Friday, July 18, 2014


I was thinking about the time Garrison Keillor wrote that snotty, harrumphing review of Mark Twain's autobiography, volume one, for the New York Times Book Review. Is that something that happened? My memory reports to me that it might be. I think he thought it was too big and crazy or something, too much stuff. Was that it? Who cares? I was sitting in the coffee section at Square Books today, waiting to give a former student some worthless advice. As I am sure you recall, the coffee section is right next to the "literary non-fiction" section, where my eye was captured by the bright green spine of the SECOND volume of Mark Twain's autobiography, which appeared - on the basis of the spine alone! - to be as large and crazy and stuffed with ramblings as Garrison Keillor accused the first of being. Well, I was a little early for my appointment, and sitting there all alone, so I hoisted the volume off the shelf and immediately opened it to some worthwhile and interesting things. And then I started thinking, maybe there is a lot of use a fella can get out of a big, crazy book with too much stuff in it if he approaches it the right way and doesn't just come at it harrumphing. One passage I happened to find was about Mark Twain's appreciation for a fan letter that a cowboy had written to Helen Keller. Twain found that the grammatical errors, misspellings, and other supposed infelicities were exactly what made the letter great. Twain writes: "when the heart speaks it has no use for the conventions; it can rise above them, and the result is LITERATURE, and not to be called by any less dignified name... the productions of the unschooled mind get even an added grace and power out of fresh and free and lawless grammar and orthography." I've thought about this a lot over the years, and how it applies to literary fiction. In one article (in an issue of a magazine I can't find in the usual teetering piles around here, but here's a short excerpt I located in the depths of the "internet"), I wrote: "Certainly a lot of aesthetic energy and meticulous handiwork has been expended by various literary geniuses trying to write convincingly the way a dumb person would write. I blame Mark Twain. 'Dumb person' isn't fair. The truth can be said, but only inelegantly: Great writers love to try to write the way a person who can't write writes." Oh, it's most often done badly. You can "click" here (though, God, why would you?) to read a New York Times Book review by me, in which I lambast a guy (so who am I to huff and puff at Garrison Keillor?) for putting the word "disingenuous" in his character's mouth in a way I considered (and still do) "cheating." Anita Loos and Peter De Vries, when they are doing this sort of thing, never cheat, which is why they are so great. But what's even better is just the real thing, as I was reminded repeatedly when I used to frequent the surprisingly vast self-published UFO book section of the university library. You know, Larry King's tweets are another example of something that could not be improved by a sly and knowing artiste, editor, or publishing executive. They are impervious to parody! (Please see this urgent caveat.) Remember when Jasper Johns said you should look at his paintings the same way you look at a radiator? Now I am going to change the subject. It pains me to tell you I could not finish reading Errol Flynn's autobiography for the Doomed Book Club, even though Megan Abbott promised me that the last line is "worthy of Cain": "The second half-century looms up, but I don't feel the night coming on." Pretty good! And in a series of polished tweets, Megan put forth a compelling Freudian analysis of Mr. Flynn. But there are so many parts of the book that seem cruel to me and are hard to enjoy, and I was getting depressed reading it, and I love his movies so much. Flynn writes about his love of the sea a lot, so I thought I'd pick up WANDERER by Sterling Hayden (pictured) as a kind of substitute. I remember it as being briny. I'm sure you'll recall many years ago when I read the first sentence: "The black pit of oblivion opens like a giant clamshell." Okay! Now I've read a few more of the sentences: "I mount the ladder and ease myself on deck. Thickafog. Horns louder all around. Gray-green morning world with topmasts indistinct and the long proud sweep of the maindeck jutting east... My back aches; sign of tension. Gulls stand inert atop stumps of wooden piling." I was like, "Thickafog! What is this, JAMES JOYCE?" In a good way. I remember McNeil read this a couple of years ago maybe, and liked it. The last memoirist I compared to James Joyce was Adrienne Barbeau. And I'll do it again.