Work, Play, Poetry

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The life of the late novelist Robert Stone was filled with improbabilities. As Madison Smartt Bell puts it in his new biography, Stone, whose globe-spanning novels took on American history and the American soul, had “a taste for marijuana and alcohol (and for quaaludes and opiates).” In the 1960s, Stone was friends with Ken Kesey; you can imagine how much imbibing that entailed. While in Vietnam on a reporting trip, he experimented with heroin. (He “snorted, smoked, [and] possibly drank it on one occasion,” Bell writes.) Yet Stone lived to the ripe age of seventy-seven, writing a strong novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, two years before he died in 2015. “A connoisseur of women of all varieties,” Bell writes, perhaps a little too forgivingly, “Bob was far from above the occasional fling.” He had an open marriage—so open that he had a child with a family friend in the 1960s and a tempestuous affair with a younger writer three decades later. Yet he stayed with his wife Janice for fifty-five years. By Bell’s reckoning, and it seems accurate, theirs was a happy marriage.

But the most pleasant surprise, for me at least, was the decades-long friendship Stone had with Marilynne Robinson. What a literary odd couple they make: Robinson the proud Calvinist and Stone the lapsed Catholic; Robinson known best for her quiet, lovely novels about mid-century Iowa and Stone known best for his wild, prophetic novels—A Hall of Mirrors (1967), A Flag for Sunrise (1981), and others—all probing the manic brain and corrupted heart of American empire. What must the two writers have talked about? The nature of God, I’m sure. (Stone in an interview: “As a result of having been a Catholic, I’m acutely aware of the difference between a world in which there’s a God and a world in which there isn’t.”) The nature of craft, I imagine. (Stone taught at Johns Hopkins and Yale, among other places.)

Bell was friends with Stone, and his affection for his subject comes through. Writing in the first person, Bell recreates trips the two took to Haiti and conversations they had about fiction’s moral purpose. Despite this love, though, Bell doesn’t hold back, especially when it comes to the suffering brought on by Stone’s addictions. The last hundred or so pages are difficult to read, an onslaught of car crashes—Stone was a terrible driver, even when sober—narcotic dependence, increasingly frequent falls, and an attempted suicide. Stone was charismatic, everyone agrees. He was also destructive, to others occasionally and to himself consistently.

Bell is an accomplished novelist in his own right, and Child of Light, like a good work of fiction, lives through its details. Stone “huffed as much oxygen as possible in a back room of Politics and Prose” before giving a reading. David Milch, the producer of Deadwood, put Stone on the payroll at his production company to give him something to do, and some money, after a stint in rehab. Annie Dillard and Joy Williams vacationed with Stone in the 1990s. (Dillard and Stone went white-water tubing in Missoula and saw a brown bear.)

Stone’s writing offers an imaginative record of America’s political and spiritual dimensions: “That is my subject,” Stone wrote, “America and Americans.” Bell reads this wild life and lasting achievement with grace and sympathy.

Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone
Madison Smartt Bell
Doubleday, $35, 608 pp.

 

Baseball here is a business, and Nemens gives it to us from all angles

Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is the best baseball novel ever written, and I won’t hear otherwise. But The Cactus League, the first novel by Paris Review editor Emily Nemens, is also very good.

If Nemens’s debut is not quite in the same league as The Universal Baseball Association, that’s partly because it’s playing a different game. Coover’s is a postmodern novel about the postmodernism of America’s pastime. (We often care less about the game itself than about its statistical representations—batting averages and win shares.) Nemens’s is a work of straightforward realism. Baseball here is a business, and Nemens gives it to us from all angles: superstar outfielders losing fortunes at the gambling table; groupies hanging out by the bullpen; agents hushing up scandals; elderly stadium organists whose stiff hands can’t hit the keys they once could.

The Cactus League takes place in Arizona during spring training. Each chapter, nine in all, follows a different figure associated with the imaginary Los Angeles Lions franchise. Most of the particulars are right. Nemens knows that Notre Dame’s baseball team is in the ACC, and she nicely skewers the increasing encroachment of hot tubs and goofy sound effects in new ballparks. A lovely small detail: Jason Goodyear, the book’s self-sabotaging superstar, gets a signature sneaker—“the first time they’d named a shoe after a ballplayer since Griffey.”

Not everything works. No fan would call a pitcher a “fastballer,” as one character does. (At least it’s not “speedballer,” à la Bruce Springsteen.) No partial owner could demand that a prominent outfielder be traded because of sexual jealousy—and then have it happen within days. (Partial owners don’t have that much power; star players don’t get traded overnight, especially when their replacement has only played college ball.) Such details wouldn’t much matter in a postmodernist romp. They do here.

But the pacing is good and the prose generally strong. Nemens refuses to engage in the romanticizing many fall into when spring comes around. Bartlett Giamatti famously and poetically said that baseball “is designed to break your heart.” After all, Giamatti rhapsodizes, “the game begins in spring…blossoms in the summer…[and] leaves you to face the fall alone.” Fair enough. But Nemens shows how baseball also breaks your heart for more prosaic reasons: because rotator cuffs fray, because spring-training towns are depressing, and because billion-dollar franchises don’t give a fig about poetry.

The Cactus League
Emily Nemens
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 288 pp.

