Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife
The Last Fair Deal Going Down
“My god, I said, this is my country, but must my country go so far as Terre Haute or Whiting, go so far as Gary?” The names suggest both distances on a map and moral divergences too extreme for the speaker to comprehend. The Midwest, both here in William H. Gass’s story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” and in David Rhodes’s novel The Last Fair Deal Going Down, becomes a metaphor for loneliness, for a sense of the self as stranded in a symbolic geography, almost before the writer has done anything to make this happen. Lives are “vacant and barren and loveless,” Gass writes, “here in the heart of the country.” “Who cares,” he asks later, “to live in any season but his own?”
I suspect that it is because this last question is so central in American writing, and so perfectly rhetorical, not expecting an answer, that the Midwest, with its physical spread and relative emptiness, slips so easily into allegory, has a hard time sustaining itself as a real place in fiction. There is no mention of the Midwest in Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, but the location is recognizably that of Gass’s earlier story: the heart of the heart of the country, the lonely heart of a person looking for love, a lonely mind reaching out for us, then shrinking back, complaining of its isolation even as it wriggles further into the solipsism.
Willie Masters’s wife, a former burlesque actress and stripper, is in bed, it seems, with a man named Phil, and broods over the business in a monologue. “I can’t complain,” she reminds herself. “You’re supposed to be lonely—getting fucked.” She goes over her past life, worries about the inadequacies of language, quotes Dryden, enjoys the word catafalque, pastes pages from old novels, some great and some not so great, into her memories. “Well, Prince,” we read without warning, “Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family.” She reveals herself as a front for the writer himself, who has had his printer reproduce in the text the muddy ring his coffee cup left on the manuscript: a mocking image of the writer’s dream of contact, since such simulations of intimacy can only emphasize distance. We know the dark, circular stain only looks like the mark of a coffee cup—but then a book only looks like a piece of writing personally addressed to us.
Gass is asking us to consider, though, the desperation such tricks bespeak, and behind the fussiness of much of the book there is a real urgency, a powerful vision of the loneliness inherent in writing (you write because you can’t speak, for whatever reason) and of writing as a useful and articulate image for loneliness of other kinds.
These words are all I am. Believe me. Pity me. Not even the Dane is any more than that. Oh, I’m the girl upon this couch, all right, you needn’t fear; the one who’s waltzed you through these pages, clothed and bare, who’s hated you for her humiliations, sought your love, just as the striptease dancer does, soliciting male eyes for cash and feeling the light against her like a swelling organ. Could you love me? Love me then…. My dears, my dears…how I would brood upon you: you, the world; and I, the language.
The typography of the book is a kind of light-show in black and white, what Kenneth Koch describes in another context as a field day for the technician, and is only partly worth the printer’s, or our, trouble, I think. There are pictures, tilted typefaces, pages of asterisks, letters simulating a convex surface, letters growing larger or smaller as they proceed up or down the page, even a change of color in the pages themselves. The pictures, which portray, presumably, the lonesome wife in a range of provoking postures, make effective punctuation of the text: harsh assertions of the reality of flesh amid the safe abstraction of print—or at least of the relative reality of photographs.
There is a splendid moment when the book’s footnotes (the narrator is offering us the script of a burlesque act about a man who finds a limp, unowned penis in his breakfast bun) almost crowd the text off the page, force the frightened words, cramped and bent, to find a precarious refuge in a top corner; and another when a series of footnotes to footnotes traps us at the bottom of the page and the narrator crows over our poor chances of ever getting out again, back into the text: “Now that I’ve got you alone down here, you bastard, don’t think I’m letting you get away easily, no sir, not you brother….”
For the rest of the time the switching styles of print tend to advertise far too clearly that a shift of mood or voice is taking place—either the text on its own makes such shifts work or it doesn’t, it seems to me. The text has to be trusted with its meanings. Occasionally the purposes of the swinging typography seem merely decorative: arbitrary exercises in layout. Still, there are verbal equivalences for that in Gass’s prose, frequent touches of the clogged, the baroque, or the grandiose, not quite managed by the irony and intelligence which is usually in control, so the physical book doesn’t seem to let him down in any serious way.
The Midwest returns, at least nominally, in The Last Fair Deal Going Down, an erratic but powerful first novel. The place is Des Moines, and David Rhodes makes something of an attempt to anchor it in history, to show time passing there, roads being built, the city growing, McDonalds arriving. But the attempt is doomed to irrelevance, since Rhodes’s Des Moines is built above and around a dark city of metaphor, a second, inner city at its heart, surrounded by high walls, swathed in fog, easy to enter, impossible to leave.
