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Paul Wilner

Flight Patterns: Q&A with ‘Amelia Earhart’ Author Larry Beckett

Amelia EarhartPolymath poet Larry Beckett is flying high in Amelia Earhart (72 pages; Finishing Line Press), his latest addition to a cycle of epic tributes to the likes of P.T. Barnum, Paul Bunyan, and now Earhart, and with an upcoming volume on Wyatt Earp to round off a rubric on the “American Cycle.’’

The Portland writer is still best known for his collaborations with the late Tim Buckley, including the oft-covered classic “Song to the Siren,’’ but the long-ago death of his boyhood friend has not stopped him from cultivating his muse with fresh imaginings of seemingly unlikely subjects.

Here, he explores the various scenarios surrounding Earhart’s disappearance:

Oh, listen, the blue flight had no landing,

the worlds are out of balance, and because

the airplane vanished, I, never arriving,

now haunt the raw newspaper, and in words

I hate. Do you read me?

We do. “Amelia Earhart is a novel in verse, in 58 pages,’’ Beckett explains, via email. “It’s a contemporary version of the complaint form, from Renaissance England, as in Samuel Daniel’s The Complaint of Rosamond, and William Shakespeare’s Lucrece, in which the ghost of a woman appears and tells the story of her fall. The convention was the rhyme royal stanza, ababbcc: in my poem, the ghost condemns false approaches to her life in 7-line blank verse stanzas, and the inconclusive music of slant rhyme starts when she counters with the real story.”

Earhart, “whose fall was literal, out of the skies,” he continues, “haunts the newspaper, as from year to year disappearance theories are laid out. In the poem, the ghost is in a rage because all the attention is on her death, and not her life. She thought that our culture’s making such a big deal out of the death of a flyer when it was a woman was a sign of its all-pervading unfairness to women.’’

“The poem is a broadcast on the frequency of her last transmission: the Radio Hong Kong news is interrupted by the ghost. In the extended prologue, she recounts and rejects versions of her last flight—the Hollywood movie, in which she dies as a spy; the crackpot theory, in which she survives and comes back to America in disguise; the definitive biography, in which she drowns. Her own rendition is an interior monologue through the twenty hours of the last flight, punctuated by the actual radio traffic. Whenever necessary, she concentrates on the work of flying, then drifts into images of her life, in a rough chronology. She conjures her childhood on the banks of the Missouri, love of horses and the aeroplane, first flight and solo, first altitude record, celebrity and reluctant marriage, Atlantic and Pacific solos, Mexican flight, various crackups, and her 1937 round-the-world flight, up to the last moment. Memories are embedded in memories, and take different shapes—voice, letter, photograph, lecture, list, logbook. The current hit song When My Dreamboat Comes Home runs through her head, the lyrics misremembered in a way that shows her freedom of spirit.’’

Beckett’s obsessive identification with, and admiration for, Amelia shines through, along with their mutual scorn for “the crackpots who cash in on my enigma and ride my name like a ghost automobile down easy to the bank.’’

In addition to the justifiable anger, he catches the exhilaration of pushing the envelope:

After Atlantic war, Pacific peace: the 1st

person to cross that ocean, and at Oakland:

-Your transmission: I’m tired? – You missed

my meaning in static: of the fog, I said.

1000 hurrah, crying, by the armed guard,

shove American Beauty roses at my breast.

That landing is in the diary of my heart.

Beckett’s lifelong song project – a literal description, as he also has a new CD, Love & Trial, with the British musician Stuart Anthony, of spoken and sung translations of ancient and Renaissance Greek poetry to be released digitally on November 1 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPyMU5AaE74) – is a break from the postmodern cynicism of the moment. That’s on purpose.

Asked why he continues to be drawn to such iconic figures when the culture has moved in the opposite direction, the poet responds:

“’The Muses are the daughters of memory,’ Ezra Pound recalls in the Pisan Cantos. In my elementary school library, I’d be found in the folklore section, on fire reading those tall tales, or in American history, biographies of its heroes. That charge has lived on in me, as inspiration. And as a natural Fifties rebel, following Presley and Ginsberg, I was ready to ignore cultural tides, and the literary fashion against long narrative poems, to stay true to it.’’