 

In baseball, there can come a point when you’ve so often been described as underrated that you cease to be underrated. Trot Nixon, for example: a decent right fielder in the early 2000s who Red Sox fans so often dubbed underrated that he became overrated. Charles Portis, the Arkansas-born novelist who was famous for being underrated and who died on February 17, never suffered this fate. There’s a certain kind of greatness that, no matter how many times we remark upon it, will always be underrecognized.

People who know Portis, whose out-of-print novels were reissued in the 1990s, probably know him as the author of True Grit. It’s a great novel, and it’s been made into two great movies. But every shaggy-dog story he wrote, every picaresque comedy of American naiveté and dreaminess, was great. His sentences display a funny, poetic, loose yet disciplined, absolutely American prose style. Since his death, fans have been passing around some of their favorite passages. Here are a few of my own. From The Dogs of the South: “I don’t believe we’ve ever had a President, unless it was tiny James Madison with his short arms, who couldn’t have handled Dupree in a fair fight.” From Masters of Atlantis: “It’s not healthy, locking yourself away in here so you can eat pies and read all these monstrous books with f’s for s’s.”

Rest in peace, Charles Portis.

The Dogs of the South and Masters of Atlantis
Charles Portis

 

For decades, the poet and critic Paul Mariani has been a shining light for those interested in the Catholic imagination. We can hear Gerard Manley Hopkins, that great poet of the dark night, when Mariani laments no longer being able to see the “greengold grass, / glistening the bright skin of the copper beeches.” And we can hear Hopkins again, that great poet of the shining day, when Mariani describes “know[ing] that somewhere, now as then, the wind keeps whispering still”—the Holy Spirit moving and transfiguring always, even when we can’t sense it.

Mariani’s new work of criticism, The Mystery of It All, is a twilight book. Its epigraph, addressed to his wife of more than fifty years, begins, “Moon, old moon, dear moon, I beg you / answer when I call out to you.” Its final sentences read, “‘In His Will Is Our Peace.’ The very words I have etched into our gravestone.” In recent years, the eighty-year-old Mariani has been diagnosed and treated for brain cancer. This gives his epilogue, titled “On the Work Still to Be Done,” particular force.

Yet what is most striking about this book is how buoyant it is, how joyful is its account of a life of reading and writing. Hopkins, Stevens, Berryman, O’Connor: they’re all here, and Mariani attends both to their smallest formal decisions and their most expansive metaphysical concerns. “I have read and taught Stevens for over fifty years,” he remarks. “He is someone who never ceases to delight.” Great critics are able to turn the readerly delight they experience transitive: to explain it, yes, but also to pass it on to the reader. By this and many other standards, Mariani is a strong critic.

Here he is on Hopkins’s darkness: “All is unselved, untuned, and, just as violin or catgut strings go slack, all clear voweling lost, so do we, the words themselves as if swallowed, until ‘all is enormous dark / Drowned.’” And here he is on Hopkins’s sacramental, perceptual joy: “Look at the Welsh farmers with their horses in the countryside about him, breaking up the moist clods of earth: how the light shines upon them, catching the quartz glints, in an instant turning them into diamondlike shards of light—‘sheer plod’ itself doing this, allowing the plow and the sillion both to shine in God’s light.”

Even and especially in twilight, Mariani shows us the light.

The Mystery of It All
Paul Mariani
Paraclete Press, $25, 240 pp.

 

Even and especially in twilight, Mariani shows us the light.

Hopkins, who broke and remade form in almost everything he wrote, would have loved the poet Jericho Brown. The Tradition is Brown’s third collection of poetry. It’s also his best—the most interesting in form, the most wide-ranging in reference, the most daring in its wedding of the private and public, the spiritual and the sexual.

Brown has talked about reading T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” obsessively while working on this book. Eliot’s influence can be felt in this collection’s sense of tradition speaking to, and being changed by, the present. Eliot’s ghost is here. So too are the ghosts of James Baldwin, Lucille Clifton, and Essex Hemphill.

Brown writes several poems in a new form he calls the duplex: a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues. “Though I may not be, I do feel like a bit of a mutt in the world,” Brown has said. Queer, black, and Southern, he wanted to create a form that felt as unlikely as himself. These duplexes work by repetition and reconfiguration. Here’s a snippet:

                        My first love drove a burgundy car.
                        He was fast and awful, tall as my father.

Steadfast and awful, my tall father
            Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.

Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.

As seen here, Brown often writes about trauma: the trauma of being a hurt child or a hurt lover; the trauma of being black in America (“I promise if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me”) and the trauma of being queer in America (“My man swears his HIV is better than mine”).

But The Tradition also gives witness to joy—in sex and language, in the traditions of black art and the black church. Brown was raised Baptist, and you can hear this legacy in his imagery and music:

                        Forgive me, I do not wish to sing
                        Like Tramaine Hawkins, but Lord if I could
                        Become the note she belts halfway into
                        The fifth minute of “The Potter’s House”

                        When black vocabulary heralds home-
                        Made belief: For any kind of havoc, there is
                        Deliverance!

That duplex I quoted from above begins and ends with the same line: “A poem is a gesture toward home.” Brown finds a temporary home, a form of deliverance, in and through tradition in its many forms.

The Tradition
Jericho Brown
Copper Canyon Press, $17, 110 pp.

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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