Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Great American Novel

1983-1988, Iowa City, Iowa

I had a friend who was related to the Governor of Texas, Ann Richards. Her name was Robin, and she played third chair trumpet with me and Chris Abbott, first and second chair respectively. Her dad was one of the first adults I remember meeting who was literary. I mean he looked and dressed literary, salt and pepper beard, dark rimmed glassed, patches at the elbows of a corduroy suit jacket. My other literary person was my dear friend Judy Atwell, who allowed me to read all her Emerson collection one long weekend sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. Robin’s father looked literary too and his daughters were all very cultured and intelligent, but with oversized rear ends every last one of them. I really liked Robin a lot, she was my best friend, and I think her dad knew that when we met. We had a short discussion at the doors to the high school, I had just finished giving a speech at High School Graduation, which he liked and commented on, and I told him I wanted to write the Great American Novel. He told me with a laugh that someone had better do it soon and wished me luck.

I chose University of Iowa for just that reason, starting with pre journalism but soon getting into the International Undergraduate Writer’s Workshop.
Flannery O’Connor was a quiet student there in the 50’s, writing her masterpieces of Catholicism and entropy. Dylan Thomas lived there a while too, drinking himself to death and pissing people off in Mama’s, where we always went for fitty cent Pabst Cans on Thursday nights. A wide array of writers came through Iowa City, though it seems to be known best for Bridges of Madison County.

Probably the most legendary figure of Iowa City was Kurt Vonnegut. He moved there in the late 60’s or early 70’s in a Volkswagen to become faculty, and wrote a lot of his most famous novels there, actually becoming famous and rich there. I lived in his house, the famous Vonnegut House, for about four years. He had been gone for a good ten years by then.

The house sat way up on the hill, just next to the woods, and we even had a barn out back you could live in. Next door, through the bushes, was Black’s Gaslight Village, a series of small studio apartments which began as a collective living idea and turned into Bohemian heaven while Vonnegut was there. Many tales of wild parties, complete with wife swapping amongst the intelligentsia still were echoing in the halls of academia.

For as many years as anyone could remember, the house had been the site of the biggest party of the year, held on May Day, complete with May Pole, bands in the barn all day and all night, endless kegs, usually New Orleans style food for some reason, and lots of psychedelics and anything you could get your hands on. People had free run of your house, everyone could be trusted, even my friends who shot up in the basement were careful not to put their needles in the common trash, they always put them in a separate bag. Divin’ Duck and Totem Soul, the band I was in, played endlessly from the barn to hundreds of dancing hippies.

We also had John Irving during the World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire days. I saw him speak and he had this really thick upper body from being a medal winning wrestler, but he was really smashed and gave a horrible speech and reading. After twenty minutes he was gone.

I also took a creative writing class with James Alan MacPherson. He probably doesn’t remember me, I was always really stoned. I tried really hard but didn’t quite get it. I didn’t get his class either, he read from Appolinaire or de Maupassant or something, some stories about Farmer’s Wives and stuff like that, trying to tell us where it all came from. We had to sit for hours and listen to him read before we could get to our stories. He was really shy too and didn’t say much about the work, like he hadn’t read it. I don’t think he read mine. I guess it was for us to do, it was a workshop after all, and we had to give each other constructive criticism. He didn’t win the Pulitzer for giving speeches I suppose. I finally read the award winning stories years later that he wrote of life in Chicago 1968 and was blown away they were so great.

I wrote my final story and got a C. I went to his office and he looked at me like I didn’t have a clue, and he was right about that.

A few years later I had a Modern Literature class in Ames, during a time when I moved back there for a year, when I was 22 or so. Jane Smiley came to the class and spoke to us about how to be a writer. She was really tall and lanky, and was eating a Snickers bar, apologizing because she hadn’t eaten that day. She seemed really nice, like her name implied. She talked about the two books she had written, saying they were in her and the story was just waiting to be told. It isn’t work, it’s like going on a journey, you sit down and your mind takes you to new places and you meet new people. The job of the writer is to introduce those people and places to people you never really meet, making them feel like they are there with you. She won the Pulitzer a few years later for an epic tale of Greenland, a really big book that you wouldn’t even be able to take on a short holiday.

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