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Great American Fragments

Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife

by William H. Gass
Knopf, unpaginated pp., $3.95

The Last Fair Deal Going Down

by David Rhodes
Little, Brown, 308 pp., $6.95

Sadness

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 183 pp., $5.95

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.

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