“For me, Paul Bunyan isn’t an example of the destruction of ecosystems for profit. He’s the American spirit, trying by bragging and laughter to be equal to the colossal landscape. Wyatt Earp isn’t a boy’s story hero with an unfortunate turn for gun violence. He’s a deacon, following Jesus, still in love with his dead wife, doing all he can to avoid violence, to keep his soul alive, in Tombstone. Amelia Earhart isn’t a pile of bones on a deserted Pacific island, or a lost airplane. She’s a woman who lived and lives, who, in a world which oppresses women, liberated herself. Why does she still come up in the headlines every few months? Her disappearance is the number one unsolved mystery, but that’s only the surface. She’s an emblem of the equality of women, and her spirit will haunt the news until that equality is made real in the way we live.”

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‘Just Us’ by Paul Wilner

Supreme CourtThe Rape Guy approaches the podium,
with practiced confidence, Jimmy Stewart smiles.
He knows the ropes,
been through this drill before.
He lives around the corner from my brother-in-law,
who says he doesn’t know him but his wife is
“delightful.’’ I’m delighted. Aren’t you?
Who wouldn’t be? Just a drunken
grope and grab, lurch and lock,
his Irish Catholic pal
always ready to turn up the noise,
set the stage. Dominis vobiscum,
the Latin Mass is still the best.
Closeted libido, directed who knows where,
Three in the room.
Three’s a crowd, three’s company.
Company man. It’s all good.
Ask around, ask anybody.
Justice for all, stop the
witches. Burn the bridges,
burn the bras. Burn the
evidence, wipe the screens.
No one saw what they didn’t
see. The sea is calm tonight.
We all see what we want
to see, we all want what’s
best for the child. Baby,
let me be your loving Teddy Bear.
I don’t want to be a tiger,
tigers play too rough.
I don’t want to be a lion
‘Cause lions ain’t the kind
You love enough.
Look at that face.
Would I lie to you?
Were you lying
that night? Or upright
when we came
to save your very soul
and lose our own. Gladly.

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Seeing Anything Clearly in This Time and Place: Zachary Lazar’s ‘Vengeance’

Vengeance_cvr_72dpi_web_res_grandePublished earlier this year to respectful notices, Zachary Lazar’s painstakingly crafted novel Vengeance (272 pages; Catapult) takes on the complicated issues of race, the socially constructed questions of guilt or innocence in late stage capitalism, cultural appropriation and redemption. “What ‘Vengeance’ really attempts to unravel is the problem of injustice, although it is not a protest novel,’’ Katy Waldman noted in The New Yorker. Prison reform has been in the air—just ask Kim Kardashian—but news cycles come and go. Regardless, Vengeance merits a more sustained look.

The novel was inspired by the author’s visit to Angola, a Louisiana State Penitentiary (and former slave plantation) where he saw a production of a Passion Play, “The Life of Jesus Christ.” With a friend named Deborah (in real-life, photographer Deborah Luster, whose series “Tooth for an Eye: A Choreography of Violence in Orleans Parish’’ is credited at the end of the book), Lazar’s narrator (and thinly veiled stand-in) attends the rehearsals and ultimate final performance.

More importantly, he befriends a prisoner named Kendrick King, doing life for his alleged role in a drug deal gone murderously wrong. Did he, in fact, do the deed? Or was he paying dues, proudly standing up for his cousin, Mason, who, the narrator finds out through dogged reporting, was most likely the one who was directly involved. But does it matter, ultimately?

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‘Thoughts and Prayers’ by Paul Wilner

Thoughts and Prayersguns and roses,
money, honey,
what’s the point.
raise, hold,
stay, fold,
left out standing in the cold.
If I had a thought, I’d tell you,
bow my head if there’s a prayer.
no such luck,
no such mercy
i am waiting, I am old.
give us this day our daily bread,
maybe we’ll feed it to the dead.

