I’ve written about László Krasznahorkai before, both on this site and for The Daily Beast. This new piece at Calvert Journal looks at Krasznahorkai’s fiction and the reaction to Syrian refugees in Hungary.
- John McIntyre
Image courtesy of Library of America
Charles McGrath has been, at various times, editor of the New York Times Book Review and deputy editor at the New Yorker. More recently, he’s edited the Library of America’s edition of John O’Hara’s short fiction. McGrath is a fitting choice, given how many of O’Hara’s stories the New Yorker published, albeit before his tenure there, unless I’m mistaken. For one reason or another, O’Hara hasn’t yet enjoyed the renewed interest John Cheever did. Then again, unless I’m mistaken, the Cheever renaissance tracked pretty closely with LOA reissues of his novels, and a biography by Blake Bailey, which is always an event. Geoffrey Woolf already wrote a good biography of O’Hara, The Art of Burning Bridges, way back in 2003. McGrath called the book “satisfying and pleasingly unconventional, and one that O’Hara would probably have hated.” There’s also a mid-’70s bio by Matthew J. Bruccoli, and while I can’t vouch for it firsthand, Bruccoli did so much exemplary work on F. Scott Fitzgerald that it’s unlikely to be a complete dud.
Now we’ve got an interview with McGrath on the LOA site in which he calls O’Hara, “an important American writer who has been unjustly neglected.” He does acknowledge that the writer was his own worst enemy in some regards, saying of O’Hara, “his public persona was prickly and blustery, even a little obnoxious at times. He made it easy to dislike him.” Indeed, James Salter has noted that, “His publisher referred to him as the master of the perceived slight.” So, will this be a rebirth for the writer McGrath calls, “a crucial figure in the development of the American short story, with links to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, on the one hand, and on the other, to a generation of writers he influenced: Salinger, Updike, Cheever, Raymond Carver”? If nothing else, that characterization should get a few readers interested. What they find once they look closer won’t disappoint them.
– John McIntyre
The surprise of the week for me is Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s Winter 2016 issue on Some of Us Press. As nice (reassuring? comforting?) as it is to believe that absolutely everything is now catalogued online, you won’t find much on Some of Us Press. There’s a list of the titles it published here, but there’s no Wikipedia entry. And really, if there’s no Wikipedia entry, did something even exist?
The answer in this case at least is yes. Yes, it did, and it was glorious. I’m not a wholly unbiased source, since Some of Us published work by Tim Dlugos, who I regard as one of the major poets of the late 20th century. In any event, Michael Lally, the first editor for the press, covers everything from the Mass Transit poets to the history of Some of Us Press in his introductory essay. He remembers having come out as an act of solidarity with his gay friends, and through that act of solidarity, winning Dlugos’s admiration and friendship.
Lolly published a book called The South Orange Sonnets, which I’m immediately inclined to like, and not just because I bought groceries in South Orange on Tuesday. This is the type of literary history I’m heartened to see someone preserving.
Beltway Poetry Quarterly is doing good, important work. There’s the journal, but they go above and beyond to present opportunities to writers. I can’t sum up their efforts better than they do:
In addition to the journal, we are pleased to provide information and extensive links.
The Poetry News section is updated monthly. This section lists new book publications and new issue releases by DC-area presses and journals, calls for entries, poetry readings, workshops, and other events.
The Resource Bank offers extensive links for poets and their audiences in the Mid-Atlantic. Links include reading series, literary presses, grant-making organizations, workshops, libraries, and other relevant information. Our only non-regional listing is the massive international list of Artist Residency Programs, and we believe ours in the most complete listing of this kind to be found anywhere in the world. With programs across the US and in other countries, these links can help artists of all disciplines find a place away from home to create new work.
– John McIntyre
My essay on the American painter Rosemarie Beck is up at the American Arts Quarterly site.
If you’re not familiar with Beck, this is a good starting point (as is the critic Martica Sawin’s Beck profile in the Spring-Summer 2005 number of Woman’s Art Journal).
