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Why Good Literature Makes Us Bad People

THE WRITERS OF THE SMART-BUT-SELF-DESTRUCTIVE WHITE-AMERICAN-MIDDLE-CLASS-MALE-IN-CRISIS NOVEL DEMONSTRATE THAT THE EXAMINED LIFE, WHILE SUPPOSEDLY WORTH LIVING, IS IN FACT UNBEARABLE.
DISCUSSED
Misbehaving Progatonists, Nonfunctioning Penises, Reading Is Bad for You, High Finance, Untidy Evidence of Urgency, Nabokov, Apostasy, Cliché, Stevens, Bumpy, Detrimental Redemption

Why Good Literature Makes Us Bad People

Brock Clarke
9 Snaps

One of the marks of a good book is that it makes you reconsider similar but superior books—makes you remember why they mattered to you when you first read them, and why (or if, or how) they continue to matter now. Such is the case with Steven Gillis’s recently published first novel, Walter Falls (2003), which reminds me in particular of two similar but superior first novels: Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (1968) and David Gates’s Jernigan (1991).[1] I don’t mean this as an insult—Mr. Gillis’s novel has much to offer us, and one of the things it has to offer us, one of the things for which we should be grateful, is that it gives us the opportunity not only to evaluate his book and to reevaluate Exley’s and Gates’s, but also to examine the worth of the subgenre in which all three reside, that confounding strain in contemporary American literature that I’ll call the Smart-but-Self-Destructive-White-American-Middle-Class-Male-in-Crisis novel.

It’s a sloppy term, an even sloppier acronym (SBSDWAMCMICN), but then again, sloppiness is an essential part of the self-destruction that makes these books so wonderful, so terrifying, and so damn much fun to read even (especially) when they shouldn’t be. By saying these books’ narrators (all three—except for some poorly considered, third-person grandstanding in Walter Falls—are first person novels) are self-destructive, though, I don’t mean simply that they are men behaving badly, as is the case, for instance, in Larry Brown’s novels and short stories. True, Brown’s protagonists do misbehave in a way similar to Exley’s, Gates’s, and, to a lesser degree, Gillis’s narrators: they all drink too much; they all have family problems (see drinking); they all have buddies (see drinking) who get them into trouble, and vice versa; they all are obsessed with their fathers, who inevitably have something to do with their bad behavior; they are obsessed with their penises, especially when they’re not functioning properly (see drinking); they are all institutionalized, to no positive effect; and they are all dedicated to wrecking their lives and the lives of those around them. In fact, this is the only thing at which they succeed, their only fully realized talent.

But the important difference between A Fan’s Notes, Jernigan, and Walter Falls and, say, Brown’s most recent novel, The Rabbit Factory, is that the formers’ narrators are both smart and self-destructive; or better yet, their intelligence is a fundamental part of their self-destruction. In contrast, Brown’s men can be entertaining in their badness, they can be offensive, but there isn’t much edifying about their bad behavior; there isn’t much complication in their self-destruction, in part because it’s assumed—by Brown himself—that they will behave badly, they must, there is no other option. There is a dumbness to their badness. By this I don’t mean that the characters are uneducated (although they often are), but that Brown gives them unconsidered lives: he doesn’t allow them a consciousness, an active intelligence, a way to contemplate their bad behavior.[2] As a result, they’re bad, and we don’t end up caring much, because they don’t care. Brown’s novels are rarely at war with themselves: there is almost never any real internal conflict in them, because he often underestimates his characters, and by underestimating them, he underestimates their true potential for self-destruction.

