a speech for the Villa Gillet in Lyon, France
The subject I was asked to think about was the relationship between my writing and my country, the United States. At first I thought the question was too large to answer. After thinking hard about it, I came up with an even more impossible question: What do I feel about the United States? Do I love my country, like it, despise it, what?
I realized, after being paralyzed for several weeks by this question, that I’ve been answering it all along, book by book. All the difficult and mixed feelings I have for my country are already there in my characters–in their voices and thoughts, in their existence and the situations they find themselves in. To make it any plainer than that changes what I want to say, makes it less complex, so I’d like to preface what I’m about to say by reading three very brief excerpts from my novels.
The first is from The Names of the Dead. My character Larry is a Vietnam veteran, a combat medic who lost the rest of his platoon. Here he is, fourteen years after the war, driving a Wonder Bread delivery truck in Ithaca, New York, the small town he grew up in. When he feels overwhelmed by life, he takes comfort in eating the crumb cakes he delivers. It appears there’s nothing in this segment that speaks directly to America, but it all does, from the cultural context:
He filled the orders on his clipboard, counting out cupcakes and Hohos, arranging the plastic trays in the dolly. Wegmans alone took fifteen minutes, and as his hands played over the soft bags and cellophane-windowed boxes, he remembered Leonard Dawson and Go-Go Bates eating pound cake at some night position in the hills. Nothing had happened, it was just a picture his mind coughed up, the skinny black man with his thick, issue glasses, beside him the giant Bates, spooning contentedly from their cans. They played hearts together with a deck Leonard’s sister had given him; he sent a card home every Wednesday, one for each week of his tour. He’d started with the hearts, so by the time they left LZ Odin, the only card they had to watch out for was the queen of spades. Leonard said he was saving the deadly ace for last, that, defying all odds, he’d take it with him on the plane, pin the sucker to the peephole in his skivvies and play peekaboo with the stewardess. At Cocoa Beach every time they heard a 707 he’d jump up from the table where he and Bates were playing, race halfway down to the green sea and wave whatever cards were left in his hand at the departing Freedom Bird, prophesizing in a voice uncharacteristically bold with rice whiskey and Tiger beer, “You are mine, motherfucker. Ace of motherfucking spades!”
Larry finished the last rack of fruit pies, added an extra box of crumb cakes, then took it off again. He remembered he’d left his lunch in his locker, and retrieved it before rolling the dollies onto the truck. Behind his window, Marv lowered his newspaper and pointed to his watch; Larry nodded.
“Eat me,” he said when he was past, then did an immediate about-face, thinking of the crumb cakes, but saw instead Leonard Dawson’s small hands, the high school ring he was so proud of, and stopped himself. On the way out, he gave a lariat-twirling cardboard cutout of Twinkie the Kid the finger.
It was still raining; it was Ithaca. From the side of Number 1 the same boggle-eyed cartoon smiled down upon him, in full chaps and spurs yet horseless.
“Yahoo,” Larry Markham said.
Now here’s Marjorie Standiford, the narrator of The Speed Queen, a very different book. Marjorie has sold the rights to her life story to Stephen King, who has sent her a questionnaire to answer by tape recorder in the last hours before her execution by lethal injection for a series of spree killings in fast food joints along Route 66. The book is a satire on American appetites, and there’s more leeway to comment on the country as a state of mind:
Why did we go west? I don’t know. It was never a question. I guess we figured the land was big enough to hide us, or that there might be something better out there, a new start. Isn’t that what the old Okies hoped for? In school we had to read The Grapes of Wrath. This wasn’t much different. There wasn’t anything going on in Kansas or Arkansas, and being from Oklahoma, we’d go to Heck before we went to Texas. West was really the only choice.
Sometimes I’ll sit down with my atlas and follow the roads we took, and I’ll think, there, that’s where we should of split off south, or maybe if we’d taken the route through the mountains, or that dirt road across the desert. It doesn’t do any good, but I do it. And I see all the sights again–the tumbleweeds caught in the guardrails, the Navajo trading posts with rugs hanging from the porch rafters, the hippie hitchhikers with jugs of water yoked around their necks. I see the wind-bent trees around broken-down homesteads, and the sagging beehives out back, I see the armadillos crushed on the road and the green bridges advertising their height. But when I try to see all of us in the car, it’s always those last few miles outside of Shiprock, the dust filling the back window. It’s sad–I’ve got all of Texas and most of New Mexico, but all I remember is Shiprock.
