blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



The Achievement of George Garrett

It is evident to his readers—has been evident for some years—that George Garrett is a major American writer. I say “evident” because evidence is on exhibit: thirty-five (to date) vivid and resonant books, including novels, stories, poems, criticism, essays, memoir, and two plays; various translations, including one of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus; film scripts; eighteen edited works; introductions to the work of others; many interviews; and, one hears, journals, which one hopes will see publication; and the wide-flung correspondence, the fabled letters on sheets of a yellow legal pad, inked in his large, ebullient handwriting. In addition, there are the numerous prizes (the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Ford Foundation grant, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement, the Pen/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the Aiken-Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, and the Ingersoll Foundation’s especially estimable and highly prestigious T. S. Eliot Award, to name but a few).

What may be less apparent—though other writers and critics have certainly remarked upon it—is that his work, which has always delighted in pushing back the accepted boundaries of genres, finding ways to include more and more territory in any given genre, represents some of the most radical literary innovation of our time.

What may be only now becoming clear is that George Garrett’s life’s work has been to create a body of literature that comments upon itself, recapitulates patterns, draws connections among parts, and, in effect, mirrors its own grand design, doubling its breadth and depth. That is to say, there is the work, and there is the shadow-work, an implied reflection. Given that I look at the work from the point of view of another writer, not a critic, I may be able to point to the shadow-work better than I can explicate it. What we are dealing with here is not metafiction, in which the writer seems a puppet master rigging the text to nicely ambiguous ends, nor, on the other hand, a literary text from which the author can be excised or of which his agency can be obscured by critical deconstruction. Garrett is emphatically, wholly, sometimes unnervingly, and always actively present in his work.

But I must backtrack to begin.


In his essay “The Huge Footprint: The Short Stories of George Garrett,” collected in To Come up Grinning: A Tribute to George Garrett, edited by Paul Ruffin and Stuart Wright, poet, writer, and translator David R. Slavitt observes that “to admire [Garrett] properly is to try to learn from him, to use his work to come to some understanding of what the different literary genres offer and demand of him as author and of us as readers . . . [A]lmost certainly they occasion different refractions of our visions of society.” He goes on to say that “any serious study of literature and its relation to what happens in the world ought to take such a question as one of its central concerns, if not its absolute starting point.” How does a writer settle on a form for his work at hand? Does he, Slavitt asks, even have a choice?

In the early eighties I had independently arrived at the same notion and proposed to write a book about literary genre, examining the epistemological reach and formal necessities of the novel, the short story, the lyric poem and the epic poem, stage drama, and so forth. Lacking scholarly credentials with which to persuade my university to fund the project—and who knows, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea anyway—I had to shelve my prospectus, but I spent some time thinking about these forms and found my thoughts clarifying, at least concerning my own work.

1  I remember arguing that the short story is more nearly allied to the stage play than to the lyric poem, that poetry, including lyric poetry, is closer to the novel than to the short story, and that the epic poem in particular is most usefully related to the novel. These genres, in my stated view, were cognitive instruments that collect data according to the intrinsic nature of each. Poetry informs us of the phenomenal world (in the terminology of the philosopher C. S. Peirce, the world of “brute fact,” or “firstness”). Fiction allows us to focus on the world of relation (“secondness”). Nonfiction allows the reader to know the mind of the author (“thirdness”). Even though I was not much interested in where the boundaries blur, it is obvious that the boundaries do blur. I trust readers of this essay will keep in mind that I am referring to a prospectus, not to the results of any kind of sustained systematic examination. I don’t claim any scholarly credentials, just a habit of mind.

[1] In my own work I was interested in not blurring the boundaries among genres. I wanted my prose not to be “poetic,” my poetry not to be prosy, my memoirs never ever to resort to the made up.

George Garrett, on the other hand, has long been interested in precisely those ways in which the boundaries blur, either because they must blur or because they may be rewardingly blurred. And, as Slavitt stated above, we can all learn a great deal about genre from reading him. In this essay, I intend to focus my consideration on the books Garrett has published since the start of the new century, as it in these works that the boldest ambition of his oeuvre has begun to reveal itself.



spacer The Sorrows of Fat City
   University of South  Carolina Press, 1992

Still, let’s do mention that the subjects of the earlier work run a gamut from the Elizabethan era (as in his trilogy of powerful, persuasive, transporting novels, which redefined historical fiction for the modern reader) to devastating or humorous (and sometimes both) tales of military life, to racism, to American manifestations, “high” and “low,” of religion, to politics and popular culture, to the relationship between the sexes, and to the vexed relationship between art and advertisement or, we might say, civilization and commerce.  Enough to keep a writer busy. Praising another writer for his diversity of subjects, Garrett noted in his nonfiction collection The Sorrows of Fat City: A Selection of Literary Essays and Reviews (1992) that “[a] writer who writes only one kind of book is either obsessive and can’t help himself or a hypocrite and the hustler of a single brand name.” Certainly Garrett is neither. From the beginning he determined to avail himself of any genre by which he could approach the truth as he saw it, a Janus truth, a truth that contradicts itself. In his critical study Understanding George Garrett, poet and fiction writer R.H.W. Dillard, using the Christian terminology that Garrett himself often uses, puts it this way:

It is the recognition that the bleakness of the fallen world is the truth but not the whole truth that enables the equally fallen human being to bless the day.

