Thursday, September 18, 2008

Which Writers Are Indispensible?

I am not even going to pretend that this post will be coherent, but I mean to touch on a subject I have been thinking about recently. You may notice – ‘you’ meaning ‘person reading this blog’, which I think may amount to maybe 3 people at the most – that I have added a slight modification to the “What We’re Reading” section on the left there, where we indicate which books we have ‘on deck’. The ones we are planning to read, for those of you who don’t know baseball. If you have noticed this, you may read through it and ask: what the hell is ‘Melvillepalooza’?!?

(Actually, your first reaction was probably closer to ‘Man, what friggin’ DORKS these guys are!’ But then again, what are you doing reading this blog in the first place if you do not have at least some symptoms of the same disease? If this is you, and you’re still not down with it, go back to your ‘Friends’ list on Facebook and leave the literary discussion to the big dogs.)

The thought occurred to me at some point this year, I can’t say when, that one thing I almost never do is read two books in a row by the same author. It happens sometimes, but it’s rare; it’s not something that I really enjoy for one simple reason: variety. I don’t want to read too much of the same sort of thing in a row. And I find that even if an author’s novels are all very different from one another – someone like Ron Hansen, or Michael Chabon, to cite just two examples – you can still tell it was written by the same guy (or woman), and more often than not some of the same broader themes will emerge in one way or another.

But others sometimes tell me that once they find a writer they like, they go out and find everything by that person and blow through it all in one long shot. My wife does this sometimes, if it’s a writer whose work she really finds compelling. I have never done this, as I said before; I guess it just goes against my impulses as a reader, and there are always so many other books out there I am longing to get to. Yet I had heard it enough times that I finally had the idea to ask myself, ‘If I was going to read several books in a row by the same writer, which writer would I select?’ This is the question that I have been considering off and on for several months now.

If I was ever going to entertain this idea, I thought, I would have to choose a writer that to me was indispensable. I would have to be certain that all of that time reading [SELECTED WRITER]’s books was time well spent. One has to remember that for however long it would take to read a number of one individual writer’s books in a row, that is time you would not spend reading novels by other talented writers. But which writers are indispensable? Everyone has to decide that for themselves. As soon as I started to think about which ones were to me personally, the list was short, and I discovered that I had already read many of those writers’ works. Not all of them of course, but most of them. I had to branch out: I was interested in finding a writer that would probably be considered ‘indispensable’ reading by any ‘objective’ account, that I had not read before, or had not read much of.

So which writers are really indispensible? Meaning you can’t check out of this life without having read them, if you are interested in literature? Although I am always interested in literature from other countries – indeed, world literature is some of the most satisfying reading for me, because it allows me to ‘travel’ when I cannot afford to do it for real! – I wanted to start with the literary tradition of my own country. Which whittled the list down considerably. So then: which American writers are really, genuinely, indispensible reading?

William Faulkner? Without a doubt: but I have read a lot of his books. There are enough more than I haven’t read that I could easily have used him as my guinea pig for this project, but for some reason I wanted this to be more of a journey of discovery, and I know more about Faulkner than I do about many other great American writers. I have read a major biography of him as well. It seemed too safe and too obvious to choose him.

John Steinbeck? Probably, but he is already one of my all-time favorites. I’ve read a great deal of Steinbeck and have thought about his work endlessly. He is clearly not the writer I want for a journey of discovery. I also have read a very big biography of Steinbeck.

Flannery O’Connor? A strong early possibility. But I am also very, very familiar with her work. I have read all of her fiction, but not her letters (yet). She would be a fine prospect for this idea, but again, I feel too familiar with her writing. Not that reading her more and again would not be a good idea. But it was starting to feel to me like I almost wanted to use this as a chance to correct some oversight, to read someone I really should be a lot more familiar with, but am not.

Mark Twain? A very, very good choice. I know very little of his work. Embarrassingly, I have never read Huckleberry Finn OR Tom Sawyer. (Huckleberry Finn is on my shelf, waiting its turn, as are several other Twain books.) In fact, aside from some stories, the only book of his I have read, if I am not mistaken, is his obscure historical work Joan of Arc. This did seem to be that oversight I had been thinking of fixing. Or one of them. And yet…..I didn’t choose Twain. I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that he wrote a lot of satirical and comical stuff that I don’t always gravitate to as much as more dramatic material. But my gut told me to press on with the search.