The City, always spelled with a capital letter in the book, suggests a materialization of depression, both as an economic and a psychological condition. It feels like a place for people who have lost out, in some final, irremediable way. It is a place so terrible, for example, that fear is “too cheap an emotion” to send anyone there. No one could be frightened into going down into the City. Sometimes it seems as if the City is hell, or a realm of the dead, but Rhodes lets us know he doesn’t mean this, and the long delayed interpretation of what the City really is, when it comes, is rather disappointing. It is a monument to guilt, apparently, built by religious fanatics long ago, “a place through which God could take vengeance, a place where some people could live and suffer in order that the rest could go on.”
Christ died in order that the City should crumble, “rose from the dead in order that we could live, despite the guilt, and not have to have places like this.” But Christ’s death didn’t work. The place subsists, a closed kingdom of the hopeless, who stray into movie houses where films are sometimes shown, who live off the flesh of their dead companions, the romantics, the ones who tried to get out and starved at the foot of the relentless walls.
Finding the Midwest slipping away into allegory again, then, we are tempted to look for the corollary to this slip in Gass: the lonely consciousness, the beating heart in the bereft country. And sure enough, The Last Fair Deal Going Down has the same theme of the desperation of the need to talk. The protagonist and narrator has a sister who goes blind, and having translated a number of books into Braille for her, he decides he will write her a novel in Braille, “a giant novel that you can live in—a book that is the inside of me.” He puzzles over his words and themes, and decides that however the book is to come out, it will have to begin with the word I and end with the word You. It will be for his sister Nellie, that is, whatever story he tells. Or: an I always has to speak to a You. The published work is dedicated to Nellie; begins with the word I and ends with the word You, each of them having a page to itself; is described as “Translated from the Braille by the Author.”
We are back in the domain of the mark of Gass’s coffee cup, the impossible invitation into the writer’s life. But Rhodes doesn’t have Gass’s skill or skepticism—it would be distressing if he did, at the age of twenty-five—and really expects the unimaginable communication to take place. We, the readers, will become Nellie, she will become us and the writer will be saved, will have spoken. At the end of the novel Rhodes sets up an Inquisition, held by “all the maimed, hungry, and desperate people of the earth,” who will ask us what we did to help. We shall receive tortures designed to fit our sheepish answers, but the narrator of this book, if he is lucky, will find Nellie among his judges, and his book will be his pardon. The thought is rather overblown, but the intuition is interesting. Writing fiction is a way of asking forgiveness, even if the sins can’t be properly named and the forgiveness never comes, and I think all four writers under review here would recognize themselves in such a definition.
The story of The Last Fair Deal Going Down concerns the narrator’s seedy and violent family: drinking dad, poisoned by one of his sons; elder brother, executed for murdering his wife; his sister raped; himself concussed into near-autism. The writing comes to life whenever Rhodes pursues obscure, private compulsions—how the hero mapped every irregularity on the walls of his room with pieces of string, snaggling himself into a complicated cocoon of material cross references—or even when he settles down to observe things, people. “He was inefficient in the old sense of the word; not incapable, but unwilling to be seduced by work—unwilling to be single-minded.”
But the recurring violence is dull where it is meant to be picturesque or affecting—it suggests that the writer wants to hit us over the head in some way but doesn’t quite know how. Violence in fiction, if you are not Stendhal or Dostoevsky, is very risky territory. When it works it works; but when it doesn’t you are really left naked, waving your frustrations, your cherished but unrealized intentions.
In books, there are quicker routes than you would think from Des Moines to the Eastern seaboard. “Smoke, rain, abulia,” we read in Donald Barthelme’s collection of short stories, and the collection’s title is Sadness. John Updike, of course, is a specialist in the anomie of the suburbs of the East. The Midwest, in other words, the moment we release it into metaphor, is everywhere, an all-American condition, a special, insidious form of unreality.
Where Rhodes creates a city of the desperate and begs forgiveness for unnamed sins, Barthelme records, with discreet compassion and great precision of wit, our inability even to see how desperate we are, the flat, bland, ludicrous behavior by means of which we try to keep our sins at bay. In the new book a picture of Jael about to put a very large nail through the sleeping Sisera’s head appears above the caption “Scenes of domestic life were put in the show”—recalling earlier stories like “The Indian Uprising,” where violence was heightened rather than reduced by a deadpan tone in the telling of it, indeed where the attempt at that tone seemed wildly schizophrenic, more scaring than the violence itself.