Paul Wilner’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. You can read more of his writing in ZYZZYVA No. 106 and No. 109

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Catching Up with Good Things: ‘The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin’

The Luck of Friendship“The past is never dead,’’ as Faulkner memorably put it. “It’s not even past.’’

But the mutability of literary fashion continues to be regrettable. A new collection, The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin (392 pages; Norton), reminds us of the importance of respecting the Muse (regardless of reviews), the seeming bygone virtues of literary mentorship, and the need to cast aside judgement to make way for love. Tactfully edited by Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith, Laughlin’s longtime associates at New Directions, the avant-garde publishing house he founded, it presents a little-seen side of the playwright.

Too often portrayed retrospectively as a pill-popping, promiscuous caricature, a kind of Capote with theatrical wings, this record shows him as a devoted, if sometimes anxious friend, seeking and getting the approval of Laughlin—an accomplished poet in his own right, who was an advocate for Williams’s early works, from The Glass Menagerie to A Streetcar Named Desire. (They were also avid collaborators on everything from typeface to cover design; a subject Williams was intensely interested in.)

“I have done a lot of work, finished two long plays,’’ he writes in 1947, from New Orleans. “One of them, ‘A Streetcar Called Desire’ turned out quite well. It is a strong play…but is not what critics call ‘pleasant.’ In fact, it is pretty unpleasant. But we already have a producer ‘in the bag.’ A lady named Irene Selznick [estranged wife of David Selznick and a daughter of Louis B. Mayer]. Her chief apparent advantage is that she seems to have millions.’’

Laughlin, as always, was supportive. Even when he had reservations, or suggestions about Williams’s work, he phrased them encouragingly, and was an advocate for controversial material like his 1948 story collection, One Arm and Other Stories, which depicted gay life explicitly, and tirelessly urged Tennessee to continue work on his underrated poetry.

Perhaps the secret to the longevity of this alliance was in the physical distance between the two men.

“Their joint story, while admittedly only a small part of the life of either man, provides a window into the literary history of the mid-twentieth century and reveals not only the self-destructive tendencies of a great artist, but also his lifelong perseverance to remain both a poet and an experimental playwright, supported in his endeavors by the publisher he considered his his one true friend,’’ Fox writes in the introduction.

True to form, Laughlin backed Williams in his later efforts, even when they were viciously attacked. It’s a commonplace (seen also in Rebecca Miller’s recent documentary about her father, Arthur) that after enjoying early success of incredible magnitude, the artist must be knocked down a peg or ten by critics for his subsequent work, even though they obviously stem from the same sensibility. The light may burn brightest in youth, but the Victorian maidens of the press can’t resist the temptation to engage in schadenfreude at the inevitable fall.

“Dear Tenn,’’ Laughlin writes in 1953. “I’m glad that you have been encouraged by lots of letters from people who liked Camino [Real]. They are right and the dopes are wrong. But it all takes time. You must be patient. The world catches up with good things slowly. You’ve just got to develop a thick hide. I went through all of this with New Directions. For years almost all of the reviews of all the books were ridicule and scorn. You just have to sit tight and pay no attention and believe in yourself.’’

The publisher’s modesty, too, belied his talent. I was lucky enough to interview Laughlin some years back, and he recounted how he founded New Directions at Ezra Pound’s behest. He’d interrupted his studies at Harvard to sit at the cantankerous poet’s feet in Rapallo.

“When I first went there, I was trying to write, and I would show him things,’’ he recounted wryly. “He’d always tear them to pieces: too many words, too ‘poetic.’

“He finally said, ‘You’d better go home and do something useful.’ I said, ‘What is useful?’ and he said, ‘If you have the guts, you might murder Henry Seidel Canby.’ Henry Canby was the editor of the Saturday Review, who was very old-fashion, and always getting after Ezra.’’

“We decided that wouldn’t be very practical, so he said, ‘Well, you can become a publisher’ – and gave me letters to William Carlos Williams and his other literary friends.’’

