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


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;…

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