of difference.”
In this realm of writing, I came across a phrase of Dickens saying that life was much messier than he had expected to find it. And I think this, this...I felt a very strong identification with that...that feeling...because it does seem today that the, not only, everything is turned inside out; all the problems that we had in the Fifties and early Sixties of...of nuclear energy, free electricity; now it is a problem of what do we do with nuclear waste. One of the visions of one world and we...now we look at one world which is nothing but faction and bloodshed. Permissive education is, seems to have become gunfire in the corridors; sexual freedom is sexual harassment; and the First Amendment now is facing the problem of political correctness. What is interesting here is everyone of these areas is one packed with lawsuits. And that to me seems to be the most curious casualty of all because the law, after all, it should be one would think, a measure of civilization, how we can live together without cutting each other’s throats, or even cheating each other’s pocketbooks. But...the law itself now has become so complicated that it, in itself, as, to a layman like myself,...vast area of..chaos and also of entertainment. The chaos of complexity in the adversary system, the whole area of obeying the letter of the law at the expense of its spirit at every opportunity...that is what I think the very high class corporate law firms live with. And we do seem to be a nation of litigants. Money seems to be always at the end of the trail. I got a...once more going back to...Dickens and...the nest of life, remembering his case Jarndyce versus Jarndyce.
I met Governor Cuomo about four or five years ago. At that time, he told me that he started very much his career teaching legal writing, eh...which intrigued me—I was already intrigued with the law—because the law, after all, is language, and that is all the law is. I know...one contract that fell through, as most of them do, with the movie industry. They wanted rights to my work in perpetuity throughout the world and elsewhere. [Laughter] It is this kind of precision that I enjoy immensely in reading legal opinions, and why I got very preoccupied in this new novel with the law. I mean I would, frankly, that they—no offense to my colleagues—but generally much prefer to read...a...the [Benjamin N.] Cardozo opinion in “Palsgraf Versus Long Island Railroad ” or the recent landmark case of...“Carson Versus Here’s Johnny Portable Toilets” than most fiction [end of tape’s first side; it appears that a few sentences are missing, with the second side beginning with what appears to be a reference to the Corpus Juris Secundum]. ...and it contains, obviously, every single human foible you can imagine. And he could not dig that up, but he did get me something called AMJUR—American Jurisprudence—which is only eighty-four volumes, and so I got involved with that about five years ago, and immersed, and thought somehow if I can get this all in one novel...it will be quite a feat. Well, of course, it would’ve been. Totally self-defeating. And I was writing opinions drawing on cases...eh...and then suddenly realized, “no, I’m, what I’m supposed to be doing here is writing a novel”; so I finally did finish it just a few months ago. But a...finally something that I realized in terms of New York Author...I was born in Manhattan and...eh...aside from most of my education in New England, have always been [in] New York, and I notice that all four of my books are set....,—the first one, The Recognitions— in houses in New York, somewhere, the first one, The Recognitions, is largely in Greenwich Village, which you might say is a great outdoor house in New York City. The second takes place on Long Island, and in a tenement on Ninety-Sixth Street in Manhattan, which is where I started my family. I brought my daughter from [Columbia] Presbyterian Hospital to the one with the bathtub in the kitchen and so forth. We started like real writers living in a garret. The third book, set in the Hudson Valley,...in fact, the house is the central character in the book, almost; this last one is a...set in a house out on the East End of Long Island. And they are all New York bound, very much as I am. Somewhere we had the line of “Home is a place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in” [Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Hand”], and I feel that way today in a highly honored way, and I am immensely gratified and appreciative of this real honor, and I do thank you all. Thank you. [Applause]
Christopher Knight is a visiting Adjunct Professor in the Department of English at University at Albany.
Nine-year old Javier Alamonte dreams of flying. This story begins award-winning journalist Barbara Fischkin’s first book, Muddy Cup, which maps the journey of Javier’s family, the Alamontes, as they move from the Dominican Republic to the United States. Javier’s dream is only the first in a book layered with dreams. But then this story is about immigration, and immigration to this country has always meant the dream of a better life. Fischkin’s book delights because she offers a complicated view of this mythic journey so many have taken.
Fischkin’s book, its title taken from a John Montague poem about Irish immigration, does justice to the complications. The book not only tells of the lives of six people who journey from one place to another but it also interweaves other complicated tales. So it is also a tale of two cultures and the differences between them; a tale of the politics of power and economics that make for the immigration process; a tale of one family and one journalist’s collaboration; and a meditation on dreams and their outcomes.
First and foremost this story, initially chronicled in a year long series for New York Newsday, tells of the Alamontes move from one locale to another, the process by which they will (or will not) transform themselves, with varying degrees of reluctance and hardship, from Dominicanoes to Americanoes.
The book begins in the Dominican Republic of the 1950s following the lives of Javier Alamonte and his elder sister, Marta. The siblings grow up in the Camù--a town in the impoverished countryside of El Jefe’s Dominican Republic. Javier hears his parents’ whisper at night about the former U.S. trained marine-turned-dictator whose secret police wreak havoc and absurdities upon its citizenry. Javier, the young boy dreaming of flying, the young man discovering the eel-like women, the young adult courting his mate, the young father frustrated by poverty, spends most of his early life on the camu close to his community. His sister Marta, the girl, is sent out to work as a maid in the city at the age of thirteen. It is a fate she escapes from with a man, so setting up a pattern that will repeat in various forms throughout her life.