Here’s something you’ll like. If we’d have kept going on that road we would have ended up at the Four Corners, where the states come together at a plaque. Here’s the choice I would’ve had: Utah still shoots people; Arizona and Colorado have the gas chamber; at the time, New Mexico electrocuted you, now they’ve changed to lethal injection. The state police say I was less than thirty miles short of it. Mr. Jefferies would have had one tough decision to make.
Why west? It’s the way you go out here. It’s like “Route 66,” the song–it winds from Chicago to L.A. No one goes the other way. It would be stupid.
And lastly, here’s a piece from my newest novel here, A World Away, set during World War II. My character Rennie is a conscientious objector who has changed his mind since his best friend Cal was killed. Because he at first refused to fight in the war and was arrested and sent to a work camp, his family has been ostracized by their small town, and he’s estranged from them (and everyone, really). Now he’s about to ship out to the South Pacific, and like the men in his company, he’s gotten drunk.
They slid along the docks. Dully rainbowed water sloshed the walls of empty slips; garbage bobbed in the scum–soft boxes, curled shoes, a sailor’s hat kissing the surface like an interested fish. And then the slips were filled with gray Navy vessels, needle-nosed, identical other than their numbers.
“Destroyers,” Burger said. Rennie looked to Fecho to see if it was true, but Fecho was looking at another, larger ship in drydock. Its bow had been smashed in; a ragged gash strectched along its waterline, the metal on both sides of the rupture curled back, edges bright. It had been stripped of its rigging; nothing hung from its lifeboat stanchions.
“I hope you still got your lucky quarter,” Fecho said.
They turned for the middle of the bay, the air losing its fishiness, wind picking up. The ship was so large it hardly rolled, and Rennie was surprised when Mowry vomited down into the water.
“I’m okay,” Mowry said, pale but unfazed, and Burger handed him a canteen.
Rennie himself felt better now, even his headache given up to the thrum of the ship, shaken away. Steadily, since his last step across that gap between the gangplank and the deck, his guilt had been dissipating. Those worries about himself, so terrible in camp, were no more. He was free now to worry about Dorothy, about his mother and father, about Jay, about–and this, meaningless, what he and Cal had argued over so long ago, came with a burst of self-love that nearly brought tears–what he conceived of when he said America. Like Superman, he seemed weakened by the very land of his birth (deadly Kryptonite! red, yellow, green); only at a distance could he safely admit he loved it. Even Alcatraz, topped with fog, brought a smile. At the same time he was escaping, he was returning.
Lunch was due soon, or maybe they’d wait until they were well underway. They passed beneath the Golden Gate. He’d have to remember it to tell Jay. He’d read accounts of jumpers in the Sacramento papers and always imagined making it. Now, looking up at the dark bar, it seemed he had.
The breakwater stopped, and the ship dipped as if bowing to a greater power. A beacon rose on a bluff above them, strobing. Mowry sat on the deck and groaned. Everyone else was at the starboard rail, taking a last look. Once it was gone, Rennie thought, they would serve lunch. The wind shifted. The ship was turning, starting its long, dotted arc over the globe.
“There it goes,” Burger said.
No one spoke. The land dissolved into fog, the light diminished, dimmed, and they were at sea, the country invisible behind them.
We’re even, he thought.
These three are typical of the Americans in my work, and through them, my feelings for America. I just wanted to introduce them first to ground the following generalities in something concrete. As a novelist, I’m much more comfortable in the small and concrete choices my people make–my sense of what they really would do–and how, in fiction, they lead to some larger truth, whatever it may be. That’s my method as a novelist, for better or worse. I dream up people and follow them, asking, always, what would they really do in this situation?
A country, once, was thought to be a collective dream, a state of mind or unspoken emotion shared by its citizens, the will to be one as a people, and to be recognized officially as such. How many wars and revolutions have been waged–are being waged this instant–with just this goal in mind? The rights and freedoms of self-determination, always in jeopardy, will always move people, through desperation if not plain outrage, to take up arms against those who control them–those who, to justify their rule, falsely define them.
You are who I say you are. We are who I say we are. There is a presumption here, an ignorance at the heart of these statements. And yet they are the fundamental basis of all politics. They also describe–simply and strangely enough–the position of the novelist.
