And Finnegan’s Wake — listen, I read Finnegan’s Wake at the rate of one page a day for more than a year and when I got to the end I was impressed with the effort, which was herculean and admirable, but the book itself, as narrative of substance and verve? Awful…”
by brian doyle
What writers have afflicted you most?
With awfulness or awe?
Jesus, make up your mind.
In English? and awful? Well, there’s Jerzy Kosinski, and then there’s everyone else. Blind Date is a book so bad I couldn’t even bring myself to prop up a gimpy table with it. Wouldn’t insult the table.
Jerzy fills my mind to brimming at the moment. My God, the culmination of the book is a murder with an umbrella. Where was the man’s editor? Talk about professional negligence. Who was responsible for marketing that book? Where are they hiding? How can they face their children? Or librarians? Or the children of librarians?
I know, I know, but life’s so short, and I blame Kosinski.
For the shortness of life?
Hadn’t thought of that, but yes, now that you think about it, why not? Okay, maybe Painted Bird should stay in print. But Blind Date, sweet Jesus….
Let’s change the subject. How about superb writers?
Writers or books?
Not again. Piss or get off the pot.
Okay, both, writers first.
Well, Blake, Conrad, Orwell, Twain, Stevenson, I could go on.
I can’t go on.
You must go on.
I’ll go on.
Elwyn Brooks White, Li Po, Joyce Cary, Barry Lopez, Bernard DeVoto, John Updike when he’s being a literary critic, in which guise he might be the best America ever made, all due respect to Edmund Wilson, who couldn’t hold Updike’s jock when it comes to literary essays, and you know, while I am on the subject, I have to say that Updike’s Poorhouse Fair was a perfect little book, and all his famous novels after that weren’t as good.
Yeh, I know. But c’mon. The Rabbit books are Great Novels? No way. Rabbit Run is a very good novel and then old Rabbit gets his pecker pulled through three more books. Not worth it.
You were talking superb writers.
Frank O’Connor, Patrick Kavanaugh, Wallace Stegner, Raymond Chandler, Haldor Laxness, Tolstoy, Beckett, Czeslaw Milosz, Georges Simenon, Homer. Did you know there is a strain of scholarly thought that says Homer was a brilliant young woman?
No. But you were going on interminably about great writers…
Horace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado, J.F. Powers, Seneca, Cervantes of course, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Edward Hoagland, Tom Stoppard, Andre Dubus, John McPhee, and, my God, I nearly forgot Borges, who was one of the greatest writers in history. Not to mention Plutarch, who might be the greatest writer in history.
Sweet Lord yes, dozens. Alice Munro, Mary Lavin, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Wolff, Elizabeth Bishop, Pattiann Rogers, Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood, who wrote one of the best essays I ever read in my life…
“True North,” oh, God, it’s terrific.
Jan Morris, Jane Austen, Marguerite Yourcenar, George Sand, Isak Dinesen, Eudora Welty, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Nadine Gordimer, Annie Dillard, now we are getting into books, because Annie Dillard is a tremendous essayist but better-known and justifiably so I guess as a maker of books. And there are many men like that too, Ken Kesey and Walker Percy spring to mind, who wrote well short, as essayists, but their hats rest on their books. People are always ragging on Kesey for writing crap at the end, and it is crap, but my God, the man wrote two classics, and Percy, who wrote some meandering crap too, wrote The Moviegoer, a classic, and a couple of perfect lesser books, like Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. But who am I to criticize?
Good question. Who are you to criticize?
I’m a small man who writes small essays about small matters.
So who made you god of literary criticism?
Well, first of all, you’re the one who drove all the way out here to interview me, the good sweet Lord alone knows why, and second of all, you could say that criticism isn’t fair unless you’re John Updike or someone, that only another fine writer can accurately judge if a book is good or bad.
Would you say that?
Nah. It’s bullshit.
What would you say?
That readers are very good judges of books read, for the most part. You recall what Samuel Johnson says in his Life of Gray.
Ah, no, not right off the top of my head.
“I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours.”
Johnson was an eloquent bastard, by all accounts, when he wasn’t swilling tea and lurching around London in one of his fits. Or guzzling port at such an alarming rate that Portugal was thinking of taking over the world for a while.
But what did he mean?
That every reader is a judge, and then the years of readers add up after a while, and the Hillaire Bellocs of the world fade and the Stevensons rise, and there, after a while, and with some discounting for fashion, you have a canon of writers who did things of grace and substance.
Are you one of those writers?
Nah. Writers are the worst judges of their work, in some ways. I’ve made a few essays and poems that are very good. So far. I have hopes. My books are collections of essays. Not really books as such. Or something like that.
Wicked high. There’s a peculiar hope, or expectation, in writers that they will be able occasionally to make a piece of writing that is shapely, clear, direct, vigorous, witty, substantive, piercing, penetrating, astonishing, pointed, no fat, no posturing, no indulgence, something that matters greatly to the reader, something that pushes the world forward slightly, rather than just being the usual jesting in place and dancing aimlessly for the sake of entertainment in the shapeless void.