– John McIntyre
We’ve had no new Colette translations in English for fifty years. It’s a startling fact, if somewhat disputable: Robert Phelps translated many of her letters for 1980’s Letters from Colette. It’s possible translators Zack Rogow and Renée Morel, they of a new Colette volume from SUNY Press/Excelsior Editions, are referring only to work she intended for publication. There have been biographies (Gillian Gill’s Becoming Colette is the most recent on that score) and a cultural history (Patricia A. Tilburg’s Colette’s Republic, which considers the writer as a central figure in France between 1870 and 1914). The lack of translations isn’t due to a lack of opportunity. Of the fifty-plus books Colette published during her lifetime, probably no more than half have been translated into English. That drought ends with Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island: And Other Previously Untranslated Gems. The subtitle is altogether appropriate.
When she was twenty years old, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette married Henri Gauthier-Villars, a man better known as Willy. He was in his early thirties and ambitious in his way, though his shamelessness was a more defining trait. This was 1893. The couple set up house in Paris. It was his lot to be a writer, or so Willy believed. Years after they parted, Colette observed that, “He must, in the old days, have often believed that he was on the point of writing, that he was about to write, that he was, in fact, writing. And then, as he felt the pen within his fingers, there would come a slackening, a collapse of the will, and his illusion vanished.”
Willy was nothing if not resourceful. Colette had told him stories of her girlhood, and he suggested that his young wife write some of them. He made editorial suggestions and eventually concluded the stories stood more chance of success with his name on them. His instincts about the stories’ potential was sound. The first of the four Claudine novels, Claudine at School, appeared in 1900. Willy grew famous off them, as did Claudine. A perfume appeared in her name, as well as an ice cream flavor and a brand of cigarettes, among other items. Colette benefitted less. The writer Glenway Wescott notes that Willy, “locked her in her room for four hour stretches while she inked up a certain number of pages with her heaven-sent and profitable phrases, sentences, paragraphs.” In return, she was able to send small gifts to her mother. It placated her temporarily, but the arrangement wasn’t destined to last. By 1904, Colette was publishing work as Colette Willy. Two years later, they divorced. Willy faded into obscurity. Colette became one of the great writers of the century.
She’s long been celebrated as unsentimental, and it’s not hard to imagine that disposition had roots in her years with Willy. “Look for a long time at what pleases you,” she’s said to have told a young writer, “and longer still at what pains you.” It was also Colette who told the young Georges Simenon to remove anything literary from his work. His romans durs are testament to the soundness of that advice. Time and again Colette heeds these words in her own work. In “The Little Bouilloux Girl,” she shows us a beautiful young woman in a provincial town, intent on waiting for the dashing stranger fate will surely provide to carry her away. He never arrives, and she ends up with a life of solitude, far from the bright lights. “Bella Vista” begins, “It is absurd to suppose that periods empty of love are blank pages in a woman’s life.” Impossible as it seems, the remainder of the story rises to the level of that opening line.
The newly translations seem slighter at first glance. They’re selections are from her journalism and occasional pieces in many cases, but her mark on the least of them is unmistakable. They aren’t sustained narratives, but they accumulate in the service of a single, great subject. Colette wrote about all of life, without illusions. In “Letter to My Daughter,” she writes of, “an attitude that certain of my novels take on. A little attitude – bless their hearts! – of true modesty, and it suits them rather well.” The same might be said of the offerings in Shipwrecked on a Channel Island. She’s fond and irreverent in an essay on women growing older. In a brief note on the doll maker Madame Le Minor comes this carefully calibrated, knowing line: “Possession – a marvelous, brutal, and complete education, uses touch in tandem with sight and the imagination, and chooses its moment.” The ground she covers can seem familiar to readers of her work, but she distills her thoughts still further and offers five-hundred words on the morning light, five hundred on jealously, a thousand on the silence of small children. There are sketches here on a par with the best of Joseph Roth’s feullitons (collected, by the way, in What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 and Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939).