Where Gass links loneliness to writing, Updike describes his own style as based on a failure of faith in other people: “It is a chronic question, whether to say simply ‘the sea’ and trust to people’s imaginations, or whether to put in the adjectives. I have had only fair luck with people’s imaginations; hence tend to trust adjectives.” There is a certain amount of self-mockery there, I suppose, but the diagnosis does fit Updike’s fiction, which assumes that the application of intelligence and insight to ordinary life will still yield worthwhile results; that adjectives new enough and bright enough can still be found, and that the nouns will remain steady enough for you to use them. Barthelme, on the other hand, has difficulty in believing there is such a thing as ordinary life any more, and his work reflects a world broken into pieces, a language whose grammar has come badly unstrung.
Almost all the stories in both Sadness and Museums and Women first appeared in The New Yorker, so that the magazine appears here as presenting a rather engaging Janus-face to reality. But what is odder than that about looking at Updike and Barthelme together is the sense that they really are talking about the same world, worrying about the same questions. Their writing manners and presuppositions are different, they plainly differ about what they take reality to be and how it can be edged into fiction. But the world is there: drinks, divorces, parties, famous men, children, growing old, flickerings of the heart at the sight of past loves, a whole, silly, urban, desperate, more or less intellectual world.
This does feel a long way from Rhodes’s Des Moines and Gass’s lonely heart, but only because of the crowds, because the East seems to have lost the sense of the privacy of panic, because there are too many people cracking up in too small a space. The crack-up remains the same, though, that disappearance into the self which leaves others locked behind glass, as far from you as some Midwestern city you’ll never visit, even if you’re a Midwesterner. Must my country go so far as Terre Haute or Whiting, go so far as Gary?
“With prose,” Updike’s fictional Henry Bech advised, “there is no way to get it out, I have found, but to let it run.” Updike obviously has taken this advice to heart, or rather has obviously never needed it. There is no point in reproaching him for being prolific, because like Anthony Burgess, for example, he presumably needs to write so much in order to write so well. But still the results, inevitably perhaps, are uneven.
Updike wavers between very funny but very lightweight pieces (like the five stories about Richard and Joan Maple which close this book) and very pretentiously meaningful ones like the title story, which begins with an unbearable fussiness about the two words Museums and Women (“Set together, the two words are seen to be mutually transparent; the E’s, the M’s blend—the M’s framing and squaring the structure lend resonance and a curious formal weight to the M central in the creature…”) and continues into a predictable investigation of the narrator’s treating his women as if they were museums, seeking in them “the untouched, the never-before-discovered.” Obviously Updike knows this man is in bad shape, but he doesn’t make it clear to me that the man is in bad shape in more than a totally banal way.
Whereas it is Updike’s gift, when he is writing well, to make banal moments glitter, come to life, confer meaning on all the moments around them. In half a dozen stories in this collection he redeems a set of such moments: the day a father realizes that his thirteen-year-old daughter is a graceful, attractive person entirely in her own right; a night when an ex-mistress, unable to give a man anything other than hard words and rancor, although he is leaving the town for good, kisses his wife on the lips while he is in the bathroom; the time when a man decides over a game of solitaire not to get a divorce, not to gamble; an embarrassing evening when a friend brings an unpresentable woman for drinks so that someone will see how happy he is with her, how happy they are together, before that happiness dies. It is in situations like these that Updike’s writing becomes scrupulously delicate and intelligent, while remaining extremely fluent. Here is the man playing solitaire, deciding to stay with his wife, thinking about their children:
The traces of his own face in their faces troubled him with the suspicion that he had squandered his identity. Slowly he had come to see that children are not our creations but our guests, people who enter the world by our invitation but with their smiles and dispositions already prepared in some mysterious other room.
But there is something Updike does even better than this, and that is write about America, about shifts and slips in the American mind invisible to most other eyes. The piece called “When Everyone Was Pregnant” is a wry, funny elegy for the Fifties, for the stupid innocence of those days. The point is not what the Fifties were really like, but how we feel about the Fifties now, how we have rearranged them in our memories, how distant and unreal they seem. Updike is writing about them, in other words, in much the same way that Fitzgerald came to write about the Twenties, and with something of Fitzgerald’s dash and insight. The same is true in a piece called “The Hillies,” where a group of young people who are not exactly hippies but who are closer to being that than to anything else squat out in the parks of a small town and scare everyone in all kinds of nameless ways.
The most ambitious story of this kind here is called “I am Dying, Egypt, Dying,” and describes a trip up the Nile taken by a young American who has trouble in believing he exists in quite the same way as other people do. He is too perfect, too straight, people find; they look for a flaw, can’t find one. “He was thirty-four and still seemed to be merely visiting the world.” He refuses to sleep with a girl because he has no faith in his right to “take things,” and his sense of his religious inheritance is that it has bred in him a “dislike of litter.”