And that’s about when it hit me. The only possible choice for this experiment of reading several books in a row by the same writer has to be the man who wrote what for me is the most legitimate and best claim to the elusive title of the “great American novel”. That writer, of course, is Herman Melville.

It all seemed to fit. I have read Moby Dick, but only once, and it was several years ago. It is, needless to say, an absolutely astonishing book, and I still tell people that for me, it is the one novel I can think of that grants the reader the greatest payoff for their effort with its electrifying, terrifying, stunning conclusion. The pursuit of the great white whale is probably the single most powerful literary metaphor ever conceived, for my money (as a depiction of man vs. God). The character of Captain Ahab is an immortal creation that has so embedded itself into the culture that anyone knows what we mean if we refer to some one as being obsessed as Ahab, even though many Americans have never read the novel. It is also true that almost everyone is familiar with its world-famous first line: “Call me Ishmael.”

Yet Moby Dick is merely one of numerous Melville novels that illustrate and define Americans, their culture and their beliefs, all written in a time when the country was raw enough to still be in the process of formation and self-definition. And up until this year, it was the only one of Melville’s famous novels that I had read. Earlier this year I returned to the beginning of his work and read his first book, Typee, which is one of two early novels that are set in the distant lands of Polynesia, but concern themselves with the clash of American sailors and those faraway cultures. I have limited familiarity with his other sea-faring novels, or later works that are set in our country itself like The Confidence-Man or the classic short story (which I have read, once) called “Bartleby, The Scrivener”, set on Wall Street in New York City. To me, once I thought of this great writer, this literary behemoth not unlike a white whale for would-be novelists, my search was over. Melville was the guy.

To conclude, I draw your attention to a memory I have from about seven or eight years ago, around the time of the turn of the millennium. This memory didn’t come back to me in the context of this project until later, but when it again returned to my mind, I used it as a kind of strange confirmation that Herman Melville was the only choice for this Fall’s extensive reading experiment. This occurred before I was a father or even married, back when I was just a young single man without a real direction in the world but for the idea that I wanted to some day write my own novels, a dream I am still trying to drag into existence.

I happened to be in lower Manhattan one day, adjacent to Battery Park, sitting on a wooden bench in a suit and tie, writing in a small journal. I was only there because I was scheduled to have a job interview for a financial newspaper called The Bond Buyer, and they were located almost at the very tip of southern Manhattan. As has always been my custom, I was there ridiculously early for the interview, for I am always paranoid of showing up late. To kill time I sat on the bench, and I think I had brought a book to read and the journal. While I was sitting there, I looked up at the building next to the bench, for some unknown reason, and there I saw a tiny metal plate, drilled into the wall.

I cannot remember the exact wording on the plate. Perhaps the journal, which I still have somewhere, records the text verbatim. But the gist of the plaque was this: This is the place where the great writer Herman Melville was born in the year 1819, author of the classic novel Moby Dick. At that time I had not yet read that book, but I still felt a great burst of inspiration then, something I had never forgotten. There I was, trying to get a writing job in some financial periodical as a means to support myself until I could someday write my own books. And right there, too, in that very spot, had been born a man who also worked in the financial markets, long ago, to support himself. A man who would persist and endure, and eventually even triumph. A man who would write one of the greatest novels ever written, in America or anywhere. It was a great coincidence and a happy occasion and I was thankful for it.

Incidentally, I did not get that job. Sometimes I wonder if the real reason I was there on that day had nothing to do with getting a job, but had a lot more to do with just sitting in that spot and seeing Herman Melville’s birthplace and knowing that that’s what it was.

I don’t know. It will go down as one of these unanswered questions. But I know that Melville is an indispensible American writer, and he is the writer I will be reading in my forthcoming literary experiment, “Melvillepalooza”. I plan to read two novels, one book of his stories, and a well-received critical study of his work written by Andrew Delbanco called Melville: His World and His Work. I am looking forward to it. I might do it again next year, to read some of his other works.

The question anyone reading this must now ask themselves, of course, is: which writer do you think is indispensible? Whoever that is, go out and reward their labor by reading their books. For those hard-working men and women didn’t write those books for themselves. They wrote them for you.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Family Plot

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Chapter VI of my novel in progress, Only the Dying.

