BROCK CLARKE

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

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.

  1. There is the question, of course, as to whether Exley’s book is really a novel—given that the main character is Frederick Exley from Watertown, New York, etc. etc. The book itself is subtitled “A Fictional Memoir,” which is of absolutely no help in this matter. But the level of fantasy and self-mythology is so high in the book that it cannot in good conscience be called a memoir, which is why I am happy to call it a novel, and to move on to what I hope are more interesting matters.
  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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Brock Clarke has published a novel (The Ordinary White Boy) and a collection of short stories (What We Won’t Do). His third book—a collection of short stories entitled Carrying the Torch—will be published in fall 2005.

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