The Far Side of Fiction

William H. Gass
William H. Gass; drawing by David Levine

Fictions are everywhere, although we often call them something else: politeness or metaphor or simplification, perhaps. It’s a fiction to say you had a lovely evening if the evening was just so-so, and it’s certainly a fiction to say you are in the heart of the country when you are only in what is usually called its middle. There is even an element of fiction in most uses of pronouns like “you” and “we”—too many different persons are crowded into those common shelters.

Fictions are not lies, or not necessarily lies, because they don’t usually try to deceive. They arrange events and feelings, in the sense of a musical arrangement. They give experience an angle or a story. Sometimes we are not sure they are fictions—we just suspect them of some sort of stylization, catch in them what Brecht in another context calls “the scent of a mythology.”

“For we’re always out of luck here,” we read in William H. Gass’s masterly story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” published in 1968. “Everything is gray, and everyone is out of luck who lives here.” Who are “we” and where is “here”? The narrator who tells us these things is a wounded and unhappy writer, “in retirement from love,” as he says. Maybe there is no “we.” Maybe only the writer is out of luck and sees gray all around. He certainly likes to list the faults in his habitat:

Everywhere…the past speaks, and it mostly speaks of failure. The empty stores, the old signs and dusty fixtures, the debris in alleys, the flaking paint and rusty gutters, the heavy locks and sagging boards: they say the same disagreeable things.

He quotes an early-nineteenth-century lament about midwestern culture: all ignorance and no remedy for it. “Croaking jealousy; bloated bigotry; coiling suspicion; wormish blindness; crocodile malice.” Our narrator clearly relishes this sour and eager rhetoric, and adds, “Things have changed since then, but in none of the respects mentioned.”

“Here” is a place called B, “a small town fastened to a field in Indiana,” and the writer arrives on the wings of a famous line by W.B. Yeats. “So I have sailed the seas and come…” is how the story opens. Well, at least the Indiana town has the same initial as Byzantium, and no doubt traveling “across the breadth of Ohio,” once we have set off into metaphor, is as good as sailing the seas. The weather of the place leaves something to be desired. The summer heat is “pure distraction…a gale can grow in a field of corn that’s hot as a draft from hell… though the smart of the same wind in winter is more humiliating, and in that sense even worse. But in the spring it rains as well, and the trees fill with ice.” But there is the autumn:

The shade…

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