The dust jacket describes the story as allegorizing “our foreign policy,” which points in the right direction, but misses what Updike is really doing. Like Fitzgerald, he is out to characterize his country: not what his country happens to have been doing lately but why it has been doing it, what shapes and setups in the soul have bred this activity, what failures, withdrawals, lapses of nerve, fits of impatience, attacks of impotence lie there. And in these terms, the dislike of litter seems profound, a marvelously understated suggestion of something extensive, a trivial formula for something far from trivial.
From Barthelme’s Sadness:
Our evenings lacked promise. The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise, if you are a married man. There is nothing to do but go home and drink your nine drinks and forget about it.
The buried quotation (“world in the evening”), the rather precious use of “fraught,” the oddly precise number of drinks, are all characteristic. Barthelme’s people are strangely literary folk who nevertheless can be very precise about their surroundings. Too precise, so precise that their precision can’t be true. Later in the story from which the above quotation is taken the discontented wife of the drinking husband throws the dinner on the floor, “so that when you enter the kitchen to get some more ice you begin skidding and skating about in a muck of pork chops, squash, sauce diable, Danish stainless-steel flatware, and Louis Martini Mountain Red.” The husband decides to have eleven drinks tonight instead of nine, and consoles himself with the thought that there are people worse off than he is—“people whose trepanations have not been successful, girls who have not been invited to the sexual revolution, priests still frocked.” Slapstick takes place both on the floor and in the mind, but mainly in the mind. Barthelme is the Buster Keaton of the examined life, consciousness’ clown.
People in Barthelme’s stories have no means of knowing where they are, what their history is, how to put things together. In a story called “A Film,” we read:
A murdered doll floating face down in a bathtub—that will be the opening shot. A “cold” opening, but with faint intimations of the happiness of childhood and the pleasure we take in water.
There is no way in which we can get from the murdered doll to those agreeable, if faint, “intimations.” The intimations exist only in the mind of the narrator, in the heart of the heartless country. A character in another story says God damn it, “inventing this formulation at the instant of need.” This is not an irony about the banality of blasphemy, either from Barthelme or his character, but an indication of how lonely this man is. He has invented the old phrase, because the countless uses of it by other people mean nothing to him.
Barthelme likes to evoke the dispersion and insanity of the world by mildly dropping odd things in places that seem fairly familiar otherwise (“I remember him taking his blowpipe from the umbrella stand and leaving for the office”), or by talking calmly about radical breaks in logic:
In the desert, Harold’s Land-Rover had a flat tire. Harold got out of the Land-Rover and looked at his map. Could this be the wrong map?
It is not actually said that Harold thinks the map ought to help with the flat tire—he may simply have taken advantage of this forced stop to check his location. But it is the absence of logical or psychological connections, here and in most of Barthelme’s stories, a determined suppression of expected links, which creates the ambiguities and the jokes, and which allows him to put together a picture of what things look like when they have fallen apart.
In the best of the sixteen pieces printed here, in stories like “Perpetua,” “Departures,” “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” “The Rise of Capitalism,” Barthelme manages to do a whole series of things at once: to get rid of the slightly programmatic tone of some of his fiction, the sense he gives of writing for critics, giving a lecture; to be very funny; and to create an eerie, attractive energy which stems not from language or despair or loneliness but from some kind of force present in the disorder of the mind itself, in the weird, vivid, random fruits of its free associations. They are not really random or free, of course, but they work as if they were. The lineup for the opening night of a show in “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace” is
A startlingly handsome man
A Grand Cham
A tulip craze
The Prime Rate
Edgar Allan Poe
A colored light.
The show at other times has included grave robbers, fools, Theological Novelties, Cereal Music, and Piles of Discarded Women Rising from the Sea. An explosion has been auditioned, and the story ends with the news that a new volcano has been placed under contract. “The negation of the negation,” Barthelme writes in “The Rise of Capitalism,” “is based on a correct reading of the wrong books”—which seems to go beyond satirical comment and to open up real possibilities for reading, new horizons, those wrong books unfolding one after another.
There are moments of sheer cuteness here, gags that don’t come off. But each book of Barthelme’s seems firmer than the previous one, less caught up in whimsey. “Fragments are the only forms I trust,” Barthelme wrote some time ago, although publishers’ blurbs usually describe him as working on a novel. Perhaps he will write the great American fragment. The difficulty, Wittgenstein once wrote, is to say no more than we know. I’m not sure we always realize, as Barthelme clearly does, just how difficult that is.