This is not so with Exley’s, Gates’s and, again to a lesser degree, Gillis’s novels. These novels are at war with themselves—that is, with books, with the things that books are supposed to give us and don’t. Much of the considerable anger in these three debut novels comes from the realization that we’re wrong for wanting books to do things—like make us better—in the first place.We can in part blame this want, this expectation, on university English departments, who, in seeking to justify their existence, constantly cite the practical, useful benefit of reading, as if reading will somehow make us better citizens. And we can blame this expectation on ourselves, too, for not being satisfied that for the most part reading books makes us worse, unproductive citizens. A Fan’s Notes, Jernigan, and now Walter Falls are so important because they run counter to this prevailing opinion in our culture that reading books can make you better, or at the very least can make you feel better, like juice or medicine. Laura Miller recently wrote an essay in the New York Times called “The Great Books Workout,” in which she asks,“How does one person’s extensive reading benefit her fellow man? Or even herself?” Miller’s answer is largely the same as Exley’s, Gates’s, and Gillis’s: it doesn’t. Not only doesn’t it benefit oneself or anyone else, one’s extensive reading hurts, a  great deal, which makes you wonder why we’d bother to read books that illustrate how bad books are for you, which is why, then, we should still read them. And it is exactly this kind of elaborate hoo-ha, this kind of serpentine, self-referential, wearying logic that reading books can foist upon you, and we know this because Exley’s and Gates’s (and now Gillis’s) novels tell us so.

*

The plot of Walter Falls is straightforward enough. Its narrator, Walter Brimm, is a financial advisor in his thirties, married to a university professor named Gee and father to a young daughter, Rea. Walter has his share of baggage—his father also worked in high finance before being imprisoned for some sort of financial turpitude; his mother cheated on his father and then divorced him upon his imprisonment—and these muddy familial waters have made Walter more than determined not to swim in them. But swim he eventually does. Because Gee becomes close friends with a local liberal activist named Tod Marcum (Walter Falls is populated by characters whose names have one too many or too few consonants). Brimm becomes jealous of Tod (who in Brimm’s overactive imagination becomes a perfectly immoral and hypocritical left-wing lothario), begins to suspect that Tod and Gee are having an affair, but struggles to know what to do about it—struggles, that is, until Tod comes to him asking for financial advice, and Walter intentionally steers him wrong. But of course instead of ruining Tod’s life, he ruins his own, impressively so: he loses his job, his family, and eventually—to be vague about the matter—his freedom. None of this should surprise us, because, as Brimm himself admits in the first line of the novel, “I screw things up sometimes.”

This is also true of Exley and Peter Jernigan, the eponymous narrator of David Gates’s novel. Briefly: Peter Jernigan’s wife dies in a drunk-driving accident (she was the one who was drunk, plus naked).A year later, his teenage son Danny has more or less moved in with his druggie girlfriend, Clarissa, and Clarissa’s mother, Martha, who in turn starts sleeping with Jernigan, who then moves in with the other three, gets fired, and then bad things happen (drug overdose, suicide, gun play, extreme emotional cruelty) that put the already bad things that have happened to shame. Exley’s novel has even less of a sense of cause and effect, or of plot (none of these novels is linear, and Exley’s is the least linear of the three). If we were to try to straighten out the timeline, it would read something like this: small town, upstate New York boy grows up in the shadow of his father, leaves his hometown to go to the University of Southern California, then travels to Manhattan, Chicago, Florida, Westchester County, drifts in and out of insane asylums and alcohol abuse in a search for something— happiness? love? success? a comfortable sofa on which to lounge?—that he is never in danger of finding. But to attempt to straighten out this book is to ignore one of its main virtues.Early in Exley’s novel (which is, in terms of real time, somewhere towards the chronological end) Exley crashes in a hotel room; in the other twin bed is B (who is pretty much a younger version of Exley himself), and a girl he’s just picked up. The next morning they are gone and Exley is left staring at “on the exposed sheet the untidy evidence of their urgency.” This is a perfect way of thinking about form in these three novels: all three are the untidy evidence of their authors’ urgency.

But to return to these self- destructive narrators, it’s not simply that they “screw up,” it is the highly literary way they screw up—or rather, the way literature screws them up, facilitates their screwed-upness and their sense of alienation—that interests me here. It’s not simply that the books they read make them aware of their alienation, but that the books are also the things that alienate them, that make their lives impossible, even as they make the story of the resulting mayhem so compelling.

