Saturday, October 22, 2016
A Dull, Greasy, Grey Pencil
This isn't the copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love I acquired from the WSU bookstore. That copy might've undergone so much underlining they didn't want it at sellback time. Which means, likely, my virgin copy of the minimalist prose masterpiece got shit-canned in Pullman way back in May 1995.
I took English 351 and 451 (Creative Writing) at WSU, both taught by Alex Kuo, highly accoladed on his own, but maybe more famous for helping corral the talents of a young Sherman Alexie.
Professor Kuo encouraged students to attend readings, fairly irregular events out in the wheat fields. Alexie showed up a couple of times, full of the angry young artist's required levels of piss and vinegar, but the event I remember with more authority was an appearance by noted hyphenate Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
Fully half his reading/talk was given in Russian. At the end of the night, Yevtushenko received a standing ovation, and the 40-year-old beside me kept yelling, "Encore! Encore!", which is fine, but A) Yevgeny's #1 Fan was balding while sporting what the politically incorrect would define as a 'fag tag', and B) was outfit in the fashion tragedy known as the fanny pack. And those "Encore! Encore!" shouts were ludicrously rabid, a sign, pondered upon all the evidence naked to the judgmental eye, of someone hoping to be noticed for their passion while likely not understanding one lick of Yevtushenko's native tongue beyond 'perestroika'.
Carver resonates with most readers as depressing, worse, his anthropological investigations into the tribe of the functionally alcoholic can strike like wet matches. The brilliant Karyna McGlynn has a poem (not that I remember the title) that proposes Carver's output comes to us courtesy (as I recall) of a dull, greasy, grey-leaded pencil.
Most of the class were goggle-eyed youth, the old farts mixed in almost all WSU staff taking advantage of their employee course-discount. One older female writer fell apart during the weekly round robin discussion of the story packets Kuo Xeroxed and distributed. Memory fails to provide particulars, but the gist of the tale was 'asshole abuser takes advantage of single mom and her child dies in some gruesome manner'. The writer's emotional disintegration centered on the fact what she'd lived through was being judged harshly although no one in the class suspected this was roman à clef. The story was just kind of there, crappy, stillborn, the same species of unremarkable output we were capable of both the first and last day of class.
What We Talk About was one of the only required texts for English 351. That Carver was dead didn't mean jackshit to me at the time. For another course, I was reading Kafka and Goethe. My presumption was colleges only force-fed the student body dead writers. In college, presumption fends off the burdens of most of reality.
Released to the wild, years crossed off the list faster-and-faster-yet, and a man barely 50 kicking off suddenly gathers mass, evidence to the insufferable random manner in which the Grim Reaper exercises her scythe. Carver's output is substantial, but comparatively woeful given what might have been. Blame his dull, grey excesses, the perpetual drunk's muddleheaded denial of evidence otherwise forecasting that the party is due a screeching halt, and so much sooner than you think.