Readers who know Gass through the mixed and mostly unfavorable reviews of his recent fiction, the novel The Tunnel and the novellas collected in Cartesian Sonata, should delve into his past work. He is seldom easy to read (except in his literary journalism), but once you get a sense of whatever form he is working within, immense pleasure awaits you, not all of it intellectual. Gass is of the generation that followed hard on the heels of the great Modernists, and like many of the Modernists, he writes from the mind, constantly investigating form and philosophy. But, like the greatest Modernists, he also writes from the eye, the guts and the heart -- and, always, for the ear. His fiction may often amount to disguised essays on literary form, but it's still packed with vivid images, plangent emotions and sentences you will want to read and reread aloud.
If you embark on "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," the titular piece in Gass' only collection of short stories, you make this discovery with relative ease. "You used to waddle when you walked because my sperm between your legs was draining to a towel." "I'm the sort now in the fool's position of having love left over which I'd like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?" These lines are situated in the story such that they leap forth from the page and stab their way into your deepest memory. Though formally dissimilar, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" might be compared to James Joyce's story "The Dead" -- in both cases, we wish the author had delivered many more in the same vein before pushing on into more difficult terrain.
Omensetter's Luck certainly requires more patience. After a brilliantly idiomatic opening that mimics the speech rhythms of the opening address at a Midwestern church picnic, the novel soon disappears into the consciousness of a verbally incontinent preacher. Stick with the narrative, and you will find yourself reading with white knuckles, though at times you will want to wring Gass' neck for all the limericks and idle wordplay. The Futurists once boasted that they would bring the world "the Self-Sufficient (and Self-Centered) Word," and Gass often seems to be engaged in just that pursuit, which can be breathtaking -- or claustrophobic.
A close look at "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" and Omensetter's Luck reveals something surprising about a writer who is heavily invested in ideas of form and architecture: His gift is not for satisfying complete structures. With the passing of Stanley Elkin, I don't know of anyone alive in St. Louis who has written a better novel than Omensetter's Luck, but stretches of it are tiresome. As for his short-story collection, it has the two best stories written by a living local writer, the title piece and "Order of Insects," but there's not much else there that gives sustained pleasure. This trend toward spottiness culminates in The Tunnel, his recent novel, which has marvelous, moving sections -- especially "The Sunday Drive" and "The First Winter of My Married Life" -- but lots of dreck and is, finally, much less than a sum of its parts. It would, in fact, be much stronger as a much shorter collection of short fiction.
On Being Blue is Gass' most complete work. He subtitles it "A Philosophical Inquiry," but it might be better understood as a long prose poem with philosophical themes. Gass' at times chilly way of situating emotions in the context of things and ideas works beautifully in this book, which modulates expressions of the blues with investigations into the properties of the color. It also has his most disciplined writing. Some hot day, go cool your heels in the rare-book room at Washington University's Olin Library and study how Gass rewrote the end of On Being Blue, coaxing a merely good sequence of paragraphs into an unforgettable closing movement.
Over the years Gass has become increasingly infatuated with alliteration and other even more egregious forms of wordplay, particularly the limerick (which mars his second novel even worse than it did the first), and his attempts at typographic innovation -- in the early philosophical farce Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife and The Tunnel -- are distracting and a little silly. One reads him, finally, for his best sentences, which are as thrilling as any sentences anywhere, and you will find them mostly in his early work. "Childhood is a lie of poetry" -- that's as good as it gets.
Gass loves Jorge Luis Borges' concept of the eternal library, with its emphasis on the simultaneity of all books. So though he, like anyone else trying to forge ahead, would surely dislike the notion that his best work seems to be behind him, he should also accept that, to the reader, it doesn't really matter. Find the William H. Gass shelf in the library, and you will see The Tunnel and Cartesian Sonata sitting right there beside In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Omensetter's Luck and (if you are lucky) On Being Blue. They all live simultaneously in the world of the word (there's a Gass-like expression for you). Pick the right ones of them off the shelf, and you will be reading the very best of St. Louis.
-- Chris King