Every day, many times a day in some cases, I find my thoughts turning to the work of a few fiction writers whose books I feel an almost romantic attachment to. This list of literary idols changes on occasion depending on what I’ve been reading or teaching in the past year or two. A writer whose work I’ve just read will join it, and another will step back into the shadows, though each of these admired novelists and poets drifts in and out of view on many days like clouds floating by in a sometimes-blue, sometimes-gray sky.
During graduate school and the years immediately following it, I became fully aware of the influence these writers exerted, men and women who were near-constant, benign specters that circulated in and out of my thoughts. The first two were Jim Harrison and Alice Munro. As a poetry MFA student at Indiana University in the mid-90s, I often thought about the work of Dean Young and Lynn Emanuel, two poets I wished desperately to emulate. At the time I first read their work, I was only a couple of years out of college and not yet – embarrassing as it is to acknowledge in these polarizing times – politically aware or engaged with the world in a way that extended beyond my own comfortable frame of reference. I was beginning to learn to think abstractly, and was also making my first, awkward attempts to imagine lives and points of view different from my own.
Needless to say, I wasn’t writing poetry anything like Young’s and Emanuel’s, two geniuses whose poems still make me feel an almost maudlin gratitude for the experiential possibility and sentiment and language that their work presented to me in my mid-twenties. Their words woke me up, I realize now, almost twenty years later, and this is the same thing that the short stories and novels of the fiction writers who keep company with each other in my head do, too.
In the last year and a half, I’ve been thinking every single day about the work of Scott Spencer, a writer whose third novel is the intensely intelligent, sensual, and devastating Endless Love (a 1979 National Book Award finalist). This book makes the kind of emotional and psychological impact that devoted readers are likely to encounter maybe once a year. Its point-of-view character, David Axelrod, is seventeen when the catastrophic house fire that he describes at the novel’s start occurs, a fire that he purposely set in order to alert his adored, off-limits girlfriend (by paternal decree) and her family to the flames. David didn’t, however, expect his small porch fire to become a full-blown conflagration. With his confiding, reasonable-sounding voice, David is probably the most skillful rendering of an unreliable narrator that I’ve ever encountered.
I’ve read several of Spencer’s other novels, e.g. Men in Black (which is of no relation to the movie franchise), The Rich Man’s Table, Willing, and A Ship Made of Paper, and the writing is often very funny in addition to being beautiful and smart. His books burst with so many moments of linguistic brilliance. Below are a few of my favorite sentences from the opening pages of Willing:
“I was a face in the crowd, a penitent on the edge of a Renaissance painting, a particularly graceful skater in a Breughel, the guy in the stands at the World Series…his hand on his heart and his eyes bright with belief during the singing of the national anthem.”
“I carried my desire within me like a tray filled with too many little cups of ceremonial wine: one false step and the whole thing comes crashing down.”
“Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag.” (That lunch bag does me in every time – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used as a color before now.)
Another writer with Chicago ties (Spencer grew up on the south side of the city and quite a bit of Endless Love is set in the Hyde Park-University of Chicago neighborhood) is Rosellen Brown, who writes poetry and prose with equal genius. Her novels-in-verse, Cora Fry and Cora Fry’s Pillowbook, are, in some ways, like a literary, small-town, page-bound Sex and the City (forgive me if you’re reading this, Rosellen; I love Sex and the City, and Cora, maybe, would too?). And then, her novels, among them, Before and After, Autobiography of My Mother, and Tender Mercies (no relation to the Robert Duvall movie) are all so different and ambitious and alive. As for the short story form, “How to Win” is frequently anthologized, and is included in the John Updike-edited Best American Short Stories of the Century.
It’s the quality of aliveness that I’m always looking for in every poet’s or novelist’s work.
Two other writers who are frequently in my thoughts: Penelope Fitzgerald and Mavis Gallant. I read The Blue Flower (one of Fitzgerald’s later novels and the one that got her noticed more widely by American readers) about fifteen years ago, and I remember thinking, “I didn’t know a novel could be like this. How did she do this?” The Blue Flower is set in the late 1700s and is based on the life of the German Romantic poet Novalis. It is so witty, smart, and wry, so of-the-moment, it seemed to me, that the events recounted in this novel (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award) could have been set in the mid-90s, when Fitzgerald was actually writing it. Mavis Gallant – if you haven’t read any of her work yet, I envy you your discovery. I suggest starting with Across the Bridge or her marvelous New York Review Books Classic collected stories, Paris Stories, with a foreword by Michael Ondaatje.
I remember Martin Amis describing his relationship with his favorite books and their authors in his memoir Experience (he’s another writer I’ve been obsessed with – for one, his 1995 novel The Information is a wild and amazing book!) He wrote that a quality he loves about books is that they’re always there waiting for him, like old friends. Even in the middle of the night, he can go to his bookcases and, reassuringly, find the books he loves.
How comforting to know that we have these friends, that we have a whole set of voices and experiences waiting to be heard and lived (again, if we’re rereading) whenever the impulse strikes us.