I was a solitary child, a reader. I spent my childhood in Kentucky and Indiana, two places that, in the minds of others, may not sound distinct. In my memory, though, the states are irreconcilable. In Kentucky, I roamed the streets and rested on the grass that strikes the eye as blue in images. In Indiana, I sat in rooms, an array of identical rooms, reading books. Later in my life, during college, in a small gray town fastened to a cornfield, still in Indiana, I took my reading life and shoved it gracelessly into writing. I started to believe that a reader, somewhere, might like what I had written. Then I found a story set near my school — William Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” — and I abandoned this belief wholeheartedly. I no longer wrote fiction to please. Like Gass, I began to write purely to balance the scales in a misaligned world.
The story I’m talking about shares its name with a collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, that was recently, mercifully published by NYRB Classics. In college, I read an out-of-print version of this collection so many times that I started to require it, the way young writers now require adderall or other drugs, in order to think. It reflected my whole reason for writing, precisely in the geographical and cultural milieu through which I worked. Not only was this story set in a sunless rural town crisscrossed with wires and pavement — a town identical to the towns I endured for years — it was also written with the obsessive abandon of someone who was inventing his reader as he moved along. And how Gass moved along. Now, even at 90, Gass moves along like no one else.
Considered by many to be the best writer of sentences in contemporary American English, Gass is unwisely pigeonholed as an essayist. Literary “minds” of course know about his fiction — a haul of books as distinct from one another as they are exactly the same. Some of these minds even pretend to have read it, although, more often than not, when they write about Gass, I don’t recognize the subject. Many critics, although most are deeply respectful of the man, see Gass as a cranky aesthete prone to overkilling a few lines and nailing others. They seem to think that books are best served anatomized: first the whole thing, then chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words, morphemes, letters, ink. Yes, Gass’ sentences are worlds unto themselves, but only in the sense that they are always colliding with or escaping from other worlds in a cosmos of cold death and collapsing stars.
Gass’ world in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is cold. In the first novella — one of several masterpieces of short fiction in this book, which has to be considered among the best in American prose — a young boy, called “the Pedersen kid,” is found dying in the snow. Although several other characters work to revive him, they also malinger and rage:
I decided I hated the Pedersen kid too, dying in our kitchen while I was away where I couldn’t watch, dying just to pleasure Hans and making me go up snapping steps and down a drafty hall, Pa lumped under the covers at the end like dung covered with snow, snoring and whistling.
This is a gray, snowy world, meagerly stocked and often spiked with the ire of the thwarted. It’s the world I came up in. So did Gass. The son of poor, abusive parents, Gass admits that he writes to get even:
Getting even is one great reason for writing…Anyway, my work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. And usually I am in my best working mood when I am, on the page, very combative, very hostile…There are two ways of getting even: one is destructive and the other is restorative. It depends on how the scales are weighted. Justice, I think, is the word I want.
I suspect that for many of us born and raised under the sign of rural poverty, William Gass’ statement is Gospel. Writing to get even is the only way I know how to write about the American provinces.
Not that anyone can do it like Gass. The Midwest in Gass’ book is so fully imagined that it comes across as imaginary, which is obviously the point. It’s as if writing a character based in rural, provincial America means writing a character who is always inventing herself by imagining other worlds. “I knew that when I’d finished [the book],” Gass writes, “it wouldn’t be Brookston, Indiana, anymore, but a place as full of dream and fabrication as that fabled city itself…Inside my cautious sentences, B would become an inverted emblem for man’s imagination.”
All of this spite and cold and anger and fable leaves out one thing: Gass is unfailingly generous to his reader, even if, by the code of the provincial writer, he is making her up. The new version of this collection comes with a preface, one of the best I’ve ever read, that was missing from the version I discovered more than a decade ago. In this preface, Gass gives expression to his writerly contract with the reader by sponsoring her, encouraging her, inventing her:
And shall this reader, as the book is opened, shadow the page like a palm? yes, perhaps that would be best (mind the strain on the spirit, though, no glasses correct that); and shall this reader sink into the paper? become the print? and blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language? yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.
Count me in again.