Wednesday, June 29, 2022

William H. Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968)

More and more, I'm thinking that Omensetter's Luck is a more important novel than its cultural cachet would suggest: it was published in 1966, so not at the foremost of the postmodern, but what it does--it seems to me--is to visibly bridge the divide between Faulkner and your more postmodern sensibility (I didn't name a postmodern author there because Gass' particular brand of postmodernism seems pretty sui generis).  I've never read anything like it before or since, and while obviously it has its partisans, I feel like it should also be a fairly standard college English text.  And I should read more Gass.  I think he's an important writer.

Well, this is his first collection of short stories.  First, we have "The Pedersen Kid," which is novella-length and, I believe, the oldest story in the book, written in 1951, though who can say how it was revised prior to its publication here.  It's very reminiscent of Omensetter, and very ahead of its time--Gaddis' Recognitions, which is basically the beginning of American postmodernism, or possible postmodernism period, wasn't published until 1955.  So anyway, we're somewhere in the midwest (Gass lived his whole life in the midwest, and most or all of his fiction is set there), during winter.  The narrator is a child named Jorge who lives on a farm with his bitter, alcoholic, capriciously-cruel father and his barely-there mother (modeled on Gass' own parents), along with a farmhand known as Big Hans.  A blizzard is raging, but the titular kid arrives at their house half-dead, and may or may not actually die.  Regardless, Jorge, his father, and Hans all head to the Pedersen residence.  They may or may not be dead.  They may or may not have violent intentions towards our protagonist.  It's all very vividly depicted from Jorges viewpoint, but in the end, everything collapses, and none of these questions resolve themselves.  I'm impressed, especially that a story like this should have been written so early.  Even if you don't want to devote that much class time to Gass, you might consider using this as a text.  

I think you'd be a bit less likely to want to use "Mrs. Mean" or "Icicles."  These stories are VERY reminiscent of The Tunnel in their somewhat suffocating subjectivity--the former about a guy with all kinds of fervid imaginings about his neighbors, and the latter a real estate agent having a time of it.  I did like The Tunnel, sort of, but these are pretty arid.  If you can summarize them, you're a better human than me.  "Order of Insects" is a promising story where a housewife keeps seeing insects and becomes fascinated by them, but it's by far the shortest story in the book, and it seems almost over before it starts.  And then--finally--the title story, a sort of impressionistic piece about the midwest, with characters who feel straight out of Sherwood Anderson.  It's pretty good, and definitely deserves further study, but that's all you're getting right now.  'Cause it's all I have!

Given the direction most of these stories go in, it's not really a surprise that from 1969 to 1995, the only fiction Gass published was...excerpts from the forthcoming Tunnel.  He was definitely moving in a direction!  It'll be interesting one of these days to look at his post-Tunnel fiction and see if he ever moved in any other direction.


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