“But What I Really Love About This Is This Amazing Game That You’ve Invented”
There are a lot of writers out there who I’m sure pride themselves on not having needed a mentor – fiercely independent types, self-taught at everything from the possibilities of figurative language to the rudiments of crossbow construction – but as for me, when I was starting out, in literary matters I couldn’t have found my ass with both hands and a banjo. The first fiction writer with whom I worked, Stephen Minot, did the best he could with me, but he was starting a few floors below the lobby. One of his colleagues in the English Department at Trinity College, Milla Riggio, who taught things like Anglo-Saxon poetry and medieval and Renaissance drama, had, with a marvelous charismatic seriousness of purpose, taken my hand and led me into an appreciation of the joys of close reading. But they had so much ground to cover: I’d gone to a pit of a high school and had grown up reading almost exclusively non-fiction, so the only canon of which I had any knowledge were built into the sides of men-of-wars.
In keeping with a life that up until that point had been constructed from a desultory combination of inadequate planning and no planning at all, I lucked into graduate study with John Hawkes at Brown University by having decided at the last minute to not try to write in my parents’ basement, and to take advantage instead of the two years in which I’d be left alone to get an MFA.
With what feels in retrospect like a touching pathos, I spent the summer trying to prepare, as much as I prepared for anything, by reading John Hawkes’ work, or, more accurately, those of his novels that I could find in the Stratford Public Library. I read The Blood Oranges, The Cannibal, and Death, Sleep and the Traveler. The charitable way to characterize my response might be to say that I groped around in the murk of my understanding. I did, to my credit, realize that I had much to gain by studying with someone whose imagination worked in these ways.
The speed with which I went from solely intimidated to pleased and comfortable and just plain delighted to be in the guy’s presence had everything to do with the amused and slightly teasing way in which he negotiated his public roles as teacher and literary lion. Jack Hawkes (“It’s Jack,” he’d correct you when you first addressed him, as though amiably exasperated at having to tell you for the fifteenth time) was the first writer I ever got to know who was self-consciously playful when it came to his public persona. (Back then in America it was still possible for an esoteric writer to have a public persona.) Much was written about him then, especially by academics and Frenchmen, and he loved to quote it and then play off it. These were all Jacks who were in some ways authentic and all of them allowed him to access those values he held most dear. As well as those that he pretended to hold most dear. So that an audience at one of his readings might glimpse four or five of those figures in his opening patter. Like Jack the fanatical Francophile: “Are any of you able to drink American wine?” he might ask the assembled, with an anxious curiosity, as though he were asking about antifreeze. Or Jack the outrageously unapologetic hedonist. Or Jack the logistically helpless: I remember him enraging Michael Harper, the poet who ran the program at that point, after one reading by complaining innocently but with a childlike repetitive intensity, “Why is it that the food we have at these readings is so consistently uninteresting? Who is it that’s in charge of the food?”
One of the Jacks that he liked to trot out a lot around me was Jack the deaf, dumb and blind hermit when it came to popular culture. Though we were never sure to what extent he was exaggerating, he prided himself on his nearly pristine lack of involvement with the sort of stuff you’d find in People magazine or Entertainment Weekly. Mickey Mouse he conceded that he’d heard of. Movie stars of the day? No chance. Popular music? Sure, if you count Scriabin.
That Jack was the Jack about which I liked to tease him most, and whenever Jack was teased he became more like the figure you’d been teasing. It seemed to be, for him, a lovely and subtle form of play. Halfway through my second year in the program, we had a tutorial about a story that featured a narrator who found himself quarterbacking the Minnesota Vikings with his mother as the fullback and his father as the coach. He told me that I’d really hit on something here. He praised the story’s psychodynamics and brutal comedy and then added, “But what I really love about this is this amazing game that you’ve invented, with its own lunatic logic: I mean, these great masses of people all helmeted and uniformed and pushing at one another. And if you score by crossing your line, you get to kick an extra point. And no one even questions why you get to kick an extra point.”
And there I was, thinking, he’s kidding, right? While he continued marveling at the feat of imagination I’d pulled off, especially in terms of the off-handed intricacy of this game and the power of its surrealism. I ended up saying something like, “Jack, you’ve heard of football,” and his response was something like, “This is football? This is the same game?”
It’s a measure of how good he was at ambiguities of tone that about half of our workshop, having heard that story, believed he was putting me on, and the other half was fiercely convinced of the opposite.
But probably the most valuable Jack that Jack modeled for us was Jack the rigorously well-read. He was encyclopedic and passionate about that kind of literature that we all knew we should have encountered, but almost none of us had, in any quantity: the eastern Europeans, the South Americans, the French. Really, almost anybody that Americans would consider esoteric. And not just non-Americans, as well: I remember him rhapsodizing about Nathanael West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell, and going around the room twice to make sure that he wasn’t mistaken; that, in fact, no one in his workshop had read the thing. I bought The Complete Works of Nathanael West, shamefacedly, at the used book store on campus later that same afternoon.