It had been a family ritual since before their son Jonas Wittenburg was even born, in the fall of 1919. Even when they had performed it the first time, in the spring of that year, on the first anniversary of their loss, Cal and Ella Wittenburg thought of it as a family event. For their daughter was with them, they believed.

The ritual was conducted twice a year, in the spring and in the fall, early in November, and they had never failed to observe it yet. Always on the Sabbath. They would choose the Sunday in April that fell the closest to Liesel’s birthday; not to her death, which had only been five weeks later in that first wondrous and terrible spring.

After coming home from Mass on April 4, 1930, the Wittenburg family convened in the kitchen of their farmhouse, all five of them. Jonas was now a short, rail-thin but energetic boy of ten; his other two siblings, Jane and little brother Micah, were nine and three respectively. All of them knew what to do, even little Micah, who was always very proud to help.

The preparations were conducted in a kind of subconscious ceremonial manner, but they were by no means sorrowful or somber. Cal and Ella made sure of that, and were determined to keep it that way. It was meant to be a celebration, not a second funeral. Thus the children were taught to laugh and talk and joke and ask questions. The Wittenburgs simply refused to let the occasion become an opportunity for self-pity or bitterness. This was not to say that, for either of the parents, it was a day they found easy to navigate through.

Jane Wittenburg, her father’s sun-kissed doll with strawberry blonde hair and red cheeks, helped Ella prepare the wicker picnic basket. She fetched a large blue and white flannel table cloth from the top drawer of the curio in their dining room as Ella removed a bowl of cold fried chicken from the icebox. Ella stacked the pieces of chicken high on one side of the basket, and on the other side she added in thick slices of homemade bread, a jar of apple jam, a small ceramic crock full of potato salad, a cluster of grapes, and a few tin mugs, all piled up on top of five chipped plates. She handed a Thermos filled with black coffee to her husband as he passed by, heading for the back door of the house, having changed into a pair of ‘overhauls’, as he called them. Wittenburg plucked a straw hat from a peg near the door and put it on his head. Jonas trailed behind his father en route to the barn.

Their first job was to gather the cleaning materials. Wittenburg stowed the Thermos in the side cargo pocket of his denim garment and secured two metal buckets from the side wall of the barn. He left one pail with Jonas and took the other to a cast iron storage tank located outside along the eastern wall of the structure. The tank was connected by a pipe about one foot underground that led approximately 150 meters away to the farm’s single windmill, standing at a higher elevation than the barn. The windmill harnessed the gusts to pump water up from below ground into the storage tank. Wittenburg filled his bucket just over halfway, to be used for both drinking and washing.

Inside the barn, Jonas collected a small box of cornstarch, a hand-held trowel, a short-handled sledge with a heavy steel head, a pair of pliers, a scrubbing brush, and a few dirty rags from a jumble of them cut from old shirts. He stowed all of these things in the second bucket, and with his other hand secured his favorite item: a small scythe, hanging from two nails on the barn wall near the horses’ stables. He took these things out to join up with his father in the yard.

Just then the sun began to peek out from behind a large wall of atmospheric debris. It had been overcast most of that morning, with occasional patches of intermittent sunshine. Wittenburg wasn’t expecting rain: he could not smell it on the wind, and the cloud formations didn’t bear the correct signs. Staring up into the sky while waiting on Ella and the other children, he felt his oldest son come to his side. Jonas didn’t speak. Wittenburg knew that Jonas understood that on these occasions, no matter what kind of show of normalcy and strength he made, his father would require some silence. Wittenburg felt conflicted about this. He knew it was best to keep talking, to engage the children, and not dwell too long on the feelings of grief that this day inevitably uncovered. But it was difficult.

The brief shaft of sunlight made him smile. It was already gone almost as soon as it had arrived, which seemed appropriate. Wittenburg would never have been able to articulate the nature of his emotions on these occasions. These were the times when he felt the most confused, the most unsure of himself somehow, the most conscious not only of his failure to keep one of his own children alive, but of all of his multitude of failings as a man, father, husband … and yet, he also felt small bolts of happiness, here and there, every time they went on these special outings, electrical shocks of fleeting but potent joy. He sometimes wondered, in more lucid moments when he was feeling more like himself, if these spontaneous impulses were not simply pride over the constantly-overlooked accomplishment that all parents can claim of having collaborated successfully with God in the creation of a single, everlasting soul. I can take a small amount of credit for her, he would observe to himself only, for she is now one among the heavenly multitude for whom Ella and I are at least partially responsible.