The novelist ascribes desires to people, offering to them the dilemma of moral choice, and, by extension, to those of their genders, their races, their faiths and their nationalities. Like the politician, the novelist must represent the people carefully and faithfully, because the reader, like the alert citizen, automatically weighs the writer’s rhetorical vision of the world against real life. The highest praise we have for a work of fiction isn’t a glowing review but a simple shake of the head when we’re done reading. That’s true, we say, convinced that the writer knows not only the lives of his or her characters or his or her world–no matter where the book is set–but knows deeply our lives, our world. Some, like Chekhov or Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf in her best work, seem to know everything.
It’s an illusion, of course. Through close observation of the available world and close reading of other writers, the writer creates a subjective experience that, if done well, either simulates an objective view of the world, or, in its subjectivity, reveals an objective truth about the world. And that truth, coming from the writer’s view of his or her immediate surroundings and memories, therefore must involve and implicate the writer’s country, even if the ostensible subject and treatment of that subject is not overtly political.
Obviously, at this point in history the United States as a whole and as a world power feels little urgency to address its political problems, foreign or domestic. Introspection is not our strength, and since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the end of our war in Vietnam, the social struggles in our country have given way–in terms of media coverage and general importance–to the same concentration on the business of technology that marked the Cold War years.
In much contemporary American fiction, the country is a supporting character only in its goofy and relentless consumerism, the heady yet vacuous mix of technology and entertainment that washes over the characters. This country is a wonder, but an ironic one. How is it possible, this fiction asks, that our lives are so full of the ludicrous and trivial?
That’s true, and a valid political criticism, but I’d go further. In an affluent, complacent and self-congratulating culture, the writer needs to remind readers that not everyone is included in that carnival of wealth and privilege. The system which provides so much for so many, and which is constantly praised by politicians and the national media (as if being rich is a right guaranteed by our constitution), leaves millions of people behind. Coming from Pittsburgh, which lost a third of its population after the layoffs in the steel industry in the 1970s, I have a tendency in my books to insist on the reality of the downwardly-mobile middle class. In the novels translated here, the families I follow all fall on hard times and have to find a way to keep going, taking jobs that barely pay the bills. One of my readers says that my people all do the same thing: they go to work and they come home–and that’s true. Again, that comes not from the ideals of the mass culture but from the realities that ruled the place where I grew up. Your job defined who you were and what you could do, what kind of life you could or counldn’t have. And like the people of Pittsburgh, my people worry about money, and how money affects their families–a notion that doesn’t fit into the official story of America, where everyone is making millions off of the Internet.
There is a false or a fake world out there created by dreams–the dreams of the movies and television, the dreams of politicians and advertisers, the dreams of books, and, maybe the most frightening, by our own dreams, the dream of entering the dreams of all these others, of finding happiness by leaving this everyday world behind and becoming the hero with the happy ending–moving from the real world into our media-fed dreams.
Now, I’ll admit, this is true all over the world, but no one does it quite as well as America, birthplace of television and home of Hollywood, and no country encourages its people as much as America in this way, saying that anything can happen, anyone can grow up to be anything.
Here’s a quote from Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Exley is both the novel’s author and hero, and he knows the temptations of the unreal. Here he’s just been released from a mental hospital; he’s unemployed and drying out from his chronic alcoholism, but notice his view of himself:
I was much given to fantasy. I was never incapacitated by fantasy. America had gone wrong for me, or me for America; I had held up my hand and said, “Whoah there: this has gone far enough!” and had gone home to Mummy, where I lay on the davenport for many months. I had incapacitated myself; the fantasy had followed to consume the endlessly idle hours. There was nothing grossly unusual in the fantasy; it was a projected compendium of all that was truly vulgar in America: I was rich, famous, and powerful, so incredibly handsome that within moments of my entrance stunning women went spread-eagle before me. But I never for a second “lived” this fantasy. There was always one I, aloof and ironical, watching the other me play out “his” tawdry dream. We were like illicit and Puritan lovers who had given birth to a monstrous fantasy child; as happens in all unions coupled in guilt, we as lovers would come to loathe both each other and the monster child.