I suppose I might word it even more starkly, as an acceptance of the utter helplessness of any human being to guarantee even his own existence—much less the existence of anybody else—and a simultaneous awareness of the gifts of grace. The moods or modes in which Garrett perceives his truth range from tragedy to wit to slapstick comedy to satire to contemplative to pedagogical to lyrical, at least. He is capable of a rhetoric, sometimes keening, often soaring, that possesses Shakespearean dimension. The trilogy shares with Thomas Mann an eye-catching perspective on time. Fact and fiction are as intermingled in Garrett’s work as in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The voice can be as intimate and humorous and colloquial as Mark Twain’s. The American South can be as present in Garrett’s work as it is in the work of William Faulkner, one of Garrett’s admitted models (“I read it all,” he told novelist Madison Smartt Bell in an interview collected in Going to See the Elephant: Pieces of a Writing Life [2002]). There is no branding his product. His productivity is the natural result of an incisive curiosity, a desire to encompass as much of the world as possible. Critic and essayist Casey Clabough refers, in his very helpful book The Art of the Magic Striptease: The Literary Layers of George Garrett, to “Garrett”s peripatetic, swashbuckling sensibility,” a beguiling phrase that wonderfully captures both the man and his work. Fearlessly he invents what he needs in each succeeding book.


Maybe even in each succeeding piece. In an autobiography written at the behest of the Gale Publishing Company for the reference series Contemporary Authors (Vol. 202), Garrett begins not with the facts of his life but by telling a (presumably—we take the storyteller’s word) nonfiction story in which we see

Two men dressing. They are wearing GI undershorts and shiny dog tags like necklaces. They are freshly shaved and showered. Their hair is cut short on top and sidewalled. They are flat-stomached and hard-muscled. Two American soldiers in a high-ceilinged room located in the heart of an old Luftwaffe barracks a little to the south of the city of Linz.

When they have finished dressing, we notice their armbands: the soldiers are MPs. We don’t arrive at anything obviously autographical until we have watched them “move off, side by side, in step” and are told that “[t]he Sergeant, of course, is myself.” Then we encounter a portion of autobiography, but the sergeant’s story will continue to interrupt the autobiography, each time pulling us deeper in, creating suspense and moving us forward to the end. It is a brilliant gambit, and also a lesson. “The fuel of all good narrative,” Garrett advises us in his title essay “Going to See the Elephant: Our Duty as Storytellers,” is "suspense . . . . Suspense is not merely a matter of what happens next; it is a series of tantalizing questions.”

A story in third person spliced into nonfiction in first? Why not?

It’s important to notice that we read the story as if it were true. It seems to dovetail with facts we can verify—Garrett was in the Army, he made Sergeant, he spent time in Linz—but he might be making stuff, some stuff anyway, up. Did the soldiers really put their belt buckles in back to keep them from getting scratched? Did they really wear artillery scarves instead of ties? But wait, Garrett tells us that he’s forgotten just what the patch on the left shoulder looked like. Surely that means he is telling the truth about everything else. Or does it?

We cannot know. What we do know is that so much precise detail so casually delivered delineates a scene so “real” that, except in the present case of a critical essay, we question none of it. In fact, we are in it, in the barracks, watching those two guys pull their uniforms together, heading out with them. Let’s take the author at his word: the story about the soldiers is a nonfiction story, as true as the rest of his autobiography.


Only, how true is that? Garrett quotes Wright Morris: “Anything processed by memory is fiction.” Oops! Now all of the autobiography is up for questioning.  Finally, we accept it because it is told authoritatively. The speaker persuades us that he knows whereof he speaks. I think the rhythm of his language is key to its credibility (I have written about the “music” in “Meaning and Music in George Garrett’s Fiction,” also included in To Come up Grinning). Unquestionably, the voice is authoritative because it speaks the truth. The truth, as Garrett has described it, is “[t]he truth of the committed imagination.” Dillard unpacks this statement shrewdly: the good writer “is not engaged in an ‘assertion of self,’ but is rather committing his or her imagination to the demands of the work itself and to a truth which the writer both finds in the work and gives to it.”

So now we find ourselves speaking of memory (as in autobiography) and imagination. Poet and critic Henry Taylor made this important observation regarding Garrett’s poetry in his essay in To Come up Grinning, “The Brutal Rush of Grace: George Garrett’s Poetry”:

[T]he autobiographical essay Garrett wrote for the Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Series . . . [provides] unusually strong evidence that the poem [“Whistling in the Dark”] is autobiographical. Yet, though the poem is based on fact, the constant and paradoxical tension between the present and the past, between memory and imagination, is the source of its power.

The poem and the story of the two soldiers make use of the same event in Linz, Austria.

Memory and imagination are always at play in Garrett’s work, sometimes as a source of energy, sometimes, as we see now, at this later point in his career, as mutual complements. For him, perhaps, the work is not complete until it contains both memory and imagination. It is the two together that both fuel and unify his work.