A Fan’s Notes makes clear that someone who cares about literature and language should never, ever teach high school English. Early on, Exley takes a position teaching English at the Glacial Falls (NY) High School, fifty-odd miles from Watertown.To understate the matter, Exley is ill-suited for the position, in part because he assumes the position, the milieu, will be a kind of haven for people like him, people to whom books matter. It isn’t.  Books don’t matter to the students, of course,as Exley shows in the following passage: “A freshman had nuns cloistered in a ‘Beanery,’ a sophomore thought the characters in Julius Caesar talked ‘pretty damn uppity for a bunch of Wops,’ a junior defined ‘in mufti,’ as the attire worn by ‘some kind of sexual freak (like a certain ape who sits a few seats from me!),’ and a senior considered ‘Hamlet a fag if I ever saw one. I mean, yak, yak, yak, instead of sticking that Claude in the gizzard, that Claude who’s doing all those smelly things to his Mom.’”

But Exley’s main problem isn’t with the students—from whom he is estranged anyway by virtue of age and education, if not by his own spectacularly juvenile behavior—it’s with his colleagues, with whom he is supposed to have something in common, after all. And the thing that they’re supposed to have in common, the thing that is supposed to bring them together—literature, and the love of it—is what alienates Exley so. Exley himself doesn’t just “love” literature—love is too simple a word—literature is the only lens through which he can see life; the only vocabulary he has for articulating his needs, his fear, is the vocabulary of a reader. For instance, when he describes his infatuation with a woman from Chicago named Bunny Sue Allorgee, it’s by way of Vladimir Nabokov’s great novel Pale Fire, in which, “like the mad Kinbote, [I] lived my life in exile, waiting to sail back and recover my lost kingdom of Zembla.That kingdom was always a ‘dim iridescence’—a place above and beyond the next precipice; but I always knew that at any moment… the world’s colors would fall into place and define themselves.” And later in the book, Exley is reading Nabokov’s Lolita, while next door a married man and his mistress are having sex:“I used to lie on the davenport trying to concentrate on Humbert Humbert’s searing avowals of love while overhearing the joyous and erotic laughter from the adjoining suite, used to lie there dying of longing, envy, and boredom.” A Fan’s Notes is an extraordinarily lonely book, and this is one of its loneliest moments: because without literature (in this case, Lolita) Exley would not be Exley; but if Exley were not Exley (that is, if it weren’t for Lolita) then he might be next door, with a woman, which one suspects wouldmake him significantly happier than Lolita does.

Exley’s devotion to literature not only makes him lonely, it makes him a freak. Consider his account of the Glacial Falls High’s English department chairman, who “one day… told us he had come across the word apostasy but hadn’t bothered to look it up as he had no fear of encountering it again.” But when he asks his underlings whether any of them knows the meaning of the word, only Exley speaks up: “I don’t know why I chose to speak. It would be the last time I ever did so at a meeting. I defined the word, trying to speak in a matter-of-fact, self-disparaging way, as though I were admitting that nobody but a fool or a freak would know the meaning of such an esoteric word.”When he defines the word, Exley gets the expected response: “all heads cranked round to peer in utter astonishment and loathing at me, loathing not only for having committed the gaffe of entering a discussion but for the suggestion that the world wasn’t, after all, bordered by the town signs proclaiming Glacial Falls.”

