Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Contemplating used copies of Sinclair Lewis books, a young guy on the brink of a career in finance—milquetoast, for the most part, though he fancies himself as sharply sarcastic once he gets his bearings; an innocent abroad in his own country, Central Illinois—meets the title character, an unpublished but obsessive writer by the name of Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard.
Our narrator, he has some firm grasp on his Lewis and he’s got a thing for Jack London. Pynchon he knows nothing about and Bukowski he’s never read, but he’s heard it makes for “difficult reading.” This is a guy who doesn’t write, but who appreciates and remembers what he learned in undergrad rhetoric class, “loved literature and admired writers who brought ideas and words to life” and is confident “I could write if I wanted to. It all depended on whether or not I wanted to, and I wasn’t sure if I did.”
Enter Wheatyard, who starts off this story of a chance encounter’s ramifications—a story of inspiration, wherein our naïve narrator is introduced to the dynamics of a world outside his own, its desires and deceits, warts and glories—with a knowing-if-offhand attack on Lewis, claiming the author “was just too safe. Conventional, middlebrow, not much better than the bourgeoisie that he loved to satirize.” He could be talking about our narrator, not merely to him, but, like ominous stranger at the start of a pirate story or a kindly old lady at the start of a gruesome fairytale, this Wheatyard hands our narrator a copy of one of his massive manuscripts—“Here, you like reading, you should read this”—and off we go.
The manuscript in question is Longing Dissolute Midnight, and our narrator gives up a few hundred pages in,
my mind overwhelmed by the densely-packed narrative. The little I read was a riotous, glorious mess. Great Crusaders mingled with Hollywood starlets and little green men from Mars and fatally small-minded bureaucrats from dying New England mill towns as Wheatyard explored a bewildering number of barely overlapping themes, from evolutionary theory to immigration to the ethics of the death penalty to socialist economic systems. And in those two hundred single-spaced pages there was even room for adolescent romance, slapstick humor and later on—to my pleasant surprise—for raw sex, courtesy of the little green men from Mars and unemployed New England mill girls. Where it went after that, for the next six or seven hundred pages, I couldn’t imagine. Wheatyard’s imagination in conjuring up this human—and alien—menagerie was nothing less than dizzying.
We hear other, passing descriptions of this literary style—Smokey the Bear couples with John Muir, King Arthur visits Oz and meets Bolsheviks, etc. Our narrator is bewildered, but he’s also—maybe like some mill girl who meets a little green man—enthralled by the sheer strangeness of what he’s encountered. If it’s not enjoyable, it’s nonetheless unshakable. The contrast with Sinclair Lewis is key: “Most of the population, or what remains of a book-buying public, just didn’t want to work that hard at reading. They wanted escape at the end of a long work day, a chance to unwind and be easily entertained... Few people wanted to read dense philosophical treatises with a cast of thousands of disparate characters.” But out narrator’s stance is that once you enter this weird world of Wheatyard, you can’t forget it. He puzzles through it, attempts to analyze the meanings of the layered “metaphors.” And he hunts down further clues about the author, the artist, meeting with Wheatyard, who on the one hand is a deluded, somewhat anti-social man, a little broken even, but who, as “Wheatyard,” the name on the title page, is a dynamo of unchecked enthusiasm. Lack of publication does not dampen his energy; the miniscule size of his potential audience does not deter him. Here is a man who is no Babbitt, nor no Sinclair Lewis; for his part, Wheatyard lauds the graffiti carved into the tabletop of a bar: “...people carved these words because they had something they needed to say,” he says, in a rather cardboard scene, allowing for a kind of unrecognized self-reflection from the artist and some interrogation from his skeptical admirer, our narrator, who has certainly never thought about graffiti as philosophically admirable, even rebellious literary activity. “They didn’t care who would eventually read it, or that they’d never make any money off of it,” Wheatyard goes on; “They felt the urge to express themselves, so they did.”
Of course, it’s never clear what Wheatyard is expressing, or why, save a compulsion to produce texts (which he does quickly, a novel in three weeks, etc.) and, perhaps, a compulsive revolt against what he takes to be standards of publishing (but not—something the financially-minded narrator might have noticed—the more basic standards of a capitalist economy). Wheatyard’s is an art of production. We learn very little about process, never actually glimpse the direct text. But the point, of course, is never exactly what Wheatyard is writing, nor why, merely that he exists as this unceasing force, producing and producing, and that his existence and fecundity stands as an example, an inspiration. One awed bystander describes Wheatyard’s work as “like some volcanic eruption shooting out of the ground.”
This wildness contrasts, in turn, with the carefully plotted prose of Sinclair Lewis, with the depressing practicality of Central Illinois, and with the narrator’s career-minded forward march, through boredom and bad company and bad faith. Wheatyard changes all of this, of course, by his sheer improbable and unforgettable existence, his unstoppable, irrational production, which, in that way, defies any economy. This is production, but liberated by its own excess. The volcano, that Bataillean parody of the sun; graffiti as rebellion against the idea of selling words to an audience, against the idea of, as Wheatyard sees it, an audience at all (“They didn’t care who would eventually read it,” which seems nonsensical but is, at least, the expression of an ideal); manuscripts copied and handed out to strangers as a rejection of the closed system of professional publishers purchasing and selling texts to audiences looking, so Wheatyard and the narrator both insist, for predictable forms of release and entertainment.
Another figure that pops up in these lit-celeb mashups of Wheatyard’s prolific imagination is Don Quixote, of course. The knight on the lunatic quest, living in a world that does not exist, a world that he’s read about, desires, and thus, in his own ragged way, wills into intimate existence, against all indications to the contrary. Wheatyard is Quixotic in some ways, insistent on his own quest, actively inspiring the narrator, both urging him to write and offering an example, however extreme (our narrator is obviously never going to write anything Wheatyardian!), that is usefully jarring, forceful enough to rearrange a life.
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