At this point we can turn to the more recent books.


Going to See the Elephant: Pieces of a Writing Life (2002)

Going to See the Elephant
   Texas Review Press, 2002

In a miscellany comprising essays, reviews, and an interview by Madison Smartt Bell, the emphasis is placed on pieces that encourage and help, or, alternatively, caution and initiate students who aim to become writers. The first essay introduces Garrett’s prevailing metaphor for the collection: the old story of the blind men who endeavored to describe the creature they encountered. For one, the elephant’s side was like a wall. For another, who felt the trunk, it was snakelike. The third grabbed hold of the elephant by the tail and declared it a rope. “All three were, of course, right,” Garrett tells us, and therein lies a meaning. You have to discover the truth for yourself, and even then it will be only the truth you have grasped. To find the truth as a writer, you must write; there is no other way to conjure or confront the creature. Only after the elephant has been met can the writing teacher be of use to the novice writer, and what the writing teacher can then do is help the writer to revise. “Revision,” he says, “is really what we are talking about in all of our classes and workshops.” In a handful of pages that follow, we get pretty much all the advice for revision that we will ever need. This essay should be photocopied and widely distributed to beginning writers! [2]


2  Another bit of advice offered here is, after you have figured out what the story is doing and becoming, to revise “against the grain of it . . . For example, give a ‘bad’ character some ‘good’ traits.” Or the reverse. Garrett has often chosen to push against himself by creating characters who oppose his own values and habits. Thus we get, to mention a few, the infamous John Towne, a desperate rascal of mythic proportions, narrator of Poison Pen (1986); Billy Tone, the would-be investigative reporter of The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You (1996), his high-spirited novel about Martin Luther King and a small town in Florida; Frank Toomer of his most recent novel, Double Vision; and the nonfictional, historical yet contemporary Robert Greene, again of Double Vision. All give full voice to what might be called the dark side, though it is sometimes very dark indeed and at other times less so.

“The Writing Life,” and “How the Cookie Crumbled: Notes on a Literary Generation,” however, will remove the scales or the stars, whichever those obscuring dreams are, from the beginning writer’s eyes. We learn that “[m]ore and more American literary art isn’t about anything that matters to anybody.” We also learn that contemporary American publishing is not much interested in good literature. And in the fourth essay in this group, “Cowboys and Indians: A Few Notions about Creative Writing,” we learn that “we have just finished a decade of some of the most polished and boring poetry and some of the most competent and inconsequential fiction in our national history.” Well, but is it not better to be cognizant of and ready to face these rude realities than to stumble upon them unprepared and unarmed? And how, I wonder, could any writer not seize on these words as an opportunity to do better, or anyway try to do better? Moreover, oughtn’t we read them not only as a challenge but as a heartening suggestion that there is room out there for new work, whether it finds publication or not?


The fifth essay is—here we go!—a poem, and again one asks, Why not? Plenty of poems have been presented as “essays,” not least among them a number by Alexander Pope. Garrett’s poem-essay is titled “Preface to ‘Lives of the Poets,’ ” calling up for us Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, which devotes most of its space to Pope. In the poem, a poet, putting pen to yellow legal pad, retails some anecdotes about himself and other poets, mostly dead, who “ghost” him and remind him of “the dark which takes the poets, one and all, / into its arms, . . . / and gently awards the democratic prizes / of perfect silence, of honorable oblivion.”

The middle section of the book presents reviews. A “revisiting,” requested and published by The Virginia Quarterly Review, of the soundest and most interesting review ever written of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, first published in The Hollins Critic, is to be found here, as is a splendid, insightful review of Fred Chappell’s poetry. In the latter a claim is made that “even in our assertively nonjudgmental age” the poem’s meaning is the thing we as readers hold in highest esteem. And surely it is, or ought to be. A poem without meaning is a pitiful thing. Garrett’s own poems are, like Chappell’s, rich in “sentences,” a truth-telling that, as he says, “lives in and from the poem.”

Other essays look at F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, James Dickey, Madison Jones, and William Goyen. These are all perceptive, pinpointing the necessary qualities in the writers’ work. The piece about Welty refers us to the “totally inexplicable moment of pure unadulterated and inimitable magic” that recurs in her fictions, long and short, and, every time, makes us gasp. In his piece about F. Scott Fitzgerald, he reminds us that “[t]he important, astonishing thing is how much and how well he performed under often very difficult conditions,” that he kept at his work, his distinguished work, despite the plague of misfortunes that befell him.

We move into the third section, “True and False Confessions,” with the interview conducted by Madison Smartt Bell, in which Garrett describes “the urgency of memory” with which he wrote the first book of his Elizabethan trilogy, Death of the Fox. For sure, what he was remembering as he wrote was not the Elizabethan era but his memory of what he had learned about the Elizabethan era, but it is the act of remembering, he says, that made the book come to life. “Things are in there because I remembered them at a particular time.” He had placed himself in Ralegh’s shoes, as Ralegh, readying himself for execution, reviews his life to himself.