It should be said that these three books, for the most part, resist the temptation to cast their protagonists as brilliant, book-learned, word-happy men underappreciated by the ignorant, illiterate world around them. Each novel is at odds with the world, but each novel also makes clear that the world is fine, and that the novels’ narrators are the ones with big problems. Indeed, the only way in which the world is to blame for Exley’s misery in A Fan’s Notes is that it lies to him about what literature can do, about why we read it and write it. Exley confesses that as an undergraduate English major at the University of Southern California he learned to believe that becoming a writer and a lover will help “allay the ache in [his] heart.” Where did he learn this? From his professors, of course, and twenty years later, Exley laments that “none of my professors, talking about books in their even, slightly somber tones, had bothered to tell me that literature is born out of the very longing I was so seeking to repress.” And yet, this realization doesn’t make Exley feel any better—a bracing and necessary thought now, when literature, if it’s thought of at all in relation to longing and pain and loss, is seen as an antidote, a release (see Alice Sebold’s recent novel The Lovely Bones and the readerly and critical response to it for an example of this phenomenon). Indeed, when Exley passes by his idol, USC and later New York Giants wide-receiver Frank Gifford, he wants to shout, “Listen, you son of a bitch, life isn’t all a goddamn football game! You won’t always get the girl! Life is rejection and pain and loss!” Life has taught Exley this, of course, and so has literature; but the key thing here is that this knowledge does him absolutely no good. Gifford is happy; Exley is not, and reading is a large part of what makes him unhappy, a large part of what has made him useless and helpless, and a large part of why he spends his time either lying on someone else’s davenport or sitting on a bar stool. Gifford’s happy example makes us wonder: if literature makes you so miserable, then why would anyone want to read it? Exley admits that “I had incapacitated myself,” but one suspects his reading has played an especially prominent role in this self-incapacitation.

This is perhaps even truer with and in David Gates’s Jernigan, although there are some notable differences between the two books. While Exley is often bombastic and self-dramatizing, Peter Jernigan is terse and self-deprecating; while Exley can be wounded and vulnerable, Jernigan is full of self-loathing, which in turn makes him lash out at the people he loves. Jernigan wounds as a way of not being wounded. And while Exley’s main diversion from life’s “pain and rejection and loss” is football, Jernigan’s is television, which anesthetizes him in ways that his devoted alcohol consumption and Pamprin popping (as Jernigan himself would say, “whole other story”) cannot.

These differences aside, though, Jernigan—like A Fan’s Notes—remains important in our literature precisely because it shows the deleterious effects our literature can have on people who read it, and for whom reading means something. To say literature means something to Peter Jernigan is an enormous understatement. For instance, when his father, a painter, tries to remember whether the Eclogues or the Georgics is about farming, Jernigan says, “Then you want the Georgics,” and when his father expresses amazement that his son still remembers “all this business,” Jernigan replies, “You can take the boy out of the academy…” You can’t take the boy out of the academy, it turns out, especially if he’s introduced to the academy well before he’s entered it. For instance, when Jernigan meets his college roommate, the first thing he notices is that the roommate looks like the literary critic Edmund Wilson (with whom Exley, by the way, is also obsessed). Years later, when Jernigan calls this (now ex-) roommate, the ex-roommate asks him to “stand and give the password,” and the password is from Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Jernigan even gets his pet names for his penis from W. H. Auden’s book A Certain World; he even glosses his own dialogue like an academic,as when he says to Martha about Martha,“Beauty and utility we could have believed, but beauty and economy…’ Was this lighthearted or labored and obscure?”We can’t see Jernigan apart from what he’s learned in the academy, and neither can he.