She knows the value of never revealing too much, or only doing so strategically. This suits both the chosen form and her talents as a writer. Her eye seems always to alight on the most telling detail -the shade of a leaf in the day’s first light; the quality of a movement; a voice’s inflection. Even entries from her advice column are better than mere curiosities. Her opinions are direct and unwavering, almost epigrammatic at times. To a young woman worried by the fact she’s more attracted to another man than to her fiancé, Colette writes, “Leave him be, the angel; and leave the tempter. Does my response not bring you the ‘peace’ you crave? Excuse my frankness, but I can’t help remembering that you are twenty years old. And I’ve never been able to believe that peace is a good present to give a young woman.”
Colette was a child of nature. She offered the world her great, pagan heart and her unsparing view of its failings. It was a sustained gift, a sustaining gift, one we’ll not soon see the likes of again.
— John McIntyre
My essay “In Time of Plague,” on how poets respond to AIDS, is up at the Poetry Foundation.
– John McIntyre
It’s seldom an event anymore, culturally speaking, when a writer dies. The passing of a major figure brings splashy tributes and immediate reckonings of where the writer fits among the greats. It’s gratifying and necessary, but it moves me far less than a last look at a writer who has been shuttled to the margins. Unexpected rewards lie in that direction, voices and sensibilities we’re poorer for having forgotten.
I wasn’t considering that prospect when Leonard Michaels died in May of 2003. His name was firmly in my mind as a writer to investigate further, based on his story “Manikin,” but it was his obituary in The New York Times that provided the final push. Just three years earlier he had published his final story collection, A Girl with a Monkey. His novels and stories were in print at the time of his death, in editions from Mercury House, a small, nonprofit press. More than a decade later, publishers and readers have reckoned with the scale of loss his passing represented: his works rate Classics editions from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
When the novelist Charles Wright died in 2008, I felt a momentary shock in thinking it was the acclaimed poet, who grew up in the small town of Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, not far from where I spent my childhood. Instead the writer in question was a forgotten African-American novelist. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his work in the 1960s. James Baldwin noted his promise. Ishmael Reed called him, “Richard Pryor on paper.” Wright was witty and irreverent and, if his work is any indication, quite possibly at odds with the entire world. His three slim novels, two of them semi-autobiographical (The Wig is defiantly picaresque) were the work of a writer of uncommon talents. The outlines of his life after he stopped publishing are sketchy. He was an alcoholic and lived with his editor’s family for many years. His editor’s widow speaks of Wright with warmth, puzzlement and a touch of regret. People are beginning to take note of his work again, she says, and it’s a shame he’s not around to enjoy it.
In addition to a last bow for a worthy writer, the notice might bring attention to a vital project. Mary Ward Brown’s death in May of 2013 put her back on readers’ minds a final time. It also brought the enterprising reader in contact with the Deep South Books series from University of Alabama Press. Brown postponed her work for twenty-five years, in favor of farm work and child-rearing. Her first book, Tongues of Flame, was published in her late sixties. It won the PEN/Hemingway award in 1986. She followed that with another story collection and a memoir, but her late start and deliberate work rate prevented her from remaining prominent in readers’ minds.
The internet opens up great vistas in this search. The move to digital content keeps items from one day visible through several more. Also, access to distant papers means a broader pool of notices. The UK Independent reported Andrée Chedid’s death. Her novel The Multiple Child (L’Enfant Multiple) was out of print in the US. That didn’t diminish the lure of its opening lines, which nod to Eugene Atget, or its spare, refined style. More recently, the same paper noted the passing of Nancy Garden, who we should remember for her book Annie on My Mind. Garden’s work provided comfort and sustenance to gay teenagers who faced the same difficulties she had known in searching for a story that spoke to their own concerns and experiences. Garden remembered the difficulty of “growing up as a young lesbian in the ’50s, I looked in vain for books about my people.” Annie on My Mind was often targeted by groups seeking to ban it, but Garden’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed. The American Library Association recognized her lifetime of literary influence with the Margaret Edwards Award in 2003.
