The Tunnel is about a man who undertakes to establish an identity between the frustrations and disappointments of ordinary domestic life and the Holocaust. The man is a professor of history at a university in the American Midwest. The frustrations and disappointments are his own—The Tunnel is, in effect, his memoir—and they are of a fairly mundane sort: an alcoholic mother, a sexually stagnant marriage, a failed love affair, uninteresting children, dim students, bickering colleagues, and a general sense of lost entitlement. He has just completed a scholarly study, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, intended to subvert conventional notions about the morality of the Holocaust. He now writes The Tunnel as a kind of companion volume—so that his wife will not know what he’s up to, he interleaves the sheets of the two manuscripts on his desk—in which he gives vent to his many resentments, bigotries, and fantasies of revenge, and in which he identifies himself regularly and admiringly with the Nazis.
William Gass is said to have spent thirty years writing this book. It is his second novel. His first, Omensetter’s Luck, appeared in 1966; he is also, of course, the author of a number of volumes of essays and short fiction. In trying to make sense of a project to which so much time has been dedicated, readers will naturally look for a way to distinguish Gass himself from the petty, self-absorbed, and deeply unpleasant narrator he has created. They will not want to imagine that the narrator’s sour nihilism is also Gass’s, or that these indecent and seemingly interminable confessions are only displaced autobiography; and they will therefore make every interpretative effort to peel Gass away, so to speak, from the text he has produced. They will find this extremely difficult to do:
The narrator’s name is also William, and he has been given a last name, Kohler, that, like Gass, is an easy occasion for schoolyard humor. (Kohler is the brand name of a toilet maker.) Kohler tells us he was born in Iowa; Gass was born in North Dakota. Kohler’s father becomes crippled by arthritis, and his mother is an alcoholic who finally has to be institutionalized; these seem to be copies of Gass’s own parents, as he has described them in his nonfictional writing. Kohler eventually attends Harvard (Gass went to Cornell); after duty in the Second World War (in which Gass also served), he marries a woman named Martha, with whom he has two children (as does Gass), and he returns to the Midwest to a career (like Gass’s) as a professor. Kohler makes frequent reference to his rotundity, which photographs and personal observation confirm to be a feature of the Gass physique, and to his unusually small penis, for which the evidence needed to establish a correspondence is happily lacking. Kohler is a few years older than Gass (who was born in 1924); but this is to make …