Does what he’s learned in the academy make him happy? It does not, even though reading and the academy have, in a way, given him exactly the things they are supposed to give us. For instance, literature (a work of art that is original, elevated, and authentic) is supposed to make us wary—petrified—of cliché (which, to this way of thinking, is language borrowed, degraded, and false). Supposedly, then, reading literature makes us better, more authentic people because, somehow, if we are not using cliché we are not using someone else’s language. And if language is self—the theory goes—then when we use clichés we are not ourselves, we have no true selves. But if we avoid cliché—and if literature doesn’t teach us to believe in this, then certainly the study of literature does— then we miraculously become our true, authentic selves, not tired, predictable borrowed selves, and once one becomes oneself, one will be happy, or something that you might in good conscience mistake for happiness. Peter Jernigan has learned this lesson, clearly, but the lesson hasn’t brought him closer to finding some sort of true, authentic self; instead, the fear of cliché has convinced him that he is one, that there is no such thing as a true self, and the only thing that can even moderately protect you from cliché is to deflect it, inadequately, with irony. For Jernigan, much of this has to do with life in the New Jersey suburbs. For instance, this is Jernigan on lawn maintenance: “I hefted the gasoline can; that plus what was already in the mower ought to be plenty. But if I went now and filled the can up again, I’d be all set the next time I had to cut the grass. Nothing like being all set.” And after he’s done mowing the lawn: “I put the lawnmower away and headed through the breezeway for the kitchen, forcing myself to stop once and smell the newly cut grass for a second through the screening. On the theory that it was the little moments that counted.” Later in the novel, after he’s sold his house and he and Danny have officially moved in with Martha and her daughter, he takes “the whole family into the city for dinner…. Martha picked the Russian Tea Room and I said fine. I mean, it could have been Mamma Leone’s. (That was uncalled for.)” What’s interesting here is that we take a great deal of pleasure in Jernigan’s disaffected meanness, but Jernigan himself doesn’t—in part because his fear of cliché has all but ruled out pleasure as an option for him.This is especially and painfully evident in his account of Judith, his dead wife, who once gave him a Powerful Pete, which is a “chrome-plated disk that goes on your key ring, with screwdriver tips at each of the four compass points and a cartoon strongman stamped in the center… Its appeal for us was that here was this thing practically begging you to get a bang out of it yet you were too jaded to get a bang out of it. Which was in itself a species of bang. I don’t know, maybe this isn’t so remarkable. Big deal, we both had a sense of camp.” There is a real sadness in this passage—it is clear that he loves Judith, and he loves her for this gift, and yet he can’t get any pleasure out of it,for fear of the triteness of the gift and the pleasure he wants to take in it: his awareness of simple pleasure (in effect cliché) has made pleasure itself impossible.

If literature is supposed to make us reject cliché, it is also supposed to give us something in return (besides authenticity, that is): it is supposed to give us an inner life, which is precisely what non-book-readers (again, so the theory goes) do not have.Again, Gates and Jernigan confound this theory. If reading has taught Jernigan anything, it’s that he has failed literature because he has not fully embraced the inner life that literature has offered. Jernigan begins, like A Fan’s Notes, near the chronological end of the novel’s events, with Jernigan in his roommate’s (the Edmund Wilson lookalike) trailer in snow-buried rural New Hampshire. Jernigan is there to commit suicide, more or less, but as he walks through the snow and the hemlocks he thinks not of his wife or Danny or Martha or even his own death, but of, “And the hemlocks and the peacocks / And the hemlocks and the peacocks—or however the hell it went. That Wallace Stevens thing about the peacocks and the hemlocks. Then I tried to make up some joke, in my head, about the hemlock maneuver. And then the hemlock remover. A chainsaw: that would be the hemlock remover, although how would you set up the joke? Some inner life, boy.” Jernigan’s struggle to make a joke out of the poem, out of his awful situation, reveals that he does have an inner life, but the Stevens poem itself suggests by comparison—to Jernigan at least— that he doesn’t.This is true later on as well, when Jernigan loses his job, tries to make himself feel better by blaming the job for his numbness, and then admits, “Oh, completely my own fault: simply having a job needn’t numb you. Obvious example: Wallace Stevens. Any deadass drudge can feel even worse about himself by thinking about Wallace Stevens.” The example and the work of Stevens (for one) put Jernigan in a double bind: the poetry convinces him that his own inner life is inferior to the writing that was supposed to enhance his inner life; but conversely, he still believes in that inner life, still believes in the life of the mind, except that the life of the mind that literature has given him has trapped him in that mind.The novel is littered with Jernigan’s admissions that he “only lives in his own head” and that “I knew it was a bad idea to think about your mind too much.”And yet he can’t stop.