“A Letter to the Students of the University of Virginia” from “John Towne,” one of Garrett’s fictional creations, lambastes the hypocrisy of PCP, or politically correct people. Towne returns to “write” the last essay in the collection, “False Confessions,” about the trials and tribulations of being a fictional creation.


Southern Excursions: Views on Southern Letters in My Time (2003)
(Edited by James Conrad McKinley)

Southern Excursions
   Texas Review Press, 2003

The year following Going to See the Elephant Garrett published another miscellany, this one incorporating essays, short reviews, introductions, interviews, tributes, and an epilogue, the whole speaking directly to and about southern literature. Clearly, it is of special interest to critics and writers of southern literature, but anyone concerned with American literature will find this a wide-ranging, closely focused, cogent and informative volume.

“A Summoning of Place” addresses the traditional importance of place in southern fiction and asks if, in our changing world, it retains that importance. The sense of a homeplace has given way to a sense of places plural. A rural background has been swapped for a position in academe or the army. Historical place is a river with more and more tributaries. But, “[i]n one sense,” Garrett writes, “the real subject here is memory. Memory and place are hopelessly entangled . . . ” Laughter is the antidote to southern “self-concern,” for “[t]he southern place, ‘real’ or remembered and imagined, [3] past and present, is as much haunted by comedy as by tragedy.”


3  And we must remember Wright Morris: “Anything processed by memory is imagined.”

The extraordinary review (and analysis) for In Cold Blood is in this collection. Some of the other writers to whom Garrett draws our attention in detail in Southern Excursions are William Hoffman, Jim Grimsley, William Faulkner, and William Humphrey. His shorter reviews take on such Southerners as Dorothy Allison, Doris Betts, Allan Gurganus, Lewis Nordan, Reynolds Price, Randall Kenan, Mary Lee Settle, Walker Percy, and more. The first two sections together function like a slide under a microscope, representing a cross-section of southern writers. Both the essays and the reviews facilitate our attempt to put together the vast jigsaw puzzle that is southern literature. Also included is a review of a biography of Peter Taylor by Hubert H. McAlexander, published in the Washington Times in 2001, which will return as the starting point for the novel Double Vision that Garrett published in 2004.

One can go no place better for a summary of southern literature than to this book. The introductions are to Wendell Berry, Jesse Hill Ford, and Stark Young, among others. The tributes are to William Goyen, Peter Taylor, and Paxton Davis. Garrett has supplied us with a history of his generation of writers, and writers of the next generation would do well to heed it. But even the heedless will be entertained and moved.

In Southern Excursions we come upon two “conversations,” one with a former student of Garrett’s (and Peter Taylor’s), southern poet and fiction writer David Huddle, who teaches at Middlebury College, and the other with George Core, editor of the distinguished literary journal The Sewanee Review. A third interview is effectually a profile of Paxton Davis, now deceased, author, newspaper writer and editor, advocate for southern literature, and as Garrett portrays him, a warm and much-loved figure. In all of these Garrett subordinates himself so that his conversational partner can take center stage. Yet we may want to take note of one paragraph in which he responds to Huddle’s statement that “autobiographical fiction is the highest form of art.” Garrett replies that

[O]ne of my reasons for thirty years of writing about Elizabethans was to get away from writing autobiographical stuff. And I find, just by living long enough, that the man behind the curtain is, in fact, more revealed in those works that are nonautobiographical than in the stories where I was telling things that had really happened to me but that could have happened to anybody.

In connection with this, it is enlightening to consider another of Garrett’s declarations:

Over the years, I have written novels, short stories, poems, and some other things (plays, movies, biographies, essays, criticism, and journalism). Not that it makes that much difference, because, beyond my tacit acceptance of the working rules of the road and some safe-driving tips for each of these forms, I think of them all, large or small, light-hearted or heavy, as chips off the same block.

Where voice and vision are concerned, that is true, or nearly always true. We do not mistake a work by Garrett for a work by anybody else. Garrett’s voice is the voice of a storytelling friend, familiar, spellbinding, joshing, soothing, crafty. In short, intriguing. It is a voice that beckons us to follow it as surely as if we were being led down, or up, a path. A voice that has us at hello. This holds true even when the voice changes inflections or diction or perspective, as Garrett’s voice revels in doing.

Vision is a more mysterious matter, perhaps in part simply because not all writers have one. Garrett does. Dillard’s Understanding Garrett is the place to go for a detailed discussion of Garrett’s faith and its relationship to his work. That faith is inclusive, embracing, and Episcopalian. Dillard traces a line from Garrett to the early Christian St. Augustine to the parables of Jesus, arguing that, as do the last two, Garrett embodies his moral and aesthetic principles in his work. I imagine one might say his moral and aesthetic principles are the skeleton, the bones, that art fleshes out. The point here is a living body of work.

Clabough’s trope in The Art of the Magic Striptease is pertinent. Claybough quotes Garrett on the artist who performs “the magic striptease”:

He can wear these shapes & forms as one would wear costumes, but of course he remains himself, retains his original identity which is as much or more mysterious than it was before. Whatever he finds, whatever he does with his marvelous gift brings him no closer to the truth of the magic mirror where he can see—himself.