He believed in the innermost chamber of his heart that a day would arrive in which he, Cal Wittenburg, would see his eldest daughter again, and sometimes this thought alone sustained him through periods of extreme darkness and sorrow.

But here now was the remainder of his family, the living, coming out into the yard. Ella had the wicker basket looped over one robust forearm, laden with its appetizing quarry, and was also holding the small hand of Micah Wittenburg, whose ragged one-piece denim outfit and still-paunchy legs made him resemble his father in miniature. Jane followed, blue gingham dress fluttering around her thin white legs, which shocked Wittenburg every time he saw them. Not for their shape or their color, but for the way in which they inexplicably seemed to lengthen almost daily. His second daughter was nine now, but in two or three short, short years she would already begin to blossom like the yellow daffodil that at that moment she was still little girl enough to twirl in her slender fingers. Wittenburg would never be prepared for that when it came.

Ella Wittenburg smiled at her husband, who met her eyes and held them. The two of them had learned long before, from the most merciless of instructors, that the only way to navigate down a path of grief that has no terminus was to do so in synchronicity. You simply could not go it alone. The parents of a dead child must alternately pull one another along. Ella let go of Micah’s hand, reached into a pocket within the folds of her skirt, and took out two small leather packages that resembled coin purses. She handed one of them to Wittenburg and returned the other to the same pocket.

Thus assembled, they all strode together down a series of dirt trails that led through the wheatfield towards the large oak tree near the crick, the location of the Wittenburg family plot.

Wittenburg could not remember who it was in his past who took it upon himself (probably at the request of one of the Wittenburg wives, more likely) to erect the black wrought iron fence around the small gathering of gravestones. It was a detail he wasn’t sure he had ever learned. Most likely it had been his father. The fence, which only reached to mid-thigh on a man of average height, had been surrounding the graves for as long as he could remember, that was for certain. His best guess was that it had been there for about fifty years. It was built to include the large oak tree inside its confines and was rectangular in shape. The long sides of the rectangle faced east and west, and the short ends were on the north and south. The eastern side of the graveyard, facing the farmhouse and the barn, had been outfitted with a small gate that could be secured with a latch, protection against God knew what.

A handful of rooks circled overhead, expressing annoyance at the human invasion, as the Wittenburg family once again passed through the gate. The sun had again ducked behind a flimsy wall of clouds. There was a slender dirt path leading right down the center of the graveyard that followed straight back to the oak tree opposite the iron gate. The five of them proceeded past the two complete rows of graves dating back to 1866, when the grandfather Wittenburg only knew about through family lore was the first to be buried. Eleven other gravestones came after that, including those of his own mother and father, and a number of aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts and great uncles. Wittenburg was pretty sure there was at least one dog somewhere in there as well, but the canine graves were not marked.

There was a third row, began in the year 1918, which consisted of only one tiny marker so far. The thirteenth gravestone. Its occupant, however, had not been the most recently buried in the small cemetery. That distinction belonged to Susannah Wittenburg, who survived until 1927 before dying very suddenly of heart failure at the age of 62. But her resting place had already been set aside her husband’s in the second row, waiting for the day she would join him. Thus, when her granddaughter was taken away after only five weeks, nine years before her own passing, a new row was initiated in the graveyard, where the tiny remains had been in repose, all alone in death, ever since.

They filed past all the graves without pausing and without commentary. A subdued but not downtrodden silence settled down over them, but the mood was not altogether unpleasant. Everyone was used to it by now. A short time later, once they were eating their picnic lunch and passing chicken and potato salad between one another, the conversation would begin, and before too long they would be telling stories and laughing at silly jokes the way they always did when they ate as a family.

