Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Readings: A Natural Gass

Some backstory: When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, I knew this kid named Johnny Jones. I knew him first as a member of my little league baseball team, when I was eleven years old. Then I lost sight of him for a few years, because he attended different schools that I did. I attended the public high school, but Johnny Jones went to the University of Michigan’s 12-grade laboratory school, known as “U High.” He was a star guard on their basketball team, and I saw him play a couple of times, because I had a friend from the neighborhood who was a student at U High.

Like me, Johnny Jones attended the University of Michigan, as an English major. In my freshman year at Michigan, I met the kid who had played center on the U High basketball team , and through him got back in touch with Johnny Jones. It turned out that Jones could play guitar. He did a better finger-pickin’, bottle-neckin’ version of “Panama Limited” than did Tom Rush, according to some. Jones was also wildly enthusiastic about the writings of a guy named William H. Gass. He was particularly enthralled by the novel Omensetter’s Luck. And then there was the story collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Going on the assumption that anybody who could drain a jumpshot and play guitar the way Johnny Jones could must also have superior judgment concerning matters of contemporary fiction, I eventually acquired and attempted to read both of those books. And I was disappointed. I didn’t get it. My estimation of Jones plunged below the radar.

Jump now to the present. Forty-five years have passed under the bridge. In the course of investigating the fiction of Stanley Elkin, I borrow from the library a short-story anthology entitled “Stories from the Sixties” edited by Elkin. The fourth story in the collection is “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass. Having developed an admiration for Elkin, I shrug and decide to give it a shot.

And it blows me away, folks. How could I have ever doubted a renaissance man like Johnny Jones? What was I thinking? This isn’t prose—it’s poetry; deep, insightful, poetic narrative. The set-up is this: the piece is narrated by man, presumably a poet, who is deep in contemplation of his hometown, described as “B… a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.” The story is divided into sections, titled “A Place” or “Weather” or “My House” or “A Person” etc. The one I have chosen to excerpt, I have chosen because, although it was first published in 1967, it still so well fits what might be called “the American condition." Replace the reference to the John Birch Society, with a reference to the Tea Party, and you could publish this in next week’s edition of Time Magazine:


Sports, politics, and religion are the three passions of the badly educated. They are the Midwest’s open sores. Ugly to see, a source of constant discontent, they sap the body’s strength. Appalling quantities of money, time, and energy are wasted on them. The rural mind is narrow, passionate, and reckless on these matters. Greed, however shortsighted and direct, will not alone account for it. I have known men, for instance, who for years have voted squarely against their interests. Nor have I ever noticed that their surly Christian views prevented them from urging forward the smithereening, say, of Russia, China, Cuba, or Korea. And they tend to back their country like they back their local team: they have a fanatical desire to win; yelling is their forte; and if things go badly, they are inclined to sack the coach. All in all, then, Birch is good name. It stands for the bigot’s stick, the wild-child-tamer’s cane.

This is not the most poetic section of the story. But I don't want to spoil those for you. Surely, you won't want to waste 45 years as I did; and based on the recommendation of Johnny Jones, you will want to read those for yourself.