But why can’t he stop? Why can’t—to switch back to Exley— he be more like Frank Gifford (without disparaging Mr. Gifford’s inner life, one can be pretty certain he’s not burdened by the example of Wallace Stevens)? The answer is both easy and awful: literature is the thing that keeps him at a safe distance from the people he fears and dislikes, and for that matter from the people he loves. It’s not simply that he’s careful to note that while his fellow train-commuters are reading their newspapers, he reads Jane Austen and P. G.Wodehouse; it’s that Jernigan uses his reading—and the literary allusions he takes from that reading—to distance and protect himself from his son and his lover. The academy often teaches us that reading opens us up to the world, but Jernigan uses it to close himself off from that world.When he quotes Hemingway to Martha—“Isn’t it pretty to think so”—she responds, “Why pretty?” and he thinks, “Oh well.” Later on, when Martha confesses that she hasn’t entirely divorced her husband, it’s Joseph Heller: “I was afraid to tell you because then you wouldn’t want to be my friend. Catch 22.’‘Something happened,’ I said. Right over her head.” The allusions are a kind of test: I dare you to understand me, they say, and when he’s not understood, Jernigan seems to wonder: Why can’t anyone understand me? Why won’t I let anyone understand me? These allusions become just another addiction, and like the other addictions, they grow beyond Jernigan’s control: during a trip back to the site of his dead father’s house (which has burned down, with his father in it), Jernigan makes yet another obscure reference, and then asks Danny if he understands it:“‘I guess so,’ Danny said. Doing his best to fake it. As old Dad was doing his best to shut him out by talking over his head. Christ.”As this passage makes clear, he loathes himself for these allusions, yet he can’t resist them either. Martha knows this, too, when she tells him: “And I can really do without the ironies… whatever they’re supposed to mean.” Jernigan replies, “‘You maybe,’ I said.‘But as for me.’” In a novel full of disturbing truths, this is one of the most terrifying ones. It’s no wonder that Jernigan—and one suspects Gates—views the following article in the Times’s “Mind Health” section with some skepticism: “The creative muse is a surly mistress, demanding a hefty fee in anguish before she grants an artist’s plea for inspiration. Well, here’s some good news: Alice M. Isen, Ph.D., Kimberly Daubman, and Gary Nowicki of the University of Maryland find that what creativity really requires is… feeling good.” Jernigan “tried to understand why this was good news,” while the rest of us wonder if creativity makes feeling good impossible in the first place. Because both Jernigan and A Fan’s Notes are terrifically entertaining, insightful, compelling, creative novels, but they don’t make you feel good, they don’t make you feel pleasure. Or rather, the only kind of pleasure they make you feel is the pleasure that is always buried somewhere in regret: we regret that these lives and these men are so terrible, and we feel pleasure in the excellence of the account of their terrible lives, we feel pleasure in feeling their horror so deeply. But that is not really pleasure, notnas it’s commonly defined, and if wenare reading seriously, then wenshould not want to feel pleasure as it is commonly defined.

Which brings us, finally, back to Steven Gillis’s Walter Falls and its own awful narrator, Walter Brimm. It should be said that Brimm isn’t as smart as Exley or Jernigan (the latter two are the kind of besotted geniuses with whom you could never, ever win an argument, much like Christopher Hitchens without the accent and the trenchcoat). Walter Brimm isn’t a reader in the same way Exley and Jernigan are, either: he isn’t as haunted or incapacitated or destructive because of his reading, and this is one of the reasons that Walter Falls isn’t quite as harrowing and hilarious or artful as its predecessors. But clearly the book is indebted to Jernigan and A Fan’s Notes; clearly it has been influenced by those two books, just as those two books were no doubt influenced by Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, Saul Bellow’s work in the sixties and early seventies, and most everything by John Cheever, a body of work that has conjured up and revealed a world of men who are misfits and who suffer and make others suffer because they have mistaken the life of the mind for something it is not: useful.