At the same time, for all the freedom the American system allows its people, for all the unreal dreams it lays in front of them, every young man and woman understands what is expected of him or her, what everyday dreams they’re supposed to have. The unspoken standard of the conservative family is clear: college, marriage, a high-paying profession, and children. This is true now for both men and women. The culture at large insists on these definitions, and while many people may escape them, everyone feels the pressure to conform. What does America expect a man to be? What does America expect a woman to be? I’m fascinated by these questions, and by the American coming-of-age story. Whether I’m writing straight-ahead realism, satire or a horror story, my people struggle with these exterior definitions and categories–these obligations–trying at once to ignore them and fulfill them.
In life, of course, not everyone succeeds, and nothing is more anti-American than failure. Revolutionary idealists from our very inception, our country is built on a shaky base of can-do optimism, a myth of continual invention and discovery, as if there is always more out there, new things, new horizons and frontiers. Go west, young man. Of course, life isn’t like that. Dreams sour and die. Go west and you’ll see the wreckage. Generally, life consists of doing the same things over and over–some of which we don’t like to do–but there’s no romance to repetition, and there’s certainly none in the realities of failure–failed loves, failed families, failed careers. And yet, nothing is more common. Thoureau knew this, saying–truly, I think–that most people live lives of quiet desperation. That desperation isn’t officially acknowledged in America, though it lurks beneath every undertaking, a persistent fear. What if I don’t become a hero, what if I’m average, or less than average? The culture has no answers for these questions.
Again, here’s Frederick Exley’s character Frederick Exley contemplating his own failure to exist outside of himself:
But the dream of fame had been real enough: I had wanted nothing less than to impose myself deep into the mentality of my countrymen, and now quite suddenly it occurred to me that it was possible to live not only without fame but without self, to live and die without ever having had one’s fellows conscious of the microscopic space one occupies upon this planet. The thought almost overcame me, and I could not dwell upon it without becoming unutterably depressed.
Just as America likes to see personal history as simple and heroic, likewise it tends to sanitize and mythologize the larger events and issues that have shaped our country. Until the mid-60s, Hollywood romanticized the cowboy, and since then, in a belated attempt to make up for this, they’ve romanticized the indians, hanging the evils of the indian wars on a few rogue generals instead of the country as a whole. The same holds true for the American war in Vietnam. World War Two, one of our favorite successes, has always been romanticized, war as adventure, war as moral crusade, war as proof of our country’s–and our people’s–goodness. A movie like Saving Private Ryan caters to that nostalgic and patently false insistence on American nobility and innocence. Having digested a lot of the same garbage as a kid, I’m not surprised that I’ve set one novel during World War Two and another during the Vietnam War, trying to dig deeper by listening to the stories of people who were there.
This is true of my other work as well. I try to talk to people and to read people who have lived the realities of the American system–lived under American institutions, whether that means schools or the military or prisons or hospitals, fast food joints or corporate industry, racial redlining or communal ostracism. I’m interested–it seems, looking over the books–in specialized subcultures that are quintessentially American: dead-end Rust Belt teenagers, Okie speed freaks, born-again alcoholics, women assembly line workers during the Second World War, Vietnam vets, death row inmates, inner city African Americans, hot rodders. The people in my books are estranged from that prosperous, optimistic America, not taken into account by the larger culture, whether by their nature or fate, but–as with anyone in despair–they’re unaware of it at first. Part of their disillusionment comes from the slowly growing realization that they’re outsiders, and always will be. They all define themselves against the conventional American mainstream, and yet, if you examine their actions and attitudes–as Frederick Exley does with himself–they haven’t escaped it one bit.
Because, like it or not, we’re all caught in the myth of America, surrounded by its cheery excesses, bombarded by its assumptions and expectations which are echoed by those around us, as if we’re trapped in a vast brainwashing experiment. That’s what culture is, in some sense, a massive device that makes the strange normal, the bizarre commonplace. It defines what is and what isn’t acceptable, and too often people take this artificial division to heart. Whether they plan on respecting or crossing that line, the line itself is impossible to ignore.
My subjective America includes that line and that mythical country created and sustained by TV dreams and war movies but also the daily lives of working people. It’s that collision of the fantastic (endlessly celebrated) and the average (conveniently forgotten) that interests me.
But what do I know, finally, one writer? My definition of America fits inside that same box of expectations, since I’m a product of that same system. If done right, it becomes what it describes, yet remains mine, one individual piece of the collective dream. It only becomes real when a reader accepts it, compares it to some part of his or her real life and says–even unconsciously–yes, that’s true.