by P.F. Kluge
Overlook, 368 pp., $25.95
So you write a novel, a story about writing and writers in which you play off the personal quirks and literary indulgences of various brand names in American literature. With little malice and some justification, you get out your toy gun and take aim at (among others) a younger writer famous for a zealously intellectual, pop-culture-splashed, and indulgently long novel. And just as your toy gun is about to go bang, with its little flag unfurling, one of the very real writers at whom your weapon is pointed goes and commits suicide.
A period of mourning is underway, with problematic timing, just as your novel comes out. Ugh.
P.F. Kluge is an accomplished writer with a number of good books under his belt. Eddie and the Cruisers, which is being reissued by Overlook Press, is a delicate work about the jagged soul of rock 'n' roll music and the type of introverted writer who wants nothing more than to be its amanuensis. Biggest Elvis was another rock 'n' roll novel, an often riveting take on the U.S. military pullout from the Philippines, the exporting of American culture, and the adrenaline rush of stage performance.
So Kluge remains affectionate toward the pop culture of his youth, but he has filed more than a few complaints about the kids of today. A professor who teaches writing and postwar American literature at Kenyon, he's used his perch in Gambier, Ohio, to observe and criticize the coddled American college student, whom he suggests would be much better off if his behind were kissed less often by administrators with dollar signs in their eyes and U.S. News & World Report rankings where their hearts used to be.
Such thinking--in Alma Mater, his book on the life of a liberal arts college, and a rather tough essay entitled "Camp Kenyon" that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education--has made Kluge a magnetic and yet crotchety character at the school of which he is both a critic and an old friend.
This ambivalent position is not unlike the one that had been occupied by the recently departed George Canaris in Gone Tomorrow. Canaris was a writing professor at a small college in Ohio, and a particularly famous novelist who had fallen into a Salingeresque silence since the publication of his last book more than 30 years earlier. All this time he was said to be at work on The Beast, a manuscript that might never have been written (as argued by resentful colleagues) or has proven unfinishable (suggested gently by sympathetic colleagues) but was (everyone agrees) the magnum opus for the sake of whose slow construction Canaris had accepted an undemanding celebrity appointment in Ohio many years ago.
In all that time, while Canaris wrestled with (and perhaps lost to) The Beast, he has become, like Kluge, a rueful devotee of this little college and its small-town life. But now he is being forced to retire, to make way for a younger, hipper, more prolific writer whose name means a lot more to the younger generation of students whose parents pay so many of the bills.
Gone Tomorrow is the title given to the book's novel-within-the-novel, which was written by Canaris in the first person as an account of his last year on staff, but introduced by Mark May, a likeably underachieving professor of literature whose job, as Canaris's literary executor, it is to search Canaris's house until he finds The Beast. The first thing May finds, however, is this other manuscript, in which (along with much else) Canaris has recorded the first meeting between him and his replacement, John Henry Mallon.
"I've read your books" he said. "Great." "I've lifted yours," I responded. "Heavy."
This exchange takes place on stage during a convocation ceremony, in a section dated September 2005, where the president singles out Canaris for his upcoming retirement and announces, to the great enthusiasm of students, the arrival of Mallon.
In June 2005 David Foster Wallace walked onstage at Kenyon College to deliver the commencement address. Himself a writing professor at a small liberal arts college (Pomona in Claremont, California), Wallace used his speech to interrogate the cliché that a liberal arts education teaches you how to think. He summed up the basic notion as: "Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think." Fail to do this, he said in his characteristic argot of scholarly-sounding slang, and "you will get totally hosed." You may even fail to learn how to live.
Wallace then mentioned suicide:
It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
Eerie, no? And of course, tragic. Reading the lecture today one realizes that here is a man who thinks about killing himself, but at the moment is persevering, finding the power to affirm life. And yet cold as it sounds, Wallace the writer remains fair game as much as anyone, including some other youngish widely hailed geniuses--Dave Eggers and some other writers are also fingered as graphomaniacs in Gone Tomorrow--who resemble John Henry Mallon in one respect or another.
In Gone Tomorrow, however, death comes for the old writer in mysterious circumstances. Kluge sets up his novel to suggest a murder mystery, but then dashes the expectation as if to say that the greater mystery concerns Canaris's work as a writer. Is it immortal, like his one novel that regularly appears on those 100 Best lists beloved of magazines, or is it "here today, gone tomorrow"--a forgotten worthy, perhaps, like An Operational Necessity by Gwyn Griffin, which sits on a bookshelf in Canaris's house?
An interesting difference separates the book Canaris is said to be writing, The Beast, and the one Kluge offers the reader, Gone Tomorrow. The latter is much shorter and can contain within its shortness the essence of the much longer work. A synopsis of The Beast comes through as Canaris revisits important episodes in its writing: a visit to Germany to research the town where Canaris's father was born; a visit from a former student, now a bestselling author, who helps Canaris get the creative juices flowing again; and memories of the old Hollywood where German Jews fleeing Hitler came to continue their cinematic trade. Seen like this, The Beast truly seems to be a great book. But in its sprawling plan one might notice the endless makings of the infinite novel Kluge criticizes.
Another act of compaction takes place when Canaris takes his girlfriend on a trip around the world. Kluge can write beautiful travel journalism--and does so for National Geographic's Traveler--so taking the reader around the world would not have been out of the question. But instead we get the happy-hour telling of a round-the-world trip. One need not be a philistine to consider such short cuts more inviting.
Where The Beast may be great art capable of spanning continents and decades, Gone Tomorrow is something more modest and yet thoroughly pleasurable: a solid academic comedy; a moving consideration of what it means to join a community and say, despite reservations, Here is Where I Belong; and a warm thank-you note to writers famous and forgotten for the reader's reward of a good lean book.
David Skinner is a writer and magazine editor in Washington.