Does this happen much?
Nah. Even the best writers slump, stumble, stutter. Consistency itself isn’t hard — hell, look at Jerzy Kosinski, he was consistent, all right. But consistent quality? Not even Twain or Stevenson could pull that off. Not even Shakespeare or Homer. Maybe that’s why we’re so dazzled by the writer who makes one perfect book and then never another word, like Harper Lee. She sure was consistent — every novel she ever made was a masterpiece, and that one novel will be in print forever. Lately I have been thinking this about Frank McCourt. Angela’s Ashes is near perfect, and ‘Tis isn’t, and whatever else he writes won’t be Angela’s Ashes. Although, Jesus, what if Stevenson had stopped after Treasure Island, and never written his essays, or Kidnapped. Ah, God, what a loss. Great book. Makes me think of poor Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston, half-finished, the poor bastard died in the middle of it.
Speaking of books…
Oh, yes, great books. Well, the King James Bible, of course. You know the poor man who translated the Bible from its original Greek and Hebrew was executed for his pains? God forbid the Bible should get into the hands of the dirty-necked man in the street. William Tyndale. Guy was a saint.
Nah. Moby-Dick, too. Ulysses. Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. But, see, even Joyce, a hell of a great writer, wrote some crap. Did you ever read Chamber Music? Ah, God, it’s awful. The ravings of a sophomore. Or Exiles? Tinny stuff, third-rate summer stock. And Finnegan’s Wake — listen, I read Finnegan’s Wake at the rate of one page a day for more than a year and when I got to the end I was impressed with the effort, which was herculean and admirable, but the book itself, as narrative of substance and verve? Awful. That reminds me of Marcel Proust, the sickly bastard, and Remembrance of Things Past, another book I waited all my life to read. Read it. Awful. And speaking of awful, that damned James Fenimore Cooper was awful. Although, come to think of it, Twain wrote a terrific essay about how awful Cooper was, so Cooper was good for something.
You sure have a lot of spleen and bile for an essayist.
Well, I hope to work up to the spleen and bile of a novelist. Really, though, I just get annoyed at bullshit books.
Proust is bullshit?
Yeh. Face the facts. Ever read Remembrance of Things Past?
Yes, I did, and I found it a monumental accomplishment….
Was it interesting?
Well, it taught me a great deal about French society, and…
Grab you by the balls?
Did it change your life? Wake you up? Make you cry?
It’s one of the great literary accomplishment of Western civil…
It’s neureasthenic bullshit, and Zane Grey was a better writer.
Well. Any other writers you think, ah, overrated?
I’m stuck on Proust at the moment. To think of all the hours wasted on his interminable salon comedy, my God…to all those readers who think that Proust is the greatest thing since sliced bread, I say go read a real writer. Read the first 100 pages of War and Peace, that’s how far you can take salon comedy and make it work. Not seven volumes of twitches and repressed longing, for Christ’s sake. Get back under the covers, you wheezing pervert.
The dusk draws nigh and we had better conclude this interview. One last question: How would you rate Brian Doyle as a writer?
By trade, essayist. Commits occasional poem. As essayist, usually mumbling about love, books, hawks, or children, sometimes all four at once. Has made, I’d say, a handful of really fine essays, really top-notch stuff; maybe ten, if you stretch a little. Addicted to run-on sentences, lists, semi-colons, and bang endings. Windy bastard, usually. Best when forced into a small space. As his editor, I keep a sharp eye out for his tendency toward sentimentality, schmaltz, the awful scraping of badly tuned violins. His collection of essays with his dad reveals the father to be a clear, concise writer and the son to be addicted to run-on sentences, etc.; the subsequent collection of the son’s essays, Credo, reveals a writer of occasional power and zest as well as a man not at all unafraid of pursuing his own peculiar obsessions and asking you to pay ten bucks for the privilege of chasing after them with him. The third collection of brief pieces, Saints Passionate & Peculiar, has its moments. An interesting writer, that’s what I can say with confidence; not boring, which all in all is a great compliment, eh? Maybe there is a single great work in him; but I don’t think so. I think he is going to keep trying to make small perfect pieces of prose, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his pieces kept getting smaller and smaller until he finally stopped writing altogether and ends his days pondering a single word, or a single letter of the alphabet. Poor bastard. I’ll visit him in the nuthouse.
Brian Doyle is the author of six books, most recently THE WET ENGINE, about hearts and all. It’s not bad. Among his awards and such are (a) a woman married him, (b) the Coherent Mercy granted them three children, and (c) he was named to the 1983 all-star team in the Newton Massachusetts Men’s League, which was a really tough league, you drove to the hole in that league you lost fingers, one time a guy drove the lane and got hit so hard his arm came off, but he was lefty anyway and hit both free throws. Supposedly he then left his arm in a toll booth basket on the Mass Pike but that might be apocryphal. More from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.