There are of course the writers who come as a complete surprise, despite their full careers. Morris Renek died in in 2013. The New York Times’ headline called him “a Novelist of Gift and Determination.” All that was news to me. He was eighty-eight years old, the author of five novels. A bit of digging turned up the critic John Leonard, calling Siam Miami, “a comic, profound and elegantly written novel,” and concluding, “Mr. Renek is a writer.” Those must have been heady days for Renek. A notice of that quality and magnitude might well have been a breakthrough moment, yet the favorable review was no guarantee against reader indifference in a book’s own time, let alone thereafter. Leonard’s judgment was sound, but like all Renek’s work, Siam Miami was out of print at the time of his death. A similar fate befell Newton Thornburg, whose Cutter and Bone earned him praise as “one of the best writers of his generation” in The Guardian when he died in 2011. They await another turn in print, even if that doesn’t bring the type of gradual, sustained acclaim the late John Williams’s novel Stoner enjoyed in recent years.
And on occasion what emerges from reading these notices is powerfully sad. In The New Republic, where Rachel Wetzsteon was Poetry Editor for a brief period before her death, Adam Kirsch noted that she “took on the inheritance of Larkin and Auden.” Wetzsteon committed suicide in late 2009. Kirsch also offers an appraisal of Wetzsteon as her generation’s best love poet, at The Poetry Foundation. “She had been severely depressed in recent months, partly over the breakup of a three-year romance,” according to The New York Times. It’s said that one does not die of love. No doubt that held true for Wetzsteon as well. In her work, though, the reader finds great openness and equally great vulnerability. In the sonnet sequence that opens Home and Away, Wetzsteon writes, “But the great hand that holds us between fingers/cannot hold one poor candle to this new fist/squeezing my heart.” There seemed to be a strange intensity throughout, though it’s dangerously easy to make these judgments in retrospect, to substitute evidence which is speculative at best for the many unknowns which built to the final act of the writer’s life.
There is perhaps something morbid about such a habit, though it touches on the celebratory as well, thanks to the urge to delve into the late writer’s life’s work. Frederick Busch had a full complement of novels on bookstore shelves at the time of his 2006 death. I had always regarded him lightly (who knows how we form these impressions?), but the prospect of an out-of-print treasure, his 1979 novel Rounds, overcame my objections. Let’s be clear: Rounds is not a treasure. It’s out of print for a reason, but it did suggest Busch was capable of more. I tried Harry and Catherine, work Busch created after a decade worth of additional seasoning as a writer and a human being. It’s a book which, the writer Ron Carlson observed, “is about rich, deep intimacy, about the larger loves that people come to in maturity.” He could also have called it warm, subtle and honest without disgracing himself.
It was Frederick Busch who observed that, “Money is a letter from the world to an author about his work.” The literary world is not solely peopled by the greats. The vast majority of writers are fortunate to make a brief mark before fading into obscurity. The writer’s obituary is the summing up, if I may purloin Mr. Maugham’s phrase, a final letter to the world about a writer’s life and work. Without these send-offs, we stand to lose sight of countless writers, their work and the literary odds-and-ends that go with them. Alistair MacLeod’s passing earlier this year brought a memorable portrait of his enduring relationship with his publisher, Douglas Gibson of McClelland & Stewart.
For years Gibson encouraged MacLeod to write a novel, a regimen including periodic phone calls, and the deployment of committed listeners to MacLeod’s readings, to keep track of new developments in the book. He popped up by surprise at a train station once and playfully offered to carry the briefcase containing MacLeod’s only copy of the manuscript that became No Great Mischief. MacLeod declined. It was more than a decade, all told, before he finally turned the manuscript over to Gibson. It was a great success, a justification of both men’s endurance.