Marta’s final escape will be to the U.S., from where she will eventually help bring a total of 24 of her relatives. Among the first will be Javier, his wife Roselia, and their three children, Elizabeth, Christian, and Mauricio, all dreaming in their own ways of America. The process by which each makes the trip literally and figuratively will be neither quick nor uncomplicated. Herein lies the story.
Years pass after Marta makes her trip. Years in which Marta saves money and in which Javier’s frustration with the poverty of the D.R. is not yet enough to overcome his reluctance to leave his homeland. But with the birth of a son, Javier finally decides to take the trip in the airplane that he dreamed of as a nine year-old.
But the son will be eleven before Javier can finally leave for the U.S. in 1983.
Three years later his wife, Roselia, the reluctant traveler, the homebody, will come to make a difficult adjustment to the Queens apartment so far from her beloved mountain view.
With Roselia comes Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, who holds onto a story of her childhood resilience to give her strength in the new land.
Left behind are the two youngest children, Christian and Mauricio. They will join their family after a month-long wait. The wait is shortened considerably from the standard one by the intervention of a U.S. congressman--a result of the coverage of the family’s story by New York Newsday.
Christian, the youngest daughter, is the traveler who ultimately returns to her homeland, to the boyfriend she initially left behind.
Finally there is Mauricio, who ultimately rejects his father’s dream for him to become a doctor, in favor of his own dream to become a writer.
All along the way there’s Fischkin the journalist and her subjects. Fischkin, the daughter of an immigrant, the new mother, the chronicler of these tales, tells us of the joys and the tensions that developed between herself and the Alamontes during the course of their collaboration.
Fischkin weaves all of these stories together, telling us of love and heartbreak; the search for work and decent housing; growing up and moving on; language schools and the world trade center bombing; college financial aid and the first subway ride; friendships found and lost. In the end the best stories of all: the stories of lives lived and dreams dreamt.
Mary Lannon is a graduate student in the English Department and graduate assistant at the New York State Writers Institute.
In Search of the Blood Frog
Mayra Montero's In the Palm of Darkness
The two protagonists of Mayra Montero’s novel, In the Palm of Darkness, share a search for a frog. But this seemingly innocuous journey takes place in strife-torn Haiti, making the search a life-threatening one for the American herpetologist, Victor S. Grigg and his Haitian guide, Thierry Adrien. Add to this the fact that the frog is called grenouille du sang or the blood frog, and that it has inexplicably disappeared from most of the island, and the book takes on the feel of a mystery/thriller.
But the story is not just a mystery, not just about a hunt for a frog, but a tale of two men who come to terms with their search and their lives. Themes of passion and constraint, science and mystery, losses and gains, and the search for meaning weave their way through Montero’s novel.
Given such a description, it is not surprising that the Cuban-born Montero has often been compared to Graham Greene and Paul Theroux. But as she told Miami’s Sun-Sentinel, Montero believes those comparisons are misplaced, and identifies herself as an heir to another Cuban-born novelist, Alejo Carpentier.
Montero, who makes her home in Puerto Rico, has written six novels to date, all set in the Caribbean. A 1991 novel, La ultima noche que pase contigo (“The Last Night I Spent with You”) was a finalist for Spain’s Vertical Smile contest for erotic fiction.
This Montero novel, the first to be translated into English, follows the men searching for the blood frog as they are driven off one mountain and onto another while one, Thierry, seems driven to tell his life story and the other, Victor, seems driven to listen, to record, and to muse. Guide and scientist take on multiple meanings in this context.
Both men tell their stories in the first person in alternating chapters. The story of the frogs’ disappearance in the form of a series of newspaper stories forms a haunting backdrop to the narratives.
The passionate twists and turns of Thierry’s relations with brothers, step-sisters, half-brothers, godmother, mother, father, father’s mistresses, lovers, and children in a land of mystery and violence contrast markedly to Victor’s academic world, his father’s ostrich farm, and the cruelty of the wife who has just left him.
Thierry grows up in a house where his father’s two mistresses create jealousies and dramas; he comes of age when he’s sent out to hunt the frogs and later the dead; he meets his only love, who is at first his father’s mistress. His narrative begins with a telling description of his father: “My father never called me by name. What you love you respect, he said, and there is no need to name what you love.” Such strange ways (to the American mind at least) are treated with a certain reverence throughout the novel.
Montero fills Thierry’s story with fascinating portraits of the people he has loved and lived with. Besides his father there is his godmother, Yoyotte Placide, a self-made business woman and mistress of his father who carries her hatred of the “other woman” to her death. There is Frou Frou, both his father’s mistress and Thierry’s own, who finds men peeing irresistible, and Julien, his half brother, who never forgives Frou Frou her passion for Thierry.
The passions and life of the scientist, Victor Grigg, appears quite muted in contrast. As fascinated by frogs as his father was by ostriches he revisits the cruelties of a wife who seems to be intent on showing him she never loved him.
As befits a mystery/thriller, the stories of both men and the search for the frog wind to surprising and exciting ends that match the philosophical bent of the novel.
Told with what one reviewer called “a cool observant journalistic eye,” Montero paints a picture of the quest for frogs, for life, for meaning one won’t soon forget.
Mary Lannon is a graduate student in the English Department and graduate assistant at the New York State Writers Institute.