Despite Pound’s protestations, Laughlin, who died in 1997, was a serious, if underappreciated, poet in his own right. I’d be remiss not to recommend, along with the Williams correspondence, his Collected Poems (New Directions, 1,214 pages), a massive volume full of unexpected pleasures, like this:

The Poet To His Reader

These poems are not I
hope what anyone ex-
 
pects and yet reader
I hope that when you
 
read them you will say
I’ve felt that too but
 
it was such a natural
thing it was too plain
 
to see until you saw
it for me in your poem.

Williams’ heroine Blanche DuBois famously declared she’d always depended on the kindness of strangers. But in Laughlin, he found an initial stranger who became a stalwart friend. Every writer should be so lucky.

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Strength of Kindness & Reason: Q&A with ‘Winter Kept Us Warm’ Author Anne Raeff

(photo by Dennis Hearne)

(photo by Dennis Hearne)

San Francisco writer Anne Raeff’s new novel, Winter Kept Us Warm’’ (304 pages; Counterpoint Press), officially out next Tuesday, is an ambitious, multi-generational tale that deals with the interlocking lives of three characters—Ulli, Leo, and Isaac—who meet in Berlin shortly after World War II has ended. A departure of sorts from Raeff’s 2015 story collection, The Jungle Around Us, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, it shares a similar interest in the complexities of character, motive, and human nature, albeit on a different palette. (In a coincidence of fate, Raeff’s wife, Lori Ostlund, previously won the O’Connor Award in 2008 for her collection The Bigness of the World.)

Raeff spoke to us by e-mail about the new book, her biography, and her future projects. This is a writer who deals with serious, sometimes unfashionable subjects, with depth and compassion, qualities the new novel displays in abundance.

ZYZZYVA: Winter Kept Us Warm covers a lot of ground and geographical locations, from Germany to New York, Los Angeles and Morocco. It also seems like a “European’’ novel, in the sense that politics is seen as part and parcel of the tapestry of life, rather than something to be addressed separately. Was that partly your intent, to bring that tradition back? Are there novelists you were particularly influenced by who deal with the same concerns?

Anne Raeff: I don’t see how it is possible to separate story from history. In fact, the word story didn’t come into the English language until the early 16th century. Before that, history was the only word, and it meant a narrative of important events. Perhaps because the stories I grew up with were so closely tied to cataclysmic events in history like the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and World War II, from a very early age I thought of history as story and story as history.

My father was an historian by profession, but the interesting thing is that he didn’t teach me the facts of history, though he encouraged me to study and read about history on my own. Instead, he told me stories. He told me the story of the girl who died because of a gas leak while taking a bath in a pension in Lisbon. She and her family were among the many Russian refugees like my father who had escaped Occupied France and were waiting in Lisbon for visas to come to the United States. He told me about the prisoner at the POW camp in Arizona who believed that Stalin was living in his head.

Part of American exceptionalism is a lack of interest in history and an almost ideological denial of the effects of history on individual lives. Perhaps now that American literature is including a greater variety of voices, the importance of the forces of history will become more integrated into literature and into the American consciousness. The book that comes to mind that weaves together a very particular moment in history with a very particular human tragedy is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It is a book with an extraordinary sense of place, which is also something that is extremely important to me.

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Last Man in the West: ‘A Texas Trilogy’ by Larry McMurtry

A Texas TrilogyI once talked to Larry McMurtry on the telephone.

I was doing a piece for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, pegged to Terms of Endearment, on why his works were so compulsively suitable for adaptation to the big (and little) screen – this was after Hud and The Last Picture Show, but before Lonesome Dove or Brokeback Mountain.

I was getting nowhere trying to reach him, until a friend tipped me off that he was staying at the Beverly Wilshire with his son, on a stopover before a skiing trip.

When I got connected to McMurtry’s room, and explained what I was up to, he was a little surprised, and polite enough – but direct. “I don’t do interviews,” he said. “I just don’t see the point.”

