By Glenway Wescott
Borderland Books – $28.00
When, very early on in his third novel Goodbye, Wisconsin, Glenway Westcott wrote: ‘’New York is halfway between the south of France and Wisconsin, always halfway between any two such places; that is it’s importance’’ he must have known he was onto an exceedingly good thing. For like fellow expatriate Midwesterners Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he too, was already reaping the rewards of a colourful, literary sensitivity.
Published a year earlier in 1927, his second novel The Grandmothers had professed a jewel-like prose of an astonishingly high order; but where it was considered relatively autobiographical, Goodbye, Wisconsin was and still is, littered with the everyday life of acute, fictional observation. As Jerry Rosco writes in the Introduction: ‘’The characters in this book range from tragic to heroic, comic to sinister, sympathetic to strange […]. These stories are the fiction writer’s rendering of real stories, rumours, gossip, and local legend.’’
Like ‘’wooden saints in a cathedral clock when the hour has struck’’ (‘The Wedding March’), many of these short stories clang many a right spot, albeit free of expectant, vacuous and vacant repetition. For instance, earlier on in said story, the author writes of the protagonist: ‘’Now he was of an age to acknowledge any thing shamelessly, but all the details which were passing through his mind had a colour which was equivalent to blushing; or was it only the sorrow inseparable from pleasure, disguised as shame? His passion, though dead and coming back like a ghost, was only nineteen years old.’’
Where else might one currently read such cerebral and dramatic counter-affectation? (Nick) Hornby’s too caught up with rock’n’roll, (Irvine) Welsh within the undeniable slipstream of one-way escapism while (Jeanette) Winterson remains far too confined within the final frontier(s) of feminism – to ever admit of such sorrowful separation. Okay, ‘twas an altogether different time when Westcott penned the above words, although their humanistic trajectory remains as potent and as relevant today, as the day they were written.
The open-wound like confessional of Arthur’s sombre thinking that makes up so much of ‘The Dove Came Down,’ reiterates an explicit humanity that was so undeniably potent within the pre-dust-bowel days of the American mid-West: ‘’Nothing could be done to prevent it, Arthur thought – his life must be going the way of the lives of all those around him. The way of the impermanence of joy and the reiteration of pain. So that the day would come inevitably when he too would be crippled in one sense or another, and lose little babies, and suffer odious disappointments; innumerable days of illness to be healed, deformity to be strengthened, bad habits to be broken, wanderers to be longed for; the day when Emily would die. Would he come here, then, following his neighbours, to the Lord’s Table? Where divine grace did or did not come down…’’
Such bleak, if not downright blatant honesty, is what accounts for this book’s quintessential hold over the reader.
Upon reading such a provocative and extraordinary line as: ‘’grotesque bodies that seemed to have been made of candle-drippings, a little bit alive, arms and legs wonderfully tied in sailors’ knots, luminous heads like overturned pieces of sculpture with broken pedestals swathed in bedclothes,’’ one instinctively knows one is reading something swathed in greatness. A potent quality, so sorely lacking amid much of today’s gloriously insipid fiction; just one of the (many) reasons I tend to shy away from the genre.
Here’s hoping these eleven short stories reignite the fictional benchmark to that of a higher distinction.