On William H. Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”
I have a strange little love affair with this story. When I was at the University of Oregon I would sit in my teacher’s office and he would read me snippets of literature. James Salter, John Berger and this story by Mr. Gass. We were talking flash fiction in those days (still we are) and Gass’s work had these perfectly enclosed sections like “Weather”, “Wires” and “My House, This Place, and Body”. The pregnant sections were so lyrical and spacious they beckoned to me like glimpses of an attractive woman-from her voice to her toes. To me, at that time, Gass’s tale was a new way of telling.
I was from the Midwest. I could relate to those landscapes:
The shade is ample, the grass is good, the sky a glorious fall violet; the apple trees are heavy and red, the roads are calm and empty; corn has sifted from the chains of tractored wagons to speckle the streets with gold and with the russet fragments of the cob, and a man would be a fool who wanted, blessed with this, to live anywhere else in the world.
In the post office he talks greedily to me about the weather. His head bobs on a wild flood of words, and I take this violence to be a measure of his eagerness for speech.
and certainly that weather:
A…haze turns the summer sky milky, and the air muffles your head and shoulders like a sweater you’ve got caught in.
I quickly copied the story out of the anthology my teacher let me borrow. I went over the story some more and brought it with me across the country as I zigzagged from one city to another over ten years-just this story and maybe something by Alice Munro and Salter. In those initial readings I responded more to trick of sectioned-off anti-narrative and isolate words. But behind all the bloodbeat of prose and gorgeous phrasing (the unnamed narrator is a poet), there is the overwhelming sense of lost love and isolation. The poet sees, he sees beyond the wires of the town and well beyond his own head to construct some bluesy images. Lost love. Reading it recently this is what echoed in my chamber. I hadn’t really been able to love those years ago when I first read it so I couldn’t understand on a visceral level what was being communicated. Now that I have (and have seen love shrivel and die) the story makes great new sense in a most plangent way. With an ancient sonneteer’s stance on the unrequited sensation, here is an entire section:
My House, This Place, and Body
I have met with some mischance, wings withering, as Plato says obscurely, and across the breadth of Ohio, like heaven on a table, I’ve fallen as far as the poet, to the sixth sort of body, this house in B, in Indiana, with its blue and gray bewitching windows, holy magical insides. Great thick evergreens protect its entry. And I live in.
Lost in the corn rows, I remember feeling just another stalk, and thus this country takes me over in the way I occupy myself when I am well…completely–to the edge of both my house and body. No one notices, when they walk by, that I am brimming in the doorways. My house, this place, and body, I’ve come in mourning to be born in. To anybody else it’s pretty silly: love. Why should I feel a loss? How am I bereft? She was never mine; she was a fiction, always a golden tomgirl, barefoot, with an adolescent’s slouch and a boy’s taste for sports and fishing, a figure out of Twain, or worse, in Riley. Age cannot be kind.
There’s little hand-in-hand here…not in B. No one touches except in rage. Occasionally girls will twine their arms about each other and lurch along, school out, toward home and play. I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands.
The dream tries takes over, but it reverses itself– the past is a place the narrator can’t live in. He knows this and tries to summon strength to go on and pull himself together. Out spews more vital data about the town, his cat, politics, that house (which almost grows out of him and his isolation).
The sparkling original review in the NY times from April 21, 1968 by Fredric Morten contains a wonderful summation and blurb for the story:
Mr. Gass’s masterpiece is the title story. A middle-aged poet lets his eyes and ears roam across a small Indiana town. Initially he seems to give us no more than a catalog of descriptions. But soon we realize that we are wandering not through streets and fields but through the narrator’s psyche. The lunge and pressure of the language make even the weather a condition of the soul. Gass–very much like young Durrell in his “Black Book”–can set the sky shivering in your bowels. You are never safe. A documentary vein dissolves into Fellini distortions: a stroboscope is trained on a Wyeth landscape. “Our Town” crawls with gargoyles. Yet everything obeys and contributes to one rueful rhythm. You come away wracked by beauty and deprivation. No writer I’ve ever read, not even Joyce, can celebrate his world with a more piercing sadness.
Only the Durrell is lost on me, but ‘wracked’ is certainly apt. I love stories where nobody wins, where there are no easy answers, where what started in the first paragraph as a small question balloons into a much larger one at the end. The films of Kubrick and Cassavetes, the paintings of Vermeer and Caravaggio, the poems of Louise Glück and D.A. Powell, the stories of Paula Fox and Alice Munro–they all rebuke and push me forward to get better, get glorious. So too the Gass story is the perfect compound of beauty and terror. Is there enough anger in this sentence? – “I want to rise so high…that when I shit I won’t miss anybody” But everything else, the compendia, the references, those flies clustering in fruit and forming a “black and moving” sleeve on the narrator–the world is electric and I want to be a part of it, and though love is gone, it’s all so beautiful–bees, apples, his cat Mr. Tick “roll[ing] over on his belly, all ooze.” Not only does the story make me want to be a better writer, I also want to be a better celebrator-delighting and smiling myself silly.
It’s not easy to live, it’s not easy to go beyond what’s good enough in art, leaving comfort and relief for the sitcoms. I thank Mr. Gass for going beyond and leaving this rack behind.