Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Six Stories That Influenced Me

In no special order:

1. A Painful Case—James Joyce. Like everyone else in college I had to read Joyce’s Dubliners. I remember being touched by a passage in “A Painful Case” where the protagonist’s entire sad existence is equated with a solidified deposit of grease from the cabbage on his plate. Joyce could be gritty, but his was a grittiness of supreme elegance (in one of his tales a pervert exposes himself to a group of pubescent boys, one of whom says, “By Jove, he’s a queer old josser”; the entire event is compacted into that line of dialogue). Dubliner’s also served as a corrective for the tendency to melodrama that infects most early writing: from those stories I learned that drama isn’t contingent on sensational events, that small moments or “epiphanies” can carry dramatic weight.

2. The Swimmer—John Cheever. Cheever’s stories take the same lesson closer to home. With Cheever there’s an added element of urbanity, of wit, and a more than occasional dose of surrealism. A story like “The Swimmer” is hardly realistic, yet it doesn’t read like fantasy or fable: it is deeply gritty and unrelenting in its portrait of a man confronting mortality. (John Cheever's son, Benjamin, by the way, is a superb writer himself, and a friend.)

3. The Face on the Barroom Floor—Nelson Algren. As an antidote to what is beginning to sound like a very shopworn list of influences I’ll add Nelson Algren’s The Neon Wilderness, his only book of stories, and especially “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” where in the character of Railroad Shorty one encounters the least pitiable cripple in all of literature. Algren taught me that you can be ruthless and funny at the same time, that “serious” themes do not, necessarily, demand earnestness or preclude humor (I can think of few tragedies funnier than A Streetcar Named Desire—though Hamlet comes close).

4. All You Faceless Voyagers—Ivan Gold. Writers who aren’t funny are doing something wrong. Whatever else can be said for the truth, it ought to be good for a laugh. Ivan Gold, whose stories are collected in Nickel Miseries, knew this. Gold writes sentences of an acrobatic virtuosity that Carsisle might have envied. But for all his virtuosity his pages burst with as much savage honesty as Bukowski’s. “All You Faceless Voyagers” tells of a savage attack by an insane cabin passenger aboard a “one-funneled” tramp steamer, a tale gruesomely funny. Stories like it prompted Lionel Trilling to predict that its author would become “one of the commanding writers of [his] time”—a prediction that failed largely due to Gold’s drinking.

5. How to Build a House—Lawrence Durrell. Other influences briefly summed-up: Lawrence Durrel’s Bitter Lemons (nonfiction), particularly a story about building a house on Corfu, for its evocation of character and setting—and for treating them as one (ditto Paul Bowle’s “A Distant Episode.”). Durrell, too, can be quite funny while painting rich landscapes in thick word-impastoes.

6. Hey Sailor, What Ship—Tillie Olsen. I’ve not mentioned any women yet, but Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle was a collection I carried around until the pages holding “Hey, Sailor, What Ship,” broke free of the spine in protest of my repeated gropings. Books like hers gave me persmission to try things I wouldn’t have tried otherwise, to experiment with texture and voice, for instance, and rebel against the tyranny of a linear plot structure. Permission to try things: more than anything else, that’s what I’ve sought from other writers.

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