Ivan Gold’s death reminded us that his first book arrived with Lionel Trilling’s blessings emblazoned on its cover and the weighty expectations which accompany such praise. He published two novels in the four-plus decades after Trilling’s endorsement. His career stands as a cautionary tale about the perils of early acclaim and the toll alcoholism can take on a writer’s work. These are the raw ingredients that inspire books like John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists, where we are reminded that Norman Douglas’s last words were either, “Love, love, love,” or, “Get these fucking nuns away from me;” and David Markson’s Reader’s Block, with its curious, obsessive mix of anecdotes. They are the fabric of the literary life, and an invitation to unforeseen wonders.
In ten years of this
The most you’ve said
Is the odd “I’m glad”
To my declarations.
The rest is silence and
Its works –
Your silence, open as
Our window toward the sea
And above it your whole
Again with my
Combusting in the night,
Moored to me.
— Reynolds Price, The Collected Poems
Reynolds Price was best known as a novelist. A fairer assessment would class him as a man of letters, given the breadth of his work, his mastery of multiple genres. His first book, A Long and Happy Life, received the William Faulkner Award. The 1986 novel Kate Vaiden earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award. A volume of memoir, Clear Pictures, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1989. And though he never received that level of formal recognition for it, his work as a poet shares the sensibility so widely appreciated in his prose. It also establishes Price as a poet with a sure hand, light when need be, though he is capable of rumination when appropriate, of elegy as well. He is a poet conversant with a range of poetic traditions and able to adapt them seamlessly to suit his own ends.
Price began writing poetry gradually for, as he notes in a preface to his Collected Poems, “Through most of the 1960s and early seventies, my energies continued to concentrate on the writing of more novels, stories, plays and essays…It was only in the late 1970s, however that I found myself more and more subject to the arrival of poems and to the eventual awareness that many of my experiences had begun to present themselves in the shapes and tones of verse.” His first published volume was Vital Provisions (1982). Price was 49 years old at the time. It was a mere two years before a spinal astrocytoma left him a paraplegic. It did not, I hasten to add, inhibit him as a writer. He told Frederick Busch, in an interview which appeared in the Paris Review, “I’m compelled in a very invigorating way to write. It’s not some Dostoyevskian ax-murderer compulsion to spend the day at the keyboard. No, I love to do it.” In addition to the novels and memoirs which came as part of his late flowering, Price produced three substantial volumes of poetry: The Laws of Ice (1986), The Use of Fire (1990) and The Unaccountable Worth of the World (1997). The four are available in his Collected Poems, a worthy addition to your library on any number of accounts, be it as a contribution to Southern Literature, to bolstering your poetry shelf, or as an acknowledgement of the full range of Price’s talent.
It’s a formidable talent indeed. I’m not going out on a limb saying that, I realize, but his poetry was something of a revelation to me. It cuts directly through the first years of the AIDS epidemic in America. “Jim Dead of AIDS an Hour Ago, 25 September 1988” is a stark, pretty farewell to a man fortunate enough to know, “a decent man you taught years back/Who saw you through.” Price writes, “You’d walk through fields of broken glass/For a smell of surf, its battering light,” and offers a brief, wrenching benediction: “Sail far, kind/Ancient luckless boy.” They aren’t strictly elegies in the same manner, but his three-poem “Pictures of the Dead” sequence, devoted to Robert Frost, W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell is equally memorable. Take his last words on Auden, for example:
At one unheralded moment, mid-sentence,
You lean with the grace of an oak umbrella-
Rack, kiss me twice rapid-fire
On the dry right cheek.
They remain – and my thanks.
Price, as openly and unapologetically Christian as he was openly and unapologetically gay, is no less authoritative when writing of religious matters. His Nine Mysteries series offers lively readings of everything from the annunciation to the ascension. “Two Caves, a House, a Garden, a Tomb (Memories of Israel and the West Bank with J.C.A., 1980)” unfolds in six parts. The language is fundamentally earthbound, a fitting vehicle for Price’s humble verse, as when he writes,
This one’s Mary’s house and has been so honored
Since at least the second century – small, low, shallow
With a marble altar saying Here the Word Was Made Flesh,
That hilarious unthinkable moment when a virgin God
Merely boarded a spotless likely-teenaged girl
And spoke some sound, known only to her (she’d already
Agreed), and thereby flooded her darkest space
With scalding light – her eventual death, our torturing shine.