It’s that kind of understated honesty that, after decamping from the desolate Archer City ranch he was brought up in, helped him survive the wilds of the Stanford writing program, where, as a Stegner Fellow, he hung out with Ken Kesey and other latter-day Merry Pranksters, but kept his hands on the wheel, like fellow classmate Robert Stone.

At 81, and approaching the end of a distinguished literary career, amid (apparently premature) rumors of retirement, his early work is being celebrated with A Texas Trilogy (722 pages; Liveright), the re-issue of his first three novels, Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; and The Last Picture Show.

In a fresh introduction to the new volume, McMurtry humble brags Horseman, Pass By – the title came from Yeats, but was discarded by the filmmakers for the simpler sobriquet Hud – but allows it some credit for “occasionally pleasing lyricism.’’

Well, more than that.

 New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously dissed the movie (and the book) for its sanctimonious portrayal of Homer Bannon, the cattleman who unhappily agrees to let government regulators inspect his herd for mad cow disease – and allows them to be slaughtered once it is confirmed. As usual, Kael far preferred the antihero, Hud (as the movie billboard campaign memorably put it, Paul Newman is Hud), for his virility and lack of pretension, in comparison to Homer or Hud’s younger, more sensitive and idealistic half-brother, Lonnie.

But her real critique seemed to boil down to a less subtle form of social snobbery: at the end of the day, these people were…hicks.

It’s the kind of assault being leveled these days on “Trump country” – even as pictures flooded the news recently of burly boaters rescuing older hurricane refugees, many of them African-American, from roofs and car tops. This is not to discount the myriad ways in which our current President is awful – a gargoylish caricature of our worst collective prejudices – but an acknowledgement that there is a deeper reality than what we see on screens (let alone tweets). To be rooted in the country is advantageous, as well as alarming.

Ask Elvis.

Towards the end of Horseman, Lonnie articulates some of this as he tries to escape his troubles at a dance after a rodeo in which a friend was crushed by a bull:

“The band was playing one of those songs of Hank Williams’, the one about the wild side of life, and the music floated over the car tops and touched me…Only the tune of the song reached me, but the tune was enough. It fit the night and the country and the way I was feeling, and fit them better than anything I knew. What few stories the dancing people had to tell were already told in the worn-out words of songs like that one, and their kind of living, the few things they knew and lived to a fare-thee-well in the sad high tune. City people probably wouldn’t believe there were folks simple enough to live their lives out in sentiments like those – but they didn’t know.”

It is a complex fate being an American, indeed.

“This was the small-town West I and so many of my friends came out of – escaping from the swaggering small-town hotshots like Hud,’’ writes Kael, who was born in Petaluma. “But I didn’t remember any boys like Brandon DeWilde’s Lon: he wasn’t born in the West or in anyone’s imagination; that seventeen-year-old blank sheet of paper has been handed down from generations of lazy hack writers.’’

Although McMurtry admitted, with typical modesty, that the polarities between Homer and no-good Hud were overdrawn, clearly there must have been some sensitive souls on the range – how else to account for McMurtry’s own prodigious output, and his famously good ear for women characters? Maybe Kael was just looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song would have it.

Trust the tale, not the teller.

Even as a first effort, Horseman, Pass By, published in 1961 when the author was all of 25, stands up to re-reading. There’s a touch of Twain in Lon’s lonesome laments, and of Dreiser (and Tom Buchanan) in the depiction of Hud’s rough romancing.

McMurtry, who clearly knows his way around a High Concept pitch, describes his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, as “the bittersweet story of a longtime love triangle among a rancher, his cowboy, and an appealing countrywoman who loves them both.’’

It was adapted into a ludicrous film, Lovin’ Molly, starring the amazingly miscast Anthony Perkins as one of the ranch hands and Beau Bridges, doing as best possible under the circumstances, as Johnny McCloud, his sidekick and romantic rival. But the book’s real achievement is McMurtry’s portrait of Molly. Part of his unending curiosity into the mysteries and unreachability of women in general, and the woman his protagonist is obsessed with in particular, it prefigured the development of more mature characters like Patsy Carpenter in Moving On, Emma Greenway-Horton and her mom, Aurora, in Terms of Endearment, and Jill Peel in Somebody’s Darling.