Voice and vision are revealed at every turn in a writer’s work; they are inherent in the “block” from which chips are chipped. They may sometimes be well disguised—“I took advantage of the variety of work I was doing to play off one form against another,” Garrett tells us in Southern Excursions—but turn them toward the light and the grain shows.


Double Vision: A Novel (2004)

Double Vision
   University of Alabama  Press, 2004

Invited by the VA Books! project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to recommend a title, I chose to write about George Garrett’s most recent novel, Double Vision. Herewith, a lightly revised version of my appreciation:

In this brilliant book, a writer named George Garrett, suffering from double vision as a result of myasthenia gravis, is asked to review a recent—the first—biography of the late Peter Taylor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer who had been his next-door neighbor in Charlottesville. Reflecting on that relationship (and on the shortcomings of the biography he is to review), narrator Garrett conceives of a character, Aubrey Carver, similar to but not identical with Taylor. He imagines another character, Frank Toomer, to represent himself—again, like but not identical—who will be able to comment on the fictional Carver even as, occasionally, the real Garrett comments on the real Peter Taylor.

The fictional Garrett, Frank Toomer, has planned to write a novel about Robert Greene, Elizabethan poet and playwright and, as Frank describes him to Aubrey, “the bad side, like a bad twin, of Shakespeare.” Meanwhile, Aubrey Carver, the fictional Peter Taylor, had, at the end of his life, completed a novel about one Thomas Delancey and the World’s Fair of 1893.

Behind narrator Garrett, his remembered neighbor Taylor, Frank Toomer, Aubrey Carver, Robert Greene, and Thomas Delancey is the George Garrett who is not on the page but writing the page.

Garrett has given us a novel about how to write a novel, but it is not that dreaded cliché, a novel about writing; it is a novel about a life of writing. A novel is not simply an extra-large Hefty bag into which anything that turns up can be shoved, nor is it a short story gone long. Double Vision shows us how the bits and pieces of a novel are patterned and ordered to reflect and refract, creating the wholeness and unity of a work of art.

Or: a life. The very length of a novel is a metaphor for the length of a life, and Double Vision brings that truth home to the reader powerfully. The threat of terrorism, personal histories of war and domestic complexity, professional trials and physical illness, tradition and change, youth and age are some of the concerns and conflicts that intensify the narrative of Double Vision and supply both breadth and depth. Garrett’s characters are economically and clearly delineated and passionately motivated and, even before we are aware of it, we are involved with them, up to the hilt, cheering their moments of triumph, regretting the stacked deck that is dealt to them (and to everyone). Who can resist a narrator who, like narrator Garrett, writes a postcard to the “World,” sending “love and kisses” and promising, “The next time I appear, blinking like a bear fresh from a long sleep in a deep cave, I will reveal shocking secrets”? Who doesn’t read, then, in eager anticipation of hearing what those secrets are?

They are here, all right, secrets of the human heart, all our human hearts, that are humbling to confess and profound in the art—and life—they can lead to. Garrett’s Double Vision is masterful, the work of a writer at the height of his powers.


4   We’ve been hearing about the nonfiction novel and the verse novel for some years, not even to mention the long tradition of literary experimentalism, which we tend to forget is a tradition. Contemporary American experimentalists such as fiction writers Ben Marcus, Lydia Davis, and Dawn Raffel, and quite a few poets, work at the level of vocabulary and sentence structure to create new effects. R.H.W. Dillard has created what might be called “experimental plots,” not so much fantastic or science-fictiony as comically bizarre. Annie Dillard has refreshed the nonfiction narrative. Some well-known fiction writers are currently revivifying vernacular genres (e.g., comic books, detective stories). But only Garrett has made a lifelong project of the interchange and recapitulation of material in the major forms of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

He was seventy-five. In Double Vision, he had published a daringly inventive novel, [4] a book with which anyone interested in literary experimentalism in particular or in the future of the novel in general must become acquainted. And—lest that sound daunting—a book, as I stress in my piece about it, that grabs us from the first word and pulls us forward to the last, before we even know it. What a writer!

But, we might ask, why so many characters who are doubles, or almost doubles? Why, for that matter, are events and anecdotes so often doubled in Garrett’s work, a book review turning up in a novel, a poem reappearing as autobiography or vice versa, and many other reiterations of memory and imagination?

Garrett, who was born in June, 1929, has elucidated his attraction to doubles, speaking in his autobiographical memoir about “an older brother, who died at birth, but who has been, always and perhaps strangely, a haunting presence in my life.”

The doppelgänger of folklore is a ghostly presence that resembles a living individual. Lacking both shadow and reflection, the traditional doppelgänger may be a representative of evil or bad luck or doom; in Norwegian mythology, it was a self-image that went before the self, living the self’s life in advance. Such a one may be in a position to counsel or warn the other. These days we use the word to refer simply to an alter ego, a look-alike, though the notion of a split-off self still clings to it. Nor does the double always need, these days, to be a dark omen, but the idea that two beings possess a special affinity for one another remains, as seems to be the real case with twins.

