“True Bones” at The Poetry Foundation, on Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison died in March. I’ve written an essay called “True Bones: The Many Appetites of Jim Harrison,” about his work as a poet for The Poetry Foundation.

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It contains a chunk of the poem “Counting Birds,” which is a poem I particularly love. There are also ten of Harrison’s poems on the Poetry Foundation site.

– John

Buy Brick 96

Issue 96 of Brick is out now, and you should buy a copy.

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Image via Brick magazine – http://brickmag.com/sites/default/files/brick96_coverfinal_withborder.jpg.

It’s full of wonderful content, as ever, and I’m not just saying that because an essay I wrote memorializing James Salter is part of it. For one, you’ll get to read fiction by Maylis de Kerangal, who was a revelation to me, and poetry by the great Jane Hirshfield. There are also drawings by Stef Link, who talks with Brick publisher Nadia Szilvassy here. Really you’d be better off subscribing, because you won’t want to miss Issue 97 either, and I say that even though I wrote nothing for it. 

– John McIntyre

On The Painter Rosemarie Beck at American Arts Quarterly

My essay on the American painter Rosemarie Beck is up at the American Arts Quarterly site.

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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).

http://www.nccsc.net/essays/rosemarie-becks-letters-young-painter-0

– John McIntyre

Elizabeth Harrower’s Third Act

This essay originally appeared in issue 93 (Summer 2014) of Brick Magazine. 

Writing, romantic notions hold, is a way of a life, an identity, a state of being. There is a degree of truth to these assessments. It’s also a job, and we’ve witnessed the retirements of three major writers in recent years. In late 2012, when Philip Roth told the French magazine Les Inrocks: “I’m done,” he touched off debate about whether writers can, in fact, retire. The conclusion, per the New Yorker’s Ian Crouch: sort of. Jim Crace’s announcement greeted readers ahead of his final book, Harvest, which was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Alice Munro had tried to quit once before, in 2006. It was one of the very few failures in her literary life. Four months after her most recent retirement announcement, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Scores of one-novel writers sit at the far end of this spectrum. We lament Harper Lee’s silence and the fact Ralph Ellison never finished Juneteenth, but they are outliers. The disappearance of a mediocre novelist is a non-event. It’s harder to gauge the scale of loss attached to a writer who stops producing fiction in mid-career. E. M. Forster is perhaps the most well-known example, but he already had A Passage to India to his credit when he stopped publishing fiction at the age of forty.

Elizabeth Harrower is a more mysterious and ultimately more gratifying case. Between 1957 and 1966, she published four novels. Notable for the unsentimental tone she used to portray bright female characters beset by limited options, she belonged squarely amid Australia’s finest writers of the era, figures like Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant, who enjoyed long, acclaimed careers. Harrower’s first three books were well regarded, but The Watch Tower set a new standard. At thirty-seven, she was poised to build a body of work that would help define her country’s literature in the latter half of the twentieth century. Patrick White, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1973, encouraged her to follow the path she’d started. Instead, as far as readers knew, she disappeared. Years passed, then piled up. The prospect of a new novel grew remote. Reader interest flagged. The four novels went out of print. Harrower slipped into de facto retirement from the literary world, for undisclosed reasons. It might justifiably have been a long pause, a chance to draw a deep breath after four books in less than a decade and marshal resources for a next, major effort. But, with time her name faded into irrelevance. Despite White’s continued encouragement, Harrower opted for a different sort of life.

Imagine if Roth had stopped writing after Portnoy’s Complaint or Munro after Who Do You Think You Are? We would still know their names, but their reputations would be nowhere near so great. If Crace hadn’t written beyond Signals of Distress, he would likely be a marginal figure today. This is not to cast Harrower as a writer of their calibre, not if entire bodies of work are considered. But through four books she showed tremendous promise. And four novels in less than a decade is a consistent output.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether Harrower’s career was a casualty of the gender politics of her time, directly or otherwise. She has declined to identify as a feminist, concluding that, “the sense of grievance doesn’t appeal to me.” This is a surprise in light of her work, which contains ample cause for grievance among its female characters. There’s a temptation to suspect slyness here, to suspect that she’s advancing a grievance indirectly. If so, the choice is stunningly effective. The Watch Tower finds two sisters in a world so proscribed it’s cruel. In the aftermath of their father’s death and their mother’s decision to move abroad, Laura and her younger sister Clare are left to make their own way. They end up beholden to Felix, the man Laura marries in spite of her lack of real attraction to him and the sizable age difference between them. He takes in Clare as well and provides her with the resources to attend a secretarial course rather than finishing high school. Clare then goes to work for Felix, like Laura before her, and the two of them live at the mercy of his whims and moods. It’s a crushing arrangement. Felix’s motives remain opaque, his sulks and rages unpredictable. He builds up businesses and sells them at a loss, without consulting his wife. There is an intimation of repressed homosexual longing in Felix’s desperate desire to impress other men, even at the expense of his own family’s well-being. The possibility never occurs to his wife, though in her defence, there is no offence so grievous as doubting or questioning him.