Molly Taylor, the liberated lady of the prairies, has her overly serious suitor, Gideon Fry’s number about the difference between wanting to be in in love, and the actual experience. As she tells him, “You’re always thinking about Johnny or Eddie or your ranch or your dad or what people will think, or what’s right and wrong, something like that…. Or else you just like to think about having me for a girl. That ain’t loving nobody much. I can tell you that.” Busted.

Huck Finn’s ghost pops up as Gid comes to grips with the fact, that, unlike Johnny, he can’t just walk away from his roots.

“I didn’t mind the company; I didn’t mind the country, or even the cold weather,’’ McMurtry writes, of an interlude in which McCloud has talked Fry into taking off into the wilds. “I just minded feeling like I wasn’t where I belonged…I couldn’t get over thinking about Dad and Molly and the country and the ranch, the things I knew. The things that were mine. It wasn’t that I liked being in Archer Country so much – sometimes I hated it. But I was just tied up with it; whatever happened there was happening to me, even if I wasn’t there to see it. The country might not be very nice and the people might be ornery; but it was my country and my people, and no other country was; no other people, either. You do better staying with your own, even if it’s hard.”

Hard times are what define the fictional terrain of The Last Picture Show (1966), the coda of the “new” collection and the most formally accomplished of the trio. As in Peter Bogdanovich’s film adaptation, the sharp-eyed characterizations of small town football buddies Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, the town tease Lacy Farrow, her mutinously adulterous mom Lois, and Sam the Lion, the local pool hall proprietor, are precisely etched, as is the subplot involving Sonny’s callous affair with Ruth Popper, the wife of the (closeted) high school football coach.

As the saga draws to an end, the Thalia picture show closes, with a whimper, not a bang – showing an Audie Murphy vehicle called The Kid From Texas in lieu of a John Ford classic. It’s second-rate, but the novel is not.

“While writing these three novels, it was clear to me that I was witnessing the dying of a way of life, too – the rural, pastoral way of life,” McMurtry writes. “And in many of the books that I’ve produced, it has taken thousands of words to attend to the passing of the cowboy as well: the myth of my country, and of my people, too.”

This was country he would not return to until the publication, thousands of words later, of Lonesome Dove. Intended as an anti-Western, it of course had the opposite effect, bringing the author his first Pulitzer and a massive audience for the mini-series that was based on it.

The irony was not lost on McMurtry, a writer so keenly aware of regional marginalization that he used to wear a sweatshirt with the logo: “Minor regional novelist.’’ (His bemused account, in Literary Life, of his tenure as president of PEN America, and failed attempts to broaden its scope beyond Manhattan, is instructive.)

His portraits of contemporary life have been no less telling. The next re-release of his work, one hopes, will be the “Houston trilogy’’ – Moving On, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment – which deal with clearly autobiographical material, especially in Strangers, the tale of Danny Deck, a young Texas novelist whose success brings unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences. And Somebody’s Darling, a picaresque tale of the adventures of rising director Jill Peel, sardonic screenwriter Joe Percy, and Owen Oarson, a Texas stud along for the unlikely ride, is as good a Hollywood novel as I’ve read.

McMurtry is always accessible and humane as the latest trilogy reminds us. Although a former Stegner Fellow, his voice is never as portentous as that of the late Western writer, and less apocalyptic than his classmate Kesey.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours, and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,’’ J.D. Salinger famously wrote (and lived to regret).

But I don’t mind that my talk with Larry McMurtry was so brief. It left him more time to keep writing. The conversation continued.

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Frost Bit

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say Vanilla Ice
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I’m thinking of a funeral pyre.
But if you had to ask me twice,
I’d throw the dice.
Bring Kid Rock over for a round or two,
Burn one or two or three or four,
Look out for lice. Watch the backyard
Barbecue glow. Orange in the night.
Let’s do it twice.

