So, William Gass, a professor emeritus in Philosophy at Washing University in Saint Louis, Missouri, wrote three novels, published multiple books of essays, criticism, translations, and two collections of short fiction. I completed my first reading of In The Heart of the Heart of the Country twenty minutes ago. I have random thoughts about the five pieces of short fiction I read.
-Firstly, I greatly admire William Gass. I learned about him through my interest in David Foster Wallace several years ago. I take my time getting to different authors whose work I want to read, because I’m caught up reading another author. I spent a lot of my free time in 2014 reading the novels of Vladimir Nabokov in chronological order. I read some for the first time, re-read others, and will re-re-read his novels for many years. Among my weaknesses is a habit of buying books instead of borrowing books from the library. I bought every Nabokov novel I read. After that I decided to borrow. I scoured the library’s catalog, adding books to my favorites list, and through the library I read On Being Blue by William Gass, a 100+ page rumination on the color blue and its many shades. Well, I bought his two novels not soon after I completed On Being Blue. I read Omensetter’s Luck in October, and I read The Tunnel in November. Omensetter’s Luck fit well with the southeastern Pennsylvania autumnal season. The Henry Pimber section, which I read on a golden Saturday, particularly struck me. Omensetter’s Luck sort of lost me when Jethro Furber took over, in the beginning, but the latter half of his long section engaged me. The Tunnel intimidated me, but I plunged in, and I spent three or four weeks with Kohler in his lonely hell. I told a friend a work about reading The Tunnel. It’s blowing my mind, I said. David Foster Wallace remarked that Omensetter’s Luck is one of the saddest books written; however, The Tunnel is sadder than Gass’ debut novel.
-Sadness makes a good transition into In The Heart of the Heart of the Country. Published in 1968, its style and structure is similar to Omensetter’s Luck, with a tiny bit of what was to come in The Tunnel. Gass writes the saddest fiction I’ve read. Nabokov built his worlds from within the solitary confined souls of his overpowering narrators. Similarly, Gass’ stories move outward from within, from a isolated, insular style. The lonely I narrates four of the five stories. The exception is “Icicles”; however, Fender, like the other characters in the collection of stories, is alone and sad, without identity. His characters look out of windows at what’s happening around them, his characters act cruelly, judge, fight, tear down each other, hate, and hate hard. What’s the saddest story in the collection? “The Pedersen Kid”. It’s also the most haunting story in the collection. I consider it a masterpiece after one reading. Jorge hates the Pederson kid, hates his father, his mother, and Big Hans-though by the end he finds a unique affinity with the Pederson kid. The atmosphere of the story entranced me-the snow, the wind, the gray skies, the oncoming night in a cold, dark place where there’s threat of violence. The detail about the unlit fire in the Pederson home stuck with me. Jorge’s violent fantasies. William Gass does not bother with plot. He’s concerned with language and words, sentences, the musicality of the text. He uses plot, though. Something must carry the text forward. The Pedersen kid nearly froze to death, or did freeze to death, in the snow. Jorge thinks so; Big Hans doesn’t. The mystery becomes why Pedersen’s kid was far from home. What scared him away? Did he run from his drunken father? I felt an acute sadness reading about the Pedersen kid. All he is he is a solid frozen thing, an object, one of many objects in the collection. Other objects include houses, the dead beetles the woman wakes up to every morning, the objectified Midwest in the title story, Fender’s icicles, and more and more. There are lists of lists of lists in Gass’ writing.
-The middle three stories: “Mrs. Mean”, “Icicles”, and “Order of Insects” continued the isolation, the theme of good and evil, questions of identity, life and death, meaning, cruelty, hatred, anger. Stunning bursts of prose emerge from oblivion in Gass. The last section of “Mrs. Mean” is wonderful. “Icicles”, too, bursts with light through its opaque, gray glass in the third section. “Order of Insects”, the shortest story in the collection, departs from the dominant male voice. A woman tells the reader about her masculine fascination with insects. The way Gass builds his metaphors is exhilarating. I stop reading for a second to shake my head in admiration, thinking, “How do I even in the slightest emulate this?”
-“In The Heart of the Heart of the County” is concluding story of the collection, the title piece, and a wonder. The narrator explores the heart of the heart of his Midwestern country. What is the heart and how is it kept? The heart is many places, many people, and it is alone, cast out, behind walls, beaten, abused, an abuser, a hater. Loneliness and sadness. His prose is mesmerizing, like watching snow fall by a street lamp, or the flames of a fire on a cold and lonely night. A stunning sentence: “Billy closes his door and carries coal or wood to his fire and closes his eyes, and there’s simply no way of knowing how lonely and empty he is or whether he’s as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are-here in the heart of the country.”
-I’d love to write about The Tunnel but I need to read it two or three more times before I’d write a worthwhile observation about. “In The Heart of the Heart of the Country” seems a precursor to his second novel. The narrator remembers the rivers of his former lover’s body, characters are covered in the coal, the dirt, and the dust of the Midwest. It consumes them. It is them.