Why I Like this Story, Edited by Jackson R. Bryer 50’s. I try to describe these books and, though I suppose there is some inevitable judging, my goal is for you to see what this book is like, not what I think it is worth. I usually like the books very much, but if I don’t, maybe you will. I think I will make an exception here and tell you why I love this book, why I think it is a great book. I am bowled over by this book. Writers writing about other writers produces incandescent, nearly transcendent moments. If this book is testimony to anything, it is that writing and life are so intertwined that they might be said to be the very same thing. Breath becomes word.
There are forty-eight essays In the book. Each writer selected a short story to reflect on. The first essay I turned to was Frederick Busch on John O’Hara. I knew Fred Busch in college. When he was in an English class, the professor had to take a back seat. The story he talks about here, “How Can I Tell You?” iconcerns a car salesman. In one dazzling paragraph, Busch give us a tour of the salesmen of American literature, from Melville to Carver. Salesmen are so desperately at the mercy of buyers. Busch takes our hand and leads us through the O’Hara story, admiring along the way all that O’Hara holds back from saying. Busch savors the story’s “long look into what cannot be said,” and blasts us with the irony of “the emptiness that threatens to fill us.”
While in this life-story nexus mood, I turned to Nicholas Delbanco’s look at a Malamud story, “The Magic Barrel.” Back in the 70’s, I took a summer writing course at Bennington. Delbanco was a teacher (so was Busch, by the way) and Malamud came for a reading. Someone asked him how he came to be a great writer. His answer? “I’m not a great writer, but I have great thoughts on the staircase.” So now here they appear, Delbanco and Malamud, friends from different generations. Interspersed in Delbanco’s reading of “The Magic Barrel” are memories of their time as neighbors before Malamud’s death. Malamud, through his work, continued to give Delbanco lessons. The one he ends with? “So enjoy!”
I can’t tell you about all forty-eight though I wish I could. I’ll just mention two more. One is Elliot Ackerman on Andre Debus, and the other is Andre Debus on Hemmingway. A friend gave Debus’s “A Father’s Story” to Ackerman as he was about to become the father of a baby girl. This gift was so thought-provoking on the contrast between fathering a son and a daughter that as his daughter grew up, he passed it along to other new fathers of girls. Should a father protect a girl more, should he restrict her more, should he discourage her from taking chances? Debus’s story looks at these questions from a dark place because the daughter in question has caused a highway death.
How surprised I was to discover in Debus on Hemmingway that an accident had dramatically and permanently altered his own life. Debus’s piece begins on a light note. He is at the University of Iowa living next door to Kurt Vonnegut. They both go to the airport to pick up Ralph Ellison, who has come to read at the famous Iowa Writers Workshop. We see that writers are people, having drinks and shooting the breeze. Debus mentions that he teaches Hemmingway’s “In Another Country” and Ellison proceeds to recite the first paragraph from memory. Writers schmoozing – just like this whole book.
“In Another Country” is set in a hospital full of soldiers with grave war injuries. Debus asks a friend what he thinks it is about and the friend answers, “the futility of cures.” This story follows Debus through his life as he becomes a college English teacher and has the accident, which puts him in a hospital bed for a year and places him permanently in a wheelchair. Over time, the story’s meaning changed for him and not in a predictable way. He tells us, “A story can always break into pieces while is sits inside a book on a shelf; and, decades after we have read it even twenty times, it can open us up, by cut or caress, to a new truth.”
After I read Busch’s essay, I xeroxed it and sent it to my college roommate, Mary. She said, “I guess I’ll have to buy the book now.”
I said, “Don’t do that. I’ll send it to you when I’ve finished it.”
I did not know that this was a book I wanted to keep. When I finally finish reading all the Friends Seminary books – surely the supply will dry up – this book will set me off in new directions.
By the way, I sent Mary her own copy of the book.