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Experience and the Writer: Q&A with ‘River Under the Road’ Author Scott Spencer

(photo by Plain Picture)

(photo by Plain Picture)

Over the course of eleven novels, Scott Spencer has earned an incontestable place as one of the major novelists of our time. Best known as the author of Endless Love, an incandescent narrative of youthful passion and obsession that became the subject of two unfortunate film adaptations, Spencer has chosen to stay out of the limelight since its publication in 1979.

In works such as Waking The Dead (1986), also adapted into a (more credible) film, A Ship Made of Paper (2003), The Rich Man’s Table (1998), and Willing (2008), he has covered fictional territory ranging from an American activist gone missing in Chile, to the illegitimate son of a cult music icon’s search for his absent parent—even the seriocomic adventures of a freelance writer who takes an all-expenses paid trip to a sex tour to get over a bad break-up.

Love, and its complicated consequences, is at the heart of his fictional explorations, but he has an uncanny ability to switch gears, from hopelessly romantic to high (and sometimes low) comedy, without seeming to break a sweat or lose the reader in the process.

His new novel, River Under the Road (384 pages; Ecco), is Spencer’s strongest achievement yet, the work of a mature artist who understands his craft and how to control his narrative. With an epigraph from Lincoln—“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…’’—he turns his lens on a wide cast of characters as seen through thirteen scene-setting parties, from 1976 to 1990, and from Chicago, where his protagonist, Thaddeus Kaufman, was raised in the fulcrum of leftie parenting, to New York and then the Hudson Valley, (where Thaddeus repairs to after surprise success as a screenwriter), with pit stops in Hollywood and even Plato’s Retreat (or “Nero’s Fiddle,’’ as it is called here).

The demands of keeping his marriage together with Grace Cornell, the struggling artist who has accompanied him on the ride from the Midwest to what is laughingly called “success,’’ are chronicled here, along with the class struggle between the townies of Leyden (the fictional town he has moved to) and the couple’s nouveau riche friends. The temptations of La-La Land—the real thing, not the movie—are shown in living color, as Kaufman tries to fend off the blandishments, and the bullshit, that goes with the territory.

It’s a rich emotional landscape that is about as far from modish post-modernism as you can travel. These are real people, not poster children for a post-irony age. Literary comparisons are probably a mug’s game, but, for my part, the author’s seriousness about the wayward ways of the human heart puts him far beyond perennial Nobel Prize-bridesmaid Philip Roth’s often cartoonish depictions of sexual politics (or politics, period).

We talked to Spencer about River Under the Road. Our electronic conversation follows:

ZYZZYVA: River Under the Road feels like a “big’’ novel—large in scope, ambition and range—a portrait of class conflict and the never-ending war between the sexes over time and geography. Although very different in some ways, in others it seems like a return to the emotional roller coaster of Endless Love, with the distance of life experience and artistic maturity. Do you see any parallels—or significant differences—between the two books?

SCOTT SPENCER: Like everyone else, writers grow older and we have more opportunities to measure what we somehow believe to be true and important against what our experience has taught us. Don’t we sometimes feel that life is continually trying to grab us by the shoulders and give us a vigorous shake, imploring us to revise or abandon altogether half of our assumptions? I don’t write novels as a means to self-improvement or self-analysis, but if you work as I do, and create narratives in which characters deal with the consequences of their actions, you cannot escape continual confrontation with your own thoughts and feelings. Endless Love was the third novel I had published, and it is not a book that I would or could write now. Because it was more successful than my other novels, it is used often as a benchmark in discussing a new book I have written. This is probably useful to someone attempting to evaluate a writer’s oeuvre, but I don’t believe many writers think too much about previous work when they are engaged in the labor of creating a new fictional universe. Aside from never using the word “endless” again, I don’t write into or away from what I have already written.