Of course there’s a great deal more, both in terms of subject matter and formal acrobatics. “Black Water,” which was written after a German folksong, could also be an unsuspecting cousin to Michael Ondaatje’s “Skin Boat.” Among the early poems, “Rescue” is a highlight, the account of a man on shore watching, almost diffidently, as his lover swims in against the turning tide.
Apart from his work as a writer, I loved Price in a documentary Checkerboard Films made about James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime. In it Price, who reviewed the novel when it was initially released in the late 1960s, weeps as he reads from the book’s closing lines*. This from a man who had no doubt read and reread the chosen passage dozens of times over the years. It’s an unassuming, affecting moment, an instance of real humanity from a deeply human writer, a man we should remember and honor.
— John McIntyre
* This is not the clip in question, but is still a worthy example of Price’s gifts as a reader.
Edgar Lee Masters had written nine books in his own name and three under pseudonyms when he published his first selection of Spoon River poems in 1915. The following year he added more poems to that edition. The result was what we now know as Spoon River Anthology. Call them epitaphs or persona poems or whatever else you like. Each poem recounts some memorable happening in the life of a deceased resident from the fictional town of Spoon River. Simple as it sounds, the poems remain thrilling in their immediacy, much the way the best of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg stories from 1919 continue to ring true emotionally. If I had something genuinely groundbreaking to say about the book itself, this probably wouldn’t be the ideal place to do so. Today’s project, a modest one, is to draw attention to one of the finest responses to the book in recent years, Richard Buckner’s song cycle, The Hill.
Buckner is a singer-songwriter with eight solo studio albums to his credit, including The Hill, a song cycle based on eighteen selections from Spoon River Anthology. This wasn’t a particularly surprising choice on Buckner’s part. He’s told the story many times of how he wrote a song called “Emma” (included on a re-release of his debut, Bloomed) because he couldn’t get past the story of Emma in James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and hoped writing a song about her would break the spell. He originally released The Hill as a single, thirty-four minute track, a move designed to allow a fluid move from one song/poem to the next, and to confound downloaders as much as possible. No single song/poem breaks four minutes. Only four of the eighteen pass three minutes. That is to say, Buckner doesn’t take liberties with the rhythm or pacing of Masters’s poems. He opens with swirling notes from a chord organ and occasional dissonance in the name of Masters’s “Mrs. Merrit”, before launching full bore into the tragic story of “Tom Merritt”, a tale Buckner renders in a brief plaintive vocal. Feel free to ignore the video element:
The selections aren’t always presented in the order in which they appear in the book. Buckner does, however, make an effort to link the poems based on their shared narrative elements, and the overlap of characters. Neither does Buckner attempt to shoehorn the words from each poem into the shape of a song. In fact the instrumental passages – there are nine – are moody and atmospheric, essential parts of what is a very personal reading of the book. “Julia Miller” is rendered delicately, building to its heartbreaking finish. “Ollie McGee” is carried along by Buckner’s trademark growl, a gratifying choice when he delivers lines like “a man with downcast eyes and haggard face.” His reading of “Reuben Pantier” is a mix of wistfulness and regret. Album closer “William & Emily” is a standout as well, with Buckner soft-voiced over gentle strains from the chord organ. Buckner takes the measure of Masters and the result is a singular, valuable contribution to the discussion of Spoon River, a revelation for fans of the book and newcomers alike.
– John McIntyre
When asked about his childhood in a 1964 interview, the writer James Baldwin noted the importance of libraries in his development. “I finally read my way out of Harlem,” he said, and listed titled by Dickens, Dostoevsky, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright as highlights of his reading. He tacked on a single work by an emerging writer, The Messenger, the first novel by an African-American novelist named Charles Wright.
