Monday, August 1, 2011

Where did the working class novel go? Gerald Howard talks tough about Kesey's "Great Notion"

What did your favorite writer do for his or her living before writing the indispensable book that changed your life? Do you care?

There was a period in the mid-twentieth century when a writer's ability to depict time and place with eye-witness accuracy was based his own on real-life (i.e., school, work, neighborhood) experience. Gerald Howard, in an essay featured online at the quarterly print magazine Tin House, elaborates this idea of the writer-as-reporter through the decades, often reflected in the author biographies as they were featured on the published book. As he writes, "The message being conveyed was that the guy (and they were, of course, guys) who had written the book in your hand had really been around the block and seen the rougher side of life, so you could look forward to vivid reading that delivered the authentic experiential goods."

This worked great for war stories, road novels, thinly-disguised fiction: Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, Steinbeck. Howard goes deeper, invoking Dreiser, Dahlberg, James T. Ferrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy as emblems of the search for working-class authenticity, "a star search for the writer of impeccable working-class credentials." Then an interesting turn occurred after World War II: new American prosperity and wealth created an extended period where differences of class seemed to disappear, only surfacing again in the chafing discontent of the Beats in the 1950s. (Kerouac the football-scholarship Columbia drop-out had the rough-and-tumble of blue-collar experience to draw on to enhance the barely-disguised realism of On the Road.)

The current state of much fiction is different, reflecting a change not only in the nature of book publishing but in the expectations of the reading audience. A writer's experience now counts primarily as background material, pages of intricate detail on which to hang a cinematic trial, a murder, or an historical event.

The amount of research and information that can be found online or through simple research creates contemporary novels of enormous detail, but little depth. The real stories of working-class Americans, and the authors who write them, seem to have vanished except largely as examples of a misunderstood "K-mart realism," as Howard calls it.

In his lengthy essay Howard celebrates authors -- Raymond Carver, in particular -- whose work maintains authentic working-class roots, and there are others (Bobbie Ann Mason in Kentucky, Richard Russo in New York State, and Dorothy Allison are just three of many he mentions) whose novels are "set in affectionately but precisely observed bars, diners, and workplaces that are their native habitat." And then, surprisingly, comes this well-deserved tribute to a writer whose novels seem to have disappeared behind his public persona of 60s hipster-trickster but are still marvels of time and place:

Take, for instance, Ken Kesey’s almost overwhelmingly powerful 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey is best remembered today as the psychedelic superhero and culture warrior of the sixties and the author of the anti-authoritarian cult classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But Kesey was also as authentically working class as his fellow Pacific Northwesterner Carver, a son of dairy farmers who ended his gaudy days working that same family farm. Sometimes a Great Notion is an epic saga of a family of loggers whose slogan, in thought, word, and deed, is “never give an inch,” and whose sheer cussedness brings them into conflict with the entire community.

Politically incorrect (the Stampers battle against the union to continue delivering lumber to the local mill) and formally innovative in the manner of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! the novel is imbued with the sort of mythic American intransigence celebrated in such events as the Alamo and the Battle of the Bulge. ... The book’s famous master image — of patriarch Henry Stamper’s severed arm mounted on his home in such a way as to give the finger — to the rising river, to the striking workers, to anyone who cares to look — may seem overdetermined to certain literary tastes. But Kesey earns his image through his undeniable vitality and authority and the reader can’t help but smile.

It would be great to read a novel these days whose characters were full of "sheer cussedness." It's been a while since a novel like Sometimes a Great Notion raised a middle finger to expectations, either to its readers or the demands of the marketplace .

(photo of Gerald Howard from Tin Drum)

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