Walter Brimm, the businessman, wants art to be useful in two ways: he wants to prove that he is not just a businessman, and he wants art to be a kind of anchor, something that is permanent and noble in a fleeting, ignoble world. Like Jernigan he uses his reading to prove—to himself, sure, but mostly to nonbusinessmen like Tod, his liberal nemesis—that he is smarter, better read (if to be smarter is to be better read—as I hope I’ve shown, an iffy proposition, at best) than your average businessman. His reading makes him a wildcard, or so he believes. As a result, Brimm comes off as someone who has read a little too much of the Bard (for instance, Brimm does a good detail of gasbaggy pontificating about “Love and Eros” and when he discovers that his wife is spending another evening with Tod organizing one thing or another, Brimm “weathered this latest indignity poorly, and sitting with a cold compress posted against my rising fever, cursed my empty house— ‘Goddamn you,Tod!’”).

But truthfully, despite the similarities in their milieu, Brimm as a narrator isn’t much like Peter Jernigan at all. He has much more in common with Exley: for much of the novel, Brimm, like Exley, is a bombastic, wounded, arrogant, bewildered blowhard who thinks there is some substance to him that distinguishes him from the other blowhards with whom he works. In this, he is the doppelganger to Exley’s brother-in-law Bumpy, one of Exley’s greatest creations. Bumpy is your garden-variety, overweight, alcoholic Westchester County businessman with one twist: his basement walls are covered with posters, pictures, and cartoons of famous historical and literary figures. “Most memorable to me were the action shots from the movie Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Gielgud, and beneath which Bumpy had Scotch taped cards bearing excerpts from Shakespeare’s text corresponding with the action of the scene, more often than not incorrectly.” Bumpy has a picture of Trotsky on the wall as well, and when Exley asks Bumpy if he knew how he was killed, “Bumpy decided to guess. ‘They shoved a Coke bottle up his ol’ bazooka and broke it off?’ ‘No,’ I moaned, laughing despite myself. ‘The story is that the assassin hit him repeatedly on top of the head with a tack hammer.’ ‘Gol dang,’ Bumpy said admiringly. ‘You must be some reader, knowing all that stuff!’” Brimm is simply a better-read Bumpy, a Bumpy who thinks and hopes that by reading these books he will distinguish himself from the other Bumpys who might, in turn, look up to him, envy him. In truth, the only way Brimm’s reading distinguishes him is that he is more pompous and more blind to his pomposity, and Gillis has a good deal of fun at Brimm’s expense when he has his narrator say things such as, “Hyperbole, let alone prevarication, turned my normally kind eyes cold….” The joke here, of course, is that Brimm is blind to his own hyperbole, and there should be no question about what makes him hyperbolic, and what blinds him to that hyperbole. For instance, Brimm and Gee drive home after the party when Brimm first begins to truly distrust Tod: “Driving home with Gee from the Dunlaps’ party, I recalled one such poem by Auden, who wrote about fresh love’s betrayal, where everyday over green horizons a new deserter rode away, while birds muttered of ambush and treason, and standing later at my bedroom window, I could hear the black crows cawing,‘Tod,Tod,Tod!’” It is easy to imagine Bumpy sitting in the car with Brimm, listening to Brimm go on about the Auden and the cawing crows and saying, “Gol dang!” but I don’t think that Gillis intends his readers to be similarly impressed.

Brimm’s books don’t only make him a blowhard, though; they also give Brimm a (false) sense of constancy. Early on in Walter Falls Brimm tells us,“I have at home… a large collection of books and once enjoyed surrounding myself with works of poetry and fiction. I find the words upon the printed page provide a finite form of opinion, never changing, the consistency allowing me to believe the world reliable and coherent.” Gillis and Brimm are not one in the same here: Brimm’s view of books (like many of his other views) is silly at best, dangerous at worst, and Gillis makes sure we know it. And when he does take care to distinguish the book from its narrator, Walter Falls is terrific: funny, swift, both full of big ideas and skeptical of those big ideas.