This was no small endorsement; Baldwin was a major literary figure by 1964. Wright was a columnist for the Village Voice. Whatever Wright’s literary ambitions, praise from an established writer of Baldwin’s calibre must have been gratifying for the first-time novelist. Two more books followed – The Wig (1966) and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About (1972), both slim, assured volumes marked by Wright’s shrewd, ambivalent voice. Thereafter, silence.
Wright did not die young or suffer some cruel, debilitating fate. He simply dropped off the literary radar. He talked of plans for a book of short stories in a 1972 interview, but it never materialized. Another wave of young writers moved to the front rank. Wright’s moment receded further still. An omnibus edition of his three books appeared in the early 1990s, complete with the news that he was at work on a new novel, but the book in question was never published. He died in 2008, weakened by years of heavy drinking. His name was by then more familiar in relation to the decorated American poet of the same name. The three books he did publish, however, are long overdue for a second look. Surely we can grant that much consideration to the man Ishmael Reed called “Richard Pryor before there was a Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor on paper.”
The Messenger is not a great first novel. It is a series of tightly plotted vignettes with no more obvious narrative arc than one might find in a writer’s journal. Wright follows a man named Charles, an African-American writer who works at jobs far beneath him and surrounds himself with drag queens, con men, booze and occasionally drugs. He displays an easy, fluid sexuality with both men and women. After a gay orgy he reflects that, “It was an experience, nothing more. And if I felt like it, I’d do it again. It was as simple as that.” We see him bobbing in the waves, somehow in control of every situation. He considers selling his body on the street and concludes he will be picked up “for ten-plus-drinks, or by a Vassar-type of girl who will want to discuss jazz.”
Despite the lack of a neat arc, Wright’s powers of observation and the strength of his voice draw the reader along. The book opens with a nod to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Wright’s narrator, Charles, is a squatter in a midtown Manhattan building. The affinity with Ellison is less pronounced thereafter. Wright interjects several racially charged incidents from his protagonist’s childhood, including an occasion on which he is hauled in by police and forced to run in circles around their interrogation room. An officer drops a coin on the floor at the end and Charles, “knelt down and picked up the nickel because that was the only thing to do.” Later, however, he concludes that “the wounds of my childhood were no more than a sudden, sharp pain.” His takeaway from being unfairly denied promotions during military service is equally understated. “Seeing this happen,” he remarks, “taught me things it was good to know.” But perhaps there is no clearer picture of his resignation than in this sketch of Harlem:
“It was almost midnight now. Everything was alive on 125th Street. This was Saturday night, the time when the Negroes let their hair down, relax, get drunk, fight and grumble about Mr. White Man and the price of pork and eggs and the troubles of their cousins down south, knowing that, come Monday morning, it will all be the same.”
Charles works as a messenger, a job which takes him all over the city and brings him in contact with everyone from Wall Street brokers to Broadway talent. He is not awed by these individuals, all of whom are more successful and powerful than he. Instead, these settings heighten the tension between Charles and the world around (or above) him. On a single page, he endorses both the virtues of pimping as a means to supplement a workingman’s income, and the writing of Lawrence Durrell, somehow folding the two into a single critique of society’s expectations of men in his position, a moment which ends the chapter in striking fashion:
“That afternoon, as I walked through the concourse of the RCA building, sneezing and reading Lawrence Durrell, dead drunk from the explosion of his words, I suddenly looked up and encountered the long face of Steven Rockefeller. He seemed startled. Doesn’t he think poor people read?”
The book’s final scene provides no real closure. Charles throws a party in farewell to his squat, during which the super tells him that he can stay, rent free, as long as he likes, but this piece of news is eclipsed by the surging party, a revel that we leave in progress at the novel’s end.