In an earlier book, Bad Man Blues: A Portable George Garrett (1998), we find his deeply moving personal essay “The Lost Brother: Summoning up the Ghost of Who I Might Have Been.” Having sensed a presence “which may have been more a matter of wishing than anything else,” he was less surprised than reassured when his mother told him that he had had an older brother who was now “in the spirit world.” This lost brother, Garrett writes, “was and is, himself, as mysterious to me as Jacob’s angel.”

Halfway through, he quotes Montaigne’s essay “Of Glory”: “We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe, we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.” Like Dr. Jekyll, we harbor a Mr. Hyde inside ourselves. Or if the hidden self is not quite murderous, we are certainly aware of ambivalent feelings, contrary ideas, self-contradiction, mischievous impulses, vague intentions, and stray decisions. These are materials with which to create a character. Garrett calls on them to create Towne, Tone, Toomer, and even the once-actual Robert Greene, who, as Garrett portrays him, is the dark side of Shakespeare, or who Shakespeare might have been had he not been Shakespeare.

“Towne has sometimes played a kind of Jacob to my Esau, tricking me out of my rightful inheritance and blessing,” George writes. “In another sense Towne has been a good and faithful companion, even if he is, like the human heart, desperately wicked and faithless. . .” To Garrett, his lost brother is as Jacob and also all the persistent, friendly, but disruptive, doubles, Towne, Tone, Toomer, and Greene. Perhaps the doubles agitate him into creative activity. Or perhaps the doubles are a creative solution to agitation. Or perhaps the sense of a comradely competition with a double is both a goad and a comfort, for how else will a lost brother be returned to life, short of Paradise?

“But I have to admit that I have used him,” narrator Garrett confesses in Double Vision, “exploited the idea of him in fiction, as do we all our living and our dead.”

One thing is definite: Double Vision is a masterpiece. Nor is it the only masterpiece among Garrett’s works, but it may be the one from which writers can learn the most. In a 2002 Postscript to his autobiographical essay he observed that “[i]n the beginning, I, like so many of my generation, imagined myself to be a writer who taught. By the last years of my teaching career it seemed to be a more accurate self-appraisal to admit that most of us were teachers who also wrote. We wrote not for a living, but for a lifetime.”

He continues to teach, by writing.


A Story Goes with It (2004) (Limited Edition)

This long story appears also as the second story in Garrett’s 2006 collection of stories titled Empty Bed Blues. I wish to treat it separately in order to link it to the idea that some of his work is as instructional as it is entertaining.

In an essay titled “Contemporary Verse Storytelling” (collected in his book The Fate of American Poetry), poet and critic Jonathan Holden comments—astutely, I believe—that “good storytelling” is “built around digressions and asides, hesitations, as if the speaker were thinking out loud. . .” Garrett himself has said to writers, “If your story does not have a whole lot of inherent suspense, you can tell it the way the comics do when they tell a shaggy dog story: divert attention with details.”

“A Story Goes with It” diverts us from beginning to end, whereupon we find ourselves astounded and appalled by humankind’s limitless idiocy.

The scene is set for us by the opening of a “film script.” (Two other scenes and the end will also be presented as pages from a film script, and, as such, jolt us out of our listening posture into the role of stunned viewers of history.) It is Berlin, 1941. A “high-ranking naval officer” mounts the steps to the Reich’s Chancellery. As he enters the map room, he stands in back of an audience of military men who stare forward at a lecturer pointing at a map on the wall. The lecturer turns around, and we and the naval officer can now see that it is Adolf Hitler. A riveting opening. And then we advance into the text, which is a story, not a film script, to learn from an unnamed first-person narrator that the naval office is Admiral Canaris and he has been summoned by Hitler to receive new orders. Admiral Canaris is to select men—German-Americans—to sabotage various targets on the continental United States. It doesn’t matter much what the targets are; the idea is to make Americans think that German forces will not be restrained by a mere ocean.

The Admiral selects some men but has no intention of sending them to what he knows would be their death. He hopes Hitler will forget this very bad idea. But Hitler doesn’t, calls the Admiral in again, and demands results.

And at this juncture, the story digresses. Our narrator confides to us that this is really a story he heard from a friend, now deceased, named Eddie Weems. Except he can’t be sure he remembers the story all that well. Remember what Wright Morris said about memory and imagination, the narrator tells us, before he digresses again, this time into a review of documents relating to the story of Nazi saboteurs. We then learn that what we are reading is an expanded version of a story the author previously published in a literary journal.

And so it goes, from the story to the story of the story to Eddie Weems’s droll comments about Garrett to Garrett’s affection for Eddie Weems to further research until Garrett modulates to a sterner tone: “Now, fiction or no, alas, it all gets a little bit serious and complicated as things sometimes do. What begins in farce, a few laughs, ends in something like tragedy with a stage littered with corpses.” This digression takes us smoothly to Linz, Austria, where we find ourselves in the company of two soldiers, one a sergeant, pulling duty as MPs. What happens there reverberates through all of the books Garrett has written and is a revelation of the vision that shapes them. In this book, in the light of this vision, both the Admiral’s sad end and Eddie Weems’s temporary good luck are shadowed by our condition of existing at the mercy of something, some might say someone, we cannot know and upon whose grace we are dependent.