But as the novel proceeds, the distinction between what the book believes and what Brimm believes gets fuzzy, and this is where this novel veers away from its predecessors, and this is also where, alas, this debut novel, however impressive and promising, falls short of them. This novel thrives when Gillis manages to be empathetic with his narrator while simultaneously distinguishing himself from him.This empathetic distance is crucial both in terms of tone (Brimm can be a gasbag, but Gillis must not) and in terms of subject. But on the subject of art, the difference between Brimm and Gillis shrinks as the novel proceeds.This is especially so in the second half of the novel,after Brimm has screwed over Tod, then been fired for screwing over Tod; after Brimm has been hospitalized for his highly Poe-esque feverish guilt over the whole business; after Gee has left him for Tod; after Brimm volunteers at a local health clinic as part of his redemption. It’s the redemption that gets this book into trouble: not only does Brimm believe that his good works will redeem him in someone’s (Gee’s? God’s?) eyes, but the book seems to believe that art, true art, can and should also be redemptive. We know this because after his hospitalization, three new major characters enter the novel. They enter the novel too late, and Gillis makes them too significant, but the real problem is that for which they’re supposed to stand. Janus Kelly—the director of the health clinic—is notable for his good, selfless deeds (he has even crippled himself, so as to collect the insurance money, so as to keep the clinic afloat); his lover, Myriam, is an artist, a true artist, and we know she is a true artist because she is juxtaposed with Martin, a sexually voracious and dangerous false artist (he’s a photographer) who is also an insurance-claims investigator and who blackmails both Myriam and Janus for the latter’s as-of-yet undetected insurance fraud. This elaborate plot development changes the novel dramatically; up until this point, Brimm’s fall is compelling because Gillis remains faithful to the faults of his protagonist. Brimm does screw up, and Gillis believes in his screwing up, seems willing to see it to the bloody end, and thus seems to believe what Exley and Gates also believe: that part of art’s duty is to see things to the bloody end, and not to implausibly and falsely redeem the unredeemable. But with the introduction of these three characters, Gillis suggests that if art is true, if it isn’t perverted or diminished (Martin is clearly the villain in this set piece because he diminishes, that’s all he does), it can change lives for the better, if the lives are receptive to it, and that this is one of the qualities of great art.

It is? Even Brimm seems befuddled by the novel’s turn, and unfortunately the last dozen or so pages are dominated by his confusion and woundedness: “I was stunned, my thoughts muddled.All of this was simply too much.What point was there in anything?” One cannot imagine Jernigan or Exley saying such things, because their books would never put them in a position to say such things. At the end of Jernigan, Peter announces that he will “stand up and say: Jernigan.” At the end of A Fan’s Notes, Exley still finds himself “running: obsessively, running.” In contrast, Brimm until the very end is trying to “calculate what around me will float and what will sink me for certain.”The point is that Walter Falls loses a bit of its considerable nerve: at the end it wants to believe, despite all the compelling early evidence to the contrary, that something out there will float, and one of those things is the book itself. In contrast, both Exley and Gates know that the books are one of the things that will sink them. Gillis, at the end of his novel, makes a case for the novel that seems forced, artificial; Exley and Gates make no such case for redemption. They show art for the damaging thing it can be, and by remaining true to this vision, their own art becomes elevated,even if the books themselves are punishing enough to make you wish (almost) that they weren’t.

 

2 My criticism of Brown here could be dismissed as a Problem with Southern Literature—or rather, as My Problem with Southern Literature. It is true that Brown’s books are set in Mississippi for the most part, while Exley’s and Gates’s are set Up North (Gillis’s book is set in the fictional city of Renton, which seems very much like many urban/suburban areas in the Northeast). My critique could also be viewed as a class bias—Brown’s characters are usually working class; Gates, Gillis, and Exley’s protagonists are middle to upper-middle class. But in order to admit to this bias, I’d also have to admit to believing that rural Southern working-class characters don’t and can’t have inner lives. And in doing so, I’d also have to pretend that I’d never read William Faulkner, or for that matter, Padgett Powell, whose excellent novels Edisto and Edisto Revisited have much in common with the three under discussion here.
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