Four years later, Wright brought out The Wig. It was a great leap forward, a full-fledged novel, a brief, blazing picaresque set in “an America of tomorrow.” Wright’s protagonist, Lester Jefferson, describes himself as “Walter Mitty’s target-colored stepson.” He spends all his money on a hair treatment called Silky Smooth, which is meant to straighten and refashion his hair in a way that will allow him to join “The Great Society,” shorthand in the novel for the world of material success, almost exclusively reserved for white Americans. But his new, cascading locks don’t open the doors he imagines they will.
The writer Ishmael Reed, who cites The Wig as an early influence on his work, has written that, “The fact that this novel was ignored tells us a lot about how African-American fiction has been kept in its place.” Indeed, early notices foretold the obstacles the book has endured. The critic Victor Navasky observed that “White folks won’t find much to celebrate in The Wig.” In many ways, The Wig is a terrifically difficult book. The absurdities Wright employs are memorable on their face, but for every Little Jimmie Wishbone, who won fame starring in horribly degrading movie roles, there is a Nonnie Swift, who Lester finds groaning in the hallway, holding her “pancake belly,” about to give birth to a baby which is two years overdue. Lester encounters a series of grotesque figures, like the necrophilic undertaker, Mr. Fishback and a drug dealer who collects Civil Rights relics, among them a hunk of hair from a Georgia policeman’s dog and a charred wooden cross, seven feet high.
Difficult and contentious though it is, The Wig succeeds as comedy. Wright had an unerring sense of the absurd and impeccable timing, as when Lester and Little Jimmie race through the streets of Harlem. Little Jimmie asks for a head start. Lester demurs, but Little Jimmie asks, “Didn’t they give you a medal last year ‘cause the bloodhounds couldn’t catch you?”
“Jesus. I’d almost forgotten,” Lester concedes, “I guess I’m sort of an American hero.”
Lester’s misadventures offer nothing in the way of uplifting ideology, nor optimism. Navasky called The Wig “a disturbing book by a man with a vicious, significant talent,” and Conrad Knickerbocker said it was “brutal, exciting, and necessary.” Young African-American writers recognized it as a significant book. Nonetheless, six years would pass before Wright’s next book.
It is easy, given the trajectory of Wright’s life after Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About, to read resignation in its pages, to view it as a flag of surrender. Even at the time, the writer David Freeman likened the book to “the rough draft of a suicide note.” Wright had flexed his muscles in The Wig, and the response he received from many corners was strained. He referred to the book as “my retarded child,” and left New York for a time to regroup. His final book is less ambitious. Anatole Broyard castigated Wright, who was then forty, as “pretty old to be promising.” A number of chapters first appeared as columns in the Village Voice. Critics seemed unable to decide whether it was fiction or nonfiction. The New York Times listed it as a noteworthy volume of essays.
Whatever its origins or the makeup of its content, the book has a familiar feel. Charles returns, this time as a dishwasher and porter, among other roles. He is adrift, shuttling between Manhattan and a Catskills resort, performing these menial jobs by choice – the Charles of the book is as talented as the author himself, has two books to his credit, and could, if he wished, forge a comfortable, middle-range life. Instead, he follows the path he’s worn for himself and reflects that “The young protest, riot. The elders bite their lips, inhale anger, or flaunt their power. Nailed between two worlds, I try to stay stoned, clang like a bell in a small tower, comfortable with the knowledge that I’m moving on.”
We recognize tragedy in the wake of sudden, unexpected events. Cases like Wright’s belong to another class. He lived to the age of 75 and enjoyed some acclaim early in the proceedings. The talent he squandered, or abandoned, was formidable. We might slot him in alongside writers like Nathanael West and Jane Bowles, visionaries whose entire body of work fits neatly in a single volume.
In Journal of the Fictive Life, the great poet Howard Nemerov asserted that aspiring writers should “Remember that if you never wrote another line the world would not be poorer.” No doubt this is often true, but in the case of Charles Wright, his silence was a great loss to the reading world.
– John McIntyre
Originally published, in slightly different form, in Issue 89 of Brick: A Literary Journal.