One of the “shocking secrets” narrator Garrett promised to reveal “[t]he next time [he] appear[ed], blinking like a bear fresh from a long sleep in a deep cave.”


Empty Bed Blues: Stories (2006)

spacer Empty Bed Blues
   University of Missouri  Press,  2007

Garrett’s short fiction is among his most enduring work. Stories he wrote fifty years ago read as contemporary, and engage today’s students, as I discovered when I taught his collection An Evening Performance (1985) at Colgate University in a class on the southern short story. Choosing from a syllabus that included Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Welty, and several of today’s finest and most lauded short-story writers, they named An Evening Performance as the collection they liked best. Not a few went off in search of more of his fiction. If I had known it was forthcoming, I would have told them to be on the lookout for Empty Bed Blues, a stunning group of stories, some of them from earlier books but now recontextualized, others very recently accomplished.

The collection opens with a one-page prologue about the infamous Dillinger gang (they joined a Garrett family reunion and Fourth of July celebration by shooting off their automatics). Not any writer’s usual beginning.

The first story is “Feeling Good, Feeling Fine,” one of the most poignant stories Garrett has written, and one of the most poignant stories I have ever read by anybody. A young boy, the narrator in his youth, though his “least favorite sport” is baseball, has been instructed to play along with his mother’s brother, a former baseball player who, back after a number of years in a mental hospital, is living with the family. Uncle Jack is emotionally fragile, physically out of shape. The young boy can hardly countenance it when his father tells him Uncle Jack used to be “a pleasure to watch.”

“Minor League,” the boy says, rejecting that possibility out of hand.

Then the story takes a leap into the future. We see that in time the boy will learn to be proud of Uncle Jack.

But—returning to the present, which is the Great Depression—Uncle Jack and the boy come inside and during dinner hear that the boy’s father has been told of a new brain operation that might work wonders for Jack. The mother bursts into tears, and the father slaps her. Hating to see this, knowing he is the cause of the altercation, Jack agrees to the operation. The result will be disastrous. The story leaves us in the last glow of a happy family that does not yet realize the grief that lies in front of them.

The story is all of four pages long. At the end of it we feel as if we have known this family ever since the Great Depression. Like Delmore Schwartz in his story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” we want to rush into the past and tell it to stop. Stop before that operation can take place. Stop before the pedestrian gets run over, the child is kidnapped, the arsonist lights the fire, the tsunami hits, the blood test comes back. The feeling is heightened by the palpable reality of the story—the dialogue, the family, the “raw wide field” and “stroll into gradual dark,” the boy’s “sister and brother coming down the stairs like a pair of wild ponies.” We are aware of everything Uncle Jack is going to lose, and, of course, of everything the family is going to lose. It’s heartbreaking.

The second story, as mentioned earlier, is “A Story Goes with It,” and we may want to pay close attention to the narrator when he expatiates upon his method:

I have to admit that I have always had an almost irresistible urge to sneak some hard facts into the never-never land of fiction . . . Or vice versa. I have demonstrated a desire to take control and to shape real stories as it pleased me to and all too often with no more than a casual fidelity to the original facts.

There are too many good stories here—thirteen, not counting prologue and epilogue—to scrutinize them all. Briefly, “A Short History of the Civil War” seems to consist of quotations or notations from Garrett’s forebears at the time of that war. “The Misery and Glory of Texas Pete” tells the story of how an eighty-five-year-old marshall blasted away a gang of bank robbers. “Tanks” is the story of a military speed march; at the same time, it is the story of the story the narrator thinks he might write, the story of a story by William Styron, and the story of a remembered horrifying accident. The title story is a hilarious tale of adultery told by the adulterer at the expense of a colleague who hopes to be granted tenure. Right after this entry, we read “Ghost Me What’s Holy Now,” in two parts, the first a beautiful reminiscence in the “voice” of Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth, set in the sixteen hundreds, the second a third-person realization of Carey’s old age, his “prayers and dreams and memories.” The language of “Ghost Me What’s Holy Now” is thrilling, conveying all the urgency of an entire generation, a world passing out of the world. “Spilling the Beans” is a “letter” from “John Towne” to the model Linda Evangelista. If that sounds impossible, Garrett demonstrates that it isn’t.

“Pornographers” and “With My Body, I Thee Worship” ring changes on the theme of sexual fantasy. “Heros” makes a striking motif of the Browning Automatic Rifle and a hero out of a private named Floogie. “A Perfect Stranger” explores the possible interpretations and ramifications of a telephone call from a woman who fails to identify herself. “Gator Bait” recounts the Saturday a sixth-grade boy spent with his father in his father’s law office. While the boy waits outside a closed door, the father is visited by two men who want to hire him to represent a defendant in such a way that the defendant will lose, be sentenced to death. This, the two men say, will help their cause. The defendant is mentally retarded, and by going to the chair, the two men say, he will redeem his otherwise useless life (they believe that their cause matters more than the life of one mentally retarded man). The father will have nothing to do with this kind of chicanery and ghastly proposition. The father responds witheringly, and the two men leave.

The boy hears “his father sobbing in his office.” While he waits for the sobbing to stop, he looks out the window and sees the two men getting in a car and driving off.