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Door of the Soul: ‘The Accomplished Guest’ by Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie’s career began, auspiciously, 40 years ago with the joint publication of her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Distortions, a short story collection. It was an almost unheard of debut for a writer whose career had previously consisted The Accomplished Guestlargely of short stories in The New Yorker and a few other publications.

But she immediately captured critical attention with her pitch-perfect depiction of the lives of her contemporaries, shellshocked by political changes, struggling with the problems of dysfunctional relationships and trying to find a way to make sense of the senseless.

It didn’t hurt that she was also hip, strewing pop and drug culture references through her work like bread crumbs leading to an imaginary cottage. The startling directness and present-tense presence of her voice did not escape the attention of her peers, either.

“You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story,’’ John Updike told her, at their first meeting.

Well, maybe.

Although Beattie’s formidable formal innovations are remarkable, it’s no disservice to her work, which now encompasses 19 books, to say she is working in the same arena as such contemporaries as Alice Munro, and predecessors from Mavis Gallant to Chekhov, or Maupassant.

She may not be squarely in their fictional lane – her style is uniquely her own – but they populate the same neighborhood of experience, and no doubt would find a way to successfully communicate over the garden fence. There has recently been an outpouring of work from Beattie, including the publication last year of The State We’re In: Maine Stories. (She and her husband, the painter Lincoln Perry, divide their time between Maine and Key West). Her newest, just-released collection, The Accomplished Guest (288 pages; Scribner), is stunningly successful – reading it is like being hit by successive waves of emotion recalled – not so much in tranquility as in the vertiginous heat of a summer afternoon. The title pays homage to Emily Dickinson’s poem, which she chooses as an epigraph:

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Lost Addresses, Found Poems: Collections from Diann Blakely & Hélène Cardona

Lost Addresses“My fear is the common one, that her poetry should be lost,’’ Rodney Jones writes in the introduction to Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems (100 pages; Salmon Poetry), a posthumously released collection by his friend and fellow Southerner, Diann Blakely.

“There are ample reasons for a poet to be neglected, temporarily submerged in a trend, or permanently effaced, for poetry is a cold media and the music that the claim of poetry rests on may not always be acknowledged,’’ he adds. “This book is proof against forgetting.”

Indeed. Blakely, who died in 2014, had a light that burned brightly, but the questionable benefits of self-promotion, let alone branding, were alien to her spirit. (In addition to this volume, her longstanding project, Rain In Our Door: Duets With Robert Johnson, is to be published by White Pine Press and another collection, Each Fugitive Moment; Essays, Memoirs and Elegies on Lynda Hull, is forthcoming from MadHat Press.)

Her verse unites respect for form and for precursors like Eliot and Plath with down-home tributes to high and low culture, from Sid Vicious to Foucault. She gives us imagined renderings of the real life meetings between Helen Keller and Mark Twain. In “The Story of Their Lives,’’ she writes:

Dear Reader, spellbound
Or bored with cryptic addresses, bored

With other lives and voices, it’s time to loose
This story, to let Helen float away
From Westport, childhood, Los Angeles: you choose

Her resting place.

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Hanging in the Balance, Like a Puppet on a Hand: Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

“This is really a drag—and a bore,’’ the doomed jazzster Chet Baker tells director Bruce Weber in Let’s Get Lost, in response to (sympathetic) inquiries about his drug habits. The same could be said of the recent controversy over the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.

In a certain sense, it all makes sense: the high-minded indignation from select members of the literary Establishment (though, some, like Salman Rushdie and Joyce Carol Oates, welcomed the decision), and disgusted repudiation of boomer nostalgia (we get it, Irvine Welsh) in other quarters. It’s of a piece with the kind of responses the hillbilly from Hibbing has received—and invited—throughout his career, amid his dizzying changes from folk prophet to insolent rocker, country crooner to Christian preacher, callow courtier to spurned lover and husband.

But it’s a category error—ironic for someone who’s made a career out of blowing up categories. Like Whitman, Dylan is large, and his work contains multitudes, including a multitude of complaints about his creative choices. Since fanboy prose famously comprises so much of the writing about Dylan, let’s dispose of the objections first.

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