Last night, I went to the 92nd St. Y for a literary reading. Well, half of a literary reading. The writer I went there to meet was William Gass, one of the best writers in America (and therefore, cynically speaking, one of the least read). Mr. Gass and I had spoken a few times before, to discuss the projects Voyant was working on. I asked him for an introduction to The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests (since he and Paul West are friends, I thought he might offer to help us out), but he demurred, saying he was “introduction-ed out.” When it came time get blurbs for the book, Mr. Gass was suffering health problems and wasn’t able to help us out.
It was gratifying to see (okay: hear) him read last night. The selection was from a new novel. Referring to the labor that went into his previous novel, The Tunnel, he remarked, “I hope this one won’t take me 26 years to finish.” It was a chapter called “The Inhumanity Museum,” and it detailed the contents of his lead character’s top-floor rooms, in the home he shares with his elderly mother. The character, a music professor at an Ohio college, has accumulated newspaper clippings of all manner of human atrocities, in scrapbooks, pinned to walls, hanging from carefully placed strips of flypaper, “like niggers strung up on lampposts to teach someone a lesson.” At one point, reading a chronological section from the clippings, Mr. Gass broke from the reading and invited us to insert our own present-day atrocities. He chose one from a Feb. 15 newspaper, mentioning how several vials of smallpox were retained in labs, after the disease had been destroyed in the wild. Activists insisted on not killing the remaining samples, so as not to knowingly make any species on earth extinct.
The reading (35 minutes or so) was astonishing. The motif of the work was that the lead character’s fear that the world would end had been replaced by the fear that the world would live. Mr. Gass pressed utterly beautiful sentences into the service of a character’s unremitting hatred. I was reminded of his Paris Review interview from the late 1977, where he said,
“What is psychologically best for a writer is what produces his best work. I suspect that in order for me to produce my best work I have to be angry. At least I find that easy. I am angry all the time . . . My work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. And usually I am in my best working mood when I am, on the page, very combative, very hostile. That’s true even when I write praise, as is often the case . . . I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can.”
The articulation Mr. Gass brought to the character’s rage was sharply contrasted by the evening’s other reader, T. Coraghessan Boyle, who treated the upper east side audience like a drinking crowd at a comedy club. Mr. Boyle strode to the podium in black Tommy Hilfiger sweatpants and red Chuck Taylors, and tried to “warm us up” with witty banter, or a simulacra thereof.
Mr. Boyle proceeded to read a chapter from his new novel, Drop City, about a fictional commune in 1970. His reading was, to put it bluntly, atrocious. The sentences were leaden, serving only to tell the reader/listener “what happened next.” And what happened next is that the lead character gets the shits after shooting and cooking a deer. The audience found lines like “He needed toilet paper. NOW,” to be the heights of humor. During Mr. Gass’s reading, they only laughed during a section in which the narrator implores the rotting world to “fuck on,” beginning each paragraph with that sentiment. As though, in 2003, an old man saying “fuck” is cause for schoolyard titters.
Mr. Boyle’s reading went disastrously well. The audience ate him up, as though he was “the poet and prophet of our age” (fuck you, LA Times), rather than a second-rate screenwriter. Because that’s what his reading of Drop City was: a screenplay. There was nothing in the writing that needed to be written, rather than spoken. No interior life beyond the cardboard, easy sentiments of his commune-dwellers. Bad writing.
Problem is, most everyone was there to see him, not Mr. Gass. After the readings, there was a book signing/wine reception in the art gallery, where two lines formed. Mr. Gass’s line had perhaps 25 people, while more than a hundred waited to see Mr. Boyle. I got on Mr. Gass’s line, and found myself engaged in a strange conversation.
Two elderly women stood behind me, and one of them mentioned, “He seems so angry. I thought his reading would turn pleasant at some point, or that the character would find something good in the world.” Her companion clucked, and agreed that it had been rather depressing.
I turned to talk to them, and said, “Well, he’s fueled by rage. It’s inside a lot of what he’s written.”
One asked, “Has he written many books?”
I was puzzled. I wondered how two old women find themselves at a reading of William Gass, then actually get on line to talk to him, rather than just head home after hearing his beautifully angry writing, if they had no idea who he was or how much he’d written over the years. It turned out, of course, that there was a story. There always is, I guess.
One of the women brought the other for moral support (I didn’t get either of their names). Turns out that her daughter married Mr. Gass’s son many years ago. From what I gathered, they had two children (Mr. Gass’s grandkids), but there was a divorce (several, actually), and he had become estranged from that branch of the family. I’m not sure, but it may be that he never saw the grandchildren. But, the woman told me, “At the wedding, out of 150 people, he only saw fit to talk to me. He was so interesting to talk with, but I found it so odd that he wouldn’t talk to anyone else at the reception.”
She brought photographs of the grandchildren with her. “But I don’t know how he’s going to react to seeing them.”
“Hmm. Maybe I should go first,” I said, “just in case he flies into a rage and storms out of here.” They laughed, a bit nervously.
Eventually, I got to speak to Mr. Gass. He remembered me from our brief phone conversations, which I found gratifying, and said he”d be pleased to give me a blurb for The Immensity of the Here and Now. I gave him my card and some postcards from Voyant’s other books. He signed my copy of the first trade paperback edition of Omensetter’s Luck. I’m not particularly fixated on getting books signed, but I thought it”d be a good idea to come prepared. And I wasn’t going to carry The Tunnel with me, given the back pain that would have accompanied it.
Later, while I chatted with a woman whose brother brought her to the reading, the two old women came by. “He said he was happy to see me, and took the photos. He even wrote, ‘Thanks for the pictures of the grandkids, Bill Gass.'”
“He signed mine, ‘William H. Gass,'” I told her. “So that’s probably a friendly gesture on his part.”
“Do you think so?” She seemed happy, so I left the evening with a smile. Even though I was mightily pissed off at the legion of poseurs who had come to worship Captain Bullshit and his limp prose.
But I’m not bitter.