The sisterly bond gives way to the bond between husband and wife, but the shift feels more like the result of Stockholm syndrome than a new, shared mission. A casual mention of Felix’s likeness to Bluebeard, and his acquisition of a china figurine of the mythic figure, prompts a moment of ghoulishness:

He knew how to treat his women! He knew the stuff to give ’em! Is he like me? Huh?’ He grimaced more horribly than ever into Clare’s face, popping his eyes at her, and she backed away, giggling kindly. She did not really think him funny at all, but she was very obliged that he tried to be.

‘What?’ The source of Laura’s indignation changed. ‘He was the one who had rooms full of murdered wives!’

Felix gave a dreadful roar and rolled his eyes wildly. ‘Aha! You want to watch out!’ He laughed into the smiling, wary faces with glee.

Felix nurtures uncertainty in the sisters, making no exception his wife: “He was rather miserly about any new facts he happened to acquire. He hoarded them in secret as though they were personal wealth, only popping one out occasionally to give Laura a feeling that this poor sample was the very least of all he hid.” Gradually Clare concludes she has “no choice but to resign herself to the unchangeableness of her existence.” Harrower builds hope and longing for change in the reader as well, only to undermine or delay those moments in the women’s lives and heighten the tension still further. It’s the work of a very sure hand. The reader longs to see what the writer did next. But what she did next was draw back from writing and publishing.

In his survey of Australian novelists, The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found, critic Geordie Williamson speculates that “The very success of [The Watch Tower] meant that no further attempts were required.” Williamson’s explanation is credible in the sense that it notes Harrower’s mastery in the novel, but it doesn’t account for the turmoil implicit in her own remarks and actions. She has spoken obliquely to her choice to stop writing, remarking that, “Other people have an interest in your not writing.” She has also taken a portion of blame for herself, saying, “I was self-destructive,” and noting some unidentified irritation she let get in the way of her work. Whatever her reasons, those early works show the emergence of a mature novelist and leave many tantalizing questions in the what-might-have-been range.

“Retiring from writing is not to retire from life,” Jim Crace has said. Elizabeth Harrower would no doubt agree. She has noted that many of the friends she’s made in the past twenty or thirty years have no idea she ever published a word. Of her books, Harrower has said it “does seem like another person” wrote them. The reissue of those books by Text Publishing has brought a new wave of attention from readers in her native Australia, and from abroad. With the rare exception, reissued classics seldom yield big responses. The groundswell of belated recognition for John Williams’s novel Stoner in the United Kingdom last year was as notable as it was improbable. The early results in Harrower’s case are promising, however. Michael Dirda wrote a glowing review of The Watch Tower in The Washington Post. A piece in the Guardian (U.K.) suggested an affinity between Harrower’s novel and the band Portishead’s album Dummy. And 2014 will see Harrower’s first new novel in better than forty years. In Certain Circles was set for publication in 1971, but Harrower withdrew it late in the process. She consigned it to a drawer until publisher Michael Heyward convinced her it belonged in print. It should bring still more attention to Harrower’s past life and perhaps add a triumphant final chapter to her literary legacy.

– John McIntyre

Buy Brick 93 now

The time has come to find a copy of the newest issue of Brick: A Literary Journal. This is the 93rd issue of one of the essential English-language magazines in print today.

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It features thoughts from Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and others on the late, great Mavis Gallant; an interview with Aleksandar Hemon, and my essay on the long-neglected Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower. I’m not without bias in recommending it, but it’s hard to get more for $15.

— John McIntyre

Reconsidering Charles Wright

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.”

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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.