The early moments of the ritual were the closest they got to sadness, at least outwardly. It was hard to enter that tiny graveyard for anyone in the family, including the children, and not be overcome at first by the grief and the ghosts that lingered within the confines of that wrought iron fence. It took some time for Cal or Ella to even be able to look in the direction of the lone grave marker in what they formally called ‘the Third Row’. Each time they made a supreme effort to endure those first few moments, so they had learned that the best way to do so was to go in, file to the back, spread out the cloth under the comforting branches of that large tree, and dig in. Everything seemed to get a little better with a good meal; one supposes that the same principle is in play when people gather for a large meal immediately after a funeral service.

So they all set to the quick preparations, laying out the cloth, unloading the basket, passing around the plates, and soon enough every last Wittenburg, young and not-so-young, was chomping happily, and experiencing the odd comfort born out of solidarity with their ancestors. (Technically, they were not Ella’s ancestors; but her daughter was there, and that was all she needed.) Cal and his eldest son entered into a discussion about the Chicago Cubs, who had gone over two decades now without winning a World Series title. ‘That’s a travesty!’ Brogan declared. When would that unhappy losing streak come to an end?

Ella, meanwhile, had demonstrated to Micah how he might toss, from a short distance, a few grapes to see if he could land them inside the wicker basket. A poor idea, because he now horded the entire cluster and refused to let it go. The boy now sat, legs curled in front of him, entranced by the game; his fingers were smeared with apple jam, which made his handling of the grapes cumbersome. But at least it had him occupied for the moment, which was one of the hardest jobs inherent to the ritual. Jane had eaten a few pieces of bread with jam on it and a small handful of the same grapes, and little else, before standing up and strolling around the inside of the fenced-in yard plucking dandelions from the grass. This was one of her jobs, exclusively, and she got a jump on it in order to make sure no one stole it from her, and, possibly, to get out of eating more lunch, being the pickiest eater in the family by far.

As for Wittenburg and his ten-year-old, they certainly didn’t have that problem, wolfing down fried chicken and potato salad like it was somehow going to vanish at the top of the next hour if they didn’t. They took care of most of the chicken between the two of them alone. Afterwards Wittenburg wiped his fingers with a cloth napkin, kissed Ella and thanked her for preparing the meal, something he tried to do after every single meal his wife made, and moved over to the large oak tree. He called to his family to gather around him. The older two children groaned quietly: they knew what was coming next. No matter what the motive, it was universally difficult to get young children to stay seated and quiet for what they were about to do. Let alone to pay attention and actively participate, which, one has to admit, would be almost impossible to expect out of children who were ten, nine, and almost four. But they knew their father expected them to sit through it anyway, to get into the habit of it, and to show respect not only to who they were doing it for – their deceased sister – but also to the practice itself.

Wittenburg took the small leather pouch out of his trouser pocket and removed a rosary, made out of ebony beads and an old piece of leather cord. He had received it as a gift from his grandmother on his mother’s side over 35 years before for receiving his first Holy Eucharist. He glanced over at his wife, who had seated herself opposite him with legs folded up under her and with Micah on her lap. For the moment Micah complied, for he too knew what to expect; he curled himself onto his mother’s lap and put his thumb in his mouth, a habit he still fell back on when he was growing sleepy. Jonas and Jane sat down Indian-style on either side of their father beneath the tree, and stayed quiet.

Cal Wittenburg removed his hat and laid it face up on the ground. He rubbed his face with his hands, the beads dangling from his knuckles. The rest of the family waited. The 46-year-old father felt moisture seep into his eyes, in the corners, and squinted a few times. This was the moment that always, always socked him in the gut. He looked again at Ella across the small distance between them, over the three children that had lived. Her eyes smiled at him, a measure of encouragement. Her eyes were not glossy. She was a tougher soul than he was at the core.

Few people knew about Cal Wittenburg that he was far softer emotionally than she. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel the same grief. The years did not deaden the pain, and by now they had given up expecting them to. But Ella Wittenburg had a greater capacity to buck up her strength under duress than her husband did. There was no use pretending that this was not so. They had been through plenty of difficult times in the years since Liesel’s death, some of them so despairing that Wittenburg was ready to give up on everything and admit his catastrophic failure. But it was Ella who refused to break. She wouldn’t allow him to give up. And she definitely would not allow their child’s life and death to be an occasion for wallowing in that despair. To do so would be to dishonor God, Who had given them the child in the first place, and had seen fit to take her away again. Worse than that, it would dishonor Liesel herself. And as long as Ella Wittenburg was alive, she would allow no one – especially not Cal Wittenburg – to do that.