He’d draw his examples, when discussing our work, from that sort of literature. This or that gesture in someone’s story might remind him of a moment in a work of Svevo’s, or Borges’, or Gide’s, or Tournier’s or Cortazar’s, and then we’d looked back at him blankly, he’d say, “Wait. You haven’t read that book?” The way you might ask the Pope if it was really true that he hadn’t read the Bible.
He’d be equally appalled, and pained, to hear that you’d read some of his favorite more canonized authors, but only a very small amount of them. You’ve read some Nabokov? Well, why’d you stop? You’ve read two Flannery O’Connor stories? Well, do you know how many she wrote?
And when you did come back to him, having engaged and enjoyed a work you hadn’t known existed, he was so beside himself with pleasure, and with an eagerness to catalog its virtues, that you resolved then and there to please him, and yourself, that way again.
In other words: like just about any good teacher, he made abundantly clear what a gift high literary culture really was.
What he did for me as a reader is of course indivisible from what he did for me as a writer. But like any MFA student, what I had been most hoping was that as a reader and an editor he’d impact my own fiction. And boy, did those hopes work out.
I remember finishing Death, Sleep and the Traveler that summer before I began at Brown and wondering if there’d been some kind of mistake, in terms of my admission. I mean, up to that point I’d been writing what I hoped were lucid, naturalist stories about suburban kids negotiating your run-of-the-mill family dysfunctions. What was he going to make of stuff like that?
As was characteristic of me, once I was faced with a challenge, I gave up. Confronted with such an intimidating mentor – I mean, who was going to compete with one of the premier Fabulists, when it came to imagination? – I somehow decided that I might as well hunker down and go even smaller, when it came to ambition: maybe even more obsessively attempt to write about only what I knew. Oh yeah, Mr. Bigshot-I-seem-to-have-read-everything? Well, let’s see if you know more about Catholic schoolteachers in Bridgeport, Connecticut than I do. I cranked out, in accordance with that plan, any number of stories about bookish and sensitive and wry and troubled but covertly adorable young boys saddled with Italian Catholic backgrounds on the suburban Connecticut shore. Jack waded through each with his version of a weary patience, which might more accurately be described as a kind of civil impatience: when vehement about something (which was nearly always, when it came to literature; he spent, I’d estimate, about 10 percent of his time diffident, about 30 percent either bemused or amused, and the other 60 percent vehement) his voice would take on a self-consciously hectoring and wheedling nasal lament which was uncannily channeled by Gilda Radner and Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live in their skit “The Whiners.”
He sighed a lot when fiction didn’t excite him. He’d sigh, and begin to praise the story in minor ways, and my heart would sink right through the floor. He’d walk me through the story – this was fine, that was fine, this was a certainly well-turned phrase, he supposed – but nothing would get him excited until he finally ran across something bizarre, something unexpected. The boy’s being scolded, and then for no apparent reason he puts his finger in the ashtray and then licks it? Jack would seize on such moments the way you’d seize on water in the desert, and explain through them how much more arresting they made my otherwise bland protagonists.
I caught on, slowly. You want weird? I remember thinking, not entirely discouraged. Well, that won’t be hard for me. Hence that story about the boy who found himself quarterbacking the Minnesota Vikings with his mother as the fullback and his father as the coach. Or another, soon after, about a doting father and husband who spent his covert hours lying on runways near the touchdown points of incoming aircraft.
As our teacher, Jack modeled for us so many things. He reminded us of the ways in which fiction so often was willing to confront ugliness in the service of its opposite. He taught us to value obsessive focus. He insisted that when writing we not forget our allegiance to the body. He demanded we stay willing to be educated about our emotions.
But most of all, he taught us to leap at the astonishingly idiosyncratic wherever it appeared in our work. To value the expressive potential of the unexpectedly strange.
Celebrating such stories as they came across his desk, Jack exulted in the excess, the unruliness, the energy that resulted in our having turned ourselves over to our intuition. What he was teaching me, when he taught me always to look for the strangeness and to value the weird, was to understand that those moments that I hadn’t fully planned were reliably the ones in which I electrified my inert little narrative, and most likely, most fully revealed myself. Or at least: revealed what was potentially my most interesting self.
Which, I realized years later, was also where Jack’s playfulness with his public persona came in. In and out of the classroom, he was tirelessly showing us all, with a kind of gleeful and sly definitiveness, how foolish it was to fret that we only had ourselves to write about, as though there wasn’t something unutterably – and savingly – strange and multifarious about the self anyway. As William Gass later wrote in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter: “Our ignorance [of who we are] is reassuring to Porter because the self she fears she is she hopes will remain unknowable to others, while the self she wishes she were takes its public place. Yet the self she regretted and the self she desired are actually states of that populous nation that a self is: cowgirl, coquette, cook, queen, artist, the disillusioned well-used lady, and the girl with the dream – a roaring, riotous, shrewd, and foolish community of loving and quarreling equals.”
Or maybe here’s another way of putting it, a formulation from the poet Michael Ryan that Jack would have loved: “You can do anything. But it all counts.”
This essay will appear in Mentors, Muses, and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, Free Press, November 2009.