But the day isn’t over yet. Father and son go for an ice cream soda and then buy the son his first pair of long pants.

Years later, when the father dies, he leaves a letter for his son. “Be yourself and fear no one,” his father tells him. “ . . . [R]eject all conformity to the standards and conventions that does not square with your own consecrated ideals.”

It is advice that Garrett has followed in all his work.


The Gift of Light Smiling: Recent Uncollected Fiction and Poetry

When I first read “Gator Bait” I felt I knew that boy. In fact, I felt I had been that boy. I had idled in that room, looked out that window. Thinking about the story now, I see the pull cord on the blind, even though Garrett’s story does not show us that there is a blind with a pull cord. There must nevertheless be a blind with a pull cord, because I have been in that room and I remember a pull cord. I can hear the clink of paperclips linked together, the mockingbird beyond the window, taste the glue on the back of a stamp. Garrett’s story becomes mine, I become the boy, our memories of warm summer Saturdays become One Summer Saturday. How can this happen?

“What defines any art,” Garrett wrote in his essay “Going to See the Elephant,” is that it is, first and foremost, a sensuous, affective experience.” He goes on to explain that it behooves the writer to employ all five senses frequently. “Somehow,” then, “this sensory sleight of hand becomes part of the magic spell that makes everything else work.” Just so, “Gator Bait” enmeshed me in a reality so vibrantly present that my own memories of paperclip chains, stamps that required licking, and a window blind with a pull cord became entangled with his narrative about a boy in Central Florida.

That magic continues in Garrett’s as yet uncollected work. A poem, “Roman Neighborhood,” describes “The Institute of Divine Love” located near where the narrator is living while in Italy. It is, the narrator says, “a mystery. // To me, anyway.” It’s surrounded by a wall, above which is a “long thick strand // of barbwire.” But rosebushes “on the other side”—where the narrator cannot see—have overgrown the wall and “overwhelmed / (in a surf of roses) the sad wire.” In the end, the narrator declares the concurrence of roses and barbwire “neighborly.” He will respect their mutual desire to keep him out, to keep an intruder from exposing the mystery. In lovely lines, he delineates a scene in Rome.

In a story titled “Roman Fever: The Sequel” Garrett revisits the City of Seven Hills. As a Fellow at the American Academy there, Garrett (he decides to call himself “Bob” here) “[a]lways made a point of pausing in front of the locked gate of the Institute of Divine Love.” At the Academy, he met the sculptor Allen Harris, who displayed for him bronze heads of poets John Ciardi and Archibald MacLeish. Bob imagines aloud that Ciardi and MacLeish must have been gratified to be “cast in bronze for posterity,” and Allen Harris admonishes him to get busy and “get famous,” adding that he might someday make a cast of Garrett. The story then seques into an account of a princess’s dinner party at which Bob and the dramatist Christopher Fry put each other’s nose, figuratively at least, out of joint. Meanwhile, Bob’s wife has kindly slipped some breadsticks to the dottering, but cagey, prince, who is something of a prisoner in his own home.

The point of the story, Garrett returns to the page to say, is simply “the pattern of things,” how years later, in Charlottesville, he received a bronze cast, from Harris’s widow, that Allen had made of him. He will not, now, read meaning into the cast, but life prompts him to weave the patterns into a story. Of the story, he says, no doubt shrugging, “Take it for what it’s worth, no more and no less.”

But there is more. A nonfiction piece published in Chronicles in 2007, “Portraits,” recalls the same sabbatical year, during which, with Harris’s heads of Ciardi and MacLeish in mind, he wrote a poem about aging poets. The memory is prompted by a visit from the widow of Allan Harris, who brings him a box that contains a bronze cast her husband had done of him that year. At the close, he wonders if they, and himself, and all of us, will live on only in bronze and in photographs. He refers us to his recent poem “Group Portrait”: “Or will we, too, rise again / in the sudden gift of light smiling?”

Well, there is more than one sort of resurrection, and writers live on in their words. Garrett’s words are forcefully evocative, mixing memory and imagination (which is not unrelated to desire), and leading us toward long thoughts that keep us awake even as Homer nods. Memory reimagines the past; imagination remembers a future that has not happened. The first occurs because memory is not fixed but changeable, the second because we know that time is not fixed but changeable. George Garrett’s oeuvre is a complex embodiment of these truths, each of which is a part of the other. Each of which doubles the other.

Garrett tells the story of how writer and historian Shelby Foote, during a brief residency at the University of Virginia, visited one of his classes and was asked by a student “what Faulkner was really like.” Foote had known him; couldn’t he answer this question?

As Garrett tells it, Foote replied that if the student wanted to know what Faulkner was like, he’d find him in the work. The whole of him was right there. Faulkner became his work.

“And there it was,” Garrett writes, “a precise and articulate formulation of exactly what I had hoped for . . . Let my whole life be only in my work and everywhere equally . . . ”

But “the ideal is fallacious,” he has discovered, and he has come to take his “chief pride and joy” in the knowledge that all of his work “contains (more or less) the same truth of myself. And to that extent I may have succeeded. If only by