Wittenburg recovered himself. ‘All right then,’ he said. Then, because it was a Sunday in Lent, not because of the fact that Liesel was dead, he added: ‘Just the one decade, the Sorrowful Mysteries. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen.

‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth …’

As they prayed the rosary together, or ‘just the one decade’ of it – the whole thing would take too long, the children would never make it through, plus there was the small matter of the cleaning duties still ahead of them – Wittenburg found himself thinking not about what he could remember of the pale-faced little baby, Liesel, but about his old paternal grandfather, Jeremiah, uttering the same prayers in the tongue of the Fatherland. Wittenburg’s father used to tell him stories about Jeremiah droning through the rosary on a regular basis, praying in German. He pointed out to his father a long time before that he couldn’t have been more than five and a half years old when he picked up that memory; could he be certain of it? Cal Wittenburg Senior replied that our religious practices, or maybe the lack thereof, were often the things that made the deepest and the earliest impressions on our own children. When Wittenburg glanced at the healthy faces of his own three that had survived, the smallest of them near sleep, the older two with features drooping in boredom, but too cognizant of the sensitive nature of this tradition to complain, he earnestly hoped that his father’s observation had been correct.

They didn’t dawdle on the prayers. They didn’t dawdle period, as a matter of general family practice. Wittenburg finished up by invoking the name of Saint Nicholas, protector of children, and everyone answered, ‘Pray for us’, except Micah, who by now was asleep. Ella Wittenburg stood up and laid the little boy carefully on his side on the blanket, where he did not even stir. She took her husband’s hand, he picked up the metal pail with the supplies, and they walked together up the trails to the ‘Third Row’, stopping in front of the stone. Wittenburg found he could never get accustomed to the markings, which shocked him anew every time he saw them.

b. 1918 d. 1918

Although they had never had occasion to consider the matter before 1918, and God willing would not need to again before they died themselves, Cal and Ella both remembered when they had chosen unequivocally to foot the additional expense – money they scarcely had – for the extra words on her gravestone. The loss was really far beyond any measure of words or human language, but there was still a perception between them that more was needed to mark the passing of a baby girl who had literally had no chance of becoming. All they could think of was the sweetest, most loving means of transportation from the land of the living to the Dominion of Heaven, something even more beautiful and profound than the spectacle of a ladder to Heaven, or a fiery chariot. So the two of them had settled on the image of an angel carrying Liesel to the foot of God’s throne in its arms the way one would cradle a baby. And somehow this insufficient gesture did provide them with a small measure of consolation.

Having stood before their daughter’s grave and shared a few moments of unspeakable silence, they set to work. Wittenburg gave Jonas the scrub brush and the box of cornstarch. His primary duty now was to use the cornstarch to clean the gravestones, an old method. He started with his sister’s, sprinkling the cornstarch on his brush and scrubbing the stone down, front and back, without water. Ella followed behind him with a rag, wiping the stones clean behind him, for they did not stop with just Liesel’s grave; they merely began there.

Jane continued the task she had started before. She skipped from stone to stone, pulling out dandelions and other weeds, making small piles in front of each grave that she would come back to collect. They would gather up the clippings and later toss them, dry, into the woodstove back at home. If there was any piece of the overall job at hand that Jane Wittenburg was born to do, this was it.

That left Cal Wittenburg, standing alone at the headstone of his baby girl, his daughter, a child he barely remembered. Only a few times did he ever hear her laugh, and he never heard her speak a word except in the unintelligible language of innocence. He stared again at the words carved into the limestone. What did her very name even mean? What did any words mean? Certainly, there was nothing he could, or would want to, express aloud just then. He both hated and dearly loved this time of year. The crows languished in the tree branches, chattering noisily.

A little while later, he would straighten the errant poles of iron with the sledge, repair any damaged hinges with the pliers and some wire, whisk away any dust and debris, and generally police the graveyard. But for this moment, right now, he had one function, which was to reap.

He picked up the short scythe, tainted here and there with small patches of rust, and thereupon commenced swinging the blade hither and yon through the obstructive grass, individual leaves flying everywhere, henceforth to be collected and cast into the flames.