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On the American Orient: John Vernon

We host a fair amount of writers at Lake Forest College. Our 6th Annual Lake Forest Literary Festival this year (this past March 2-4) found Lily Hoang, Shelley Jackson, Teresa Carmody, Vanessa Place, Gretchen E. Henderson, Angela Jackson, and S.L. Wisenberg all gracing our stage.

Tonight, we welcome novelist John Vernon–someone you may not know about since his work does not neatly fall only in the innovative tradition.  Here’s the basics, and if you can find a copy of Peter Doyle, I promise you will be glad you did. Here’s my thoughts:

I first met novelist of the American west and pre-American exploration John Vernon (“Jack,” to most) while a graduate student—green like a toad dipped in St. Patty’s Day beer—at SUNY Binghamton, now known by its semi-privatized moniker of Binghamton University.  My writing scattered itself on each broken leaf like the syllables of Osiris—fragmented phonemes, odd syntactical arrangements spirited away from my short wingspan. I didn’t know it then, but the years spent under Jack’s tutelage would not only help shape my sense of narrative, but also, in surprising ways, open me to an interest in things I had always felt to be too “other” to consider: the American west, the colonial period, the great openness—perhaps emptiness—at the heart of the heart of the country.

I knew Vernon lived with one foot outside the dull pallor of upstate New York when I noticed his belt buckle. The exact shape escapes me now, a smoky memory like the heat smolder from an old west Winchester: but it was big, thick really, and screamed of scrubby grassland and nothing but sparsely populated god’s country. In the dank basement of Binghamton’s English Department, it shone, big and bright and slightly terrible: suggestive of a world far from the domain of my eastern European, eastern American climes.

Deleuze and Guattari, in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, write of the rhizomatic American west. They tell of a country that has flipped its Orient into the west, and there, in the perhaps overly romanticized theater of the destruction, of colonialism, of settlement and re-settlement of the native population, Vernon finds his subject.

First Deleuze and Guattari:

America is a special case. Of course it is not immune from domination by trees or the search for roots. This is evident even in the literature, in the quest for a national identity and even for a European ancestry or genealogy (Kerouac going off in search of his ancestors). Nevertheless, everything important that has happened or is happening takes the route of the American rhizome: the beatniks, the underground, bands and gangs, successive lateral offshoots in immediate connection with an outside. American books are different from European books, even when the American sets off in pursuit of trees. The conception of the book is different. Leaves of Grass. And directions in America are different: the search for arborescence and the return to the Old World occur in the East. But there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American “map” in the West, where even the trees form rhizomes. America reversed the directions: it put its Orient in the West, as if it were precisely in America that the earth came full circle; its West is the edge of the East…

For Vernon, in his novel Lucky Billy, the legendary gunslinger becomes a floating name—one of the seemingly thousands of Billies—who populate every faro table, every dead-end saloon, every dirty jail cell, and every crisp and clean gallows. One of the Kid’s partner guns starts a list:

Billy Mullin. Billy Grounds. John Wesley Hardin’s sidekick, Billy Cochron. Billy Dixon, and part of Hardin’s crew. Lucky Bill Thorrington in Nevada and his chum Billy Edwards, both hung by vigilantes. Fly-specked Billy in South Dakota. There’s a shitload of Billies (117).

The Kid, whatever his name might be, slips between the law and the outlaw during the Lincoln County War as easily (in Vernon’s sadly out-of-print novel Peter Doyle [1991]) as an imposter physician cuts off the dead Napoleon’s penis on the isle of St. Helena while his loyal lieutenants brag about their dead Emperor’s skill and cruelty. The penis lands in old West America, and it’s a romp involving a small alchemical homunculus, Horace Greely, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson that charts the great trajectory—a Deleuzian a line of flight gone wrong—as Napoleon’s heirs try to re-member the French Empire at the moment that American phallocentrism distends, distends, distends.

Elsewhere. Vernon takes on the cluttered life of his deceased brother (A Book of Reasons), and John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Grand Canyon (The Last Canyon), and Great Lakes exploration (La Salle). Vernon is an explorer in his own right—never a conquistador—but a mapmaker, a “sensitive,” attuned not so much to the human heart but to the voice of a continent, its frontiers ever shifting, continually displaced, always unsteady.

John Vernon is the author of eleven books, including the book of poems Ann, the memoir A Book of Reasons, and the novels La Salle, Lindbergh’s Son, Peter Doyle, All for Love: Baby Doe and Silver Dollar, The Last Canyon, and Lucky Billy. His work has appeared in Harper’s, Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review, and many other magazines, journals, and newspapers. Two of his books have been named New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and he has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts grants. He is the 21st faculty member to be named a Distinguished Professor at Binghamton University (the State University of New York at Binghamton), where he teaches in the Spring semester each year. He is also affiliated with the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. Between May and January he lives in Estes Park, Colorado, and combines a life of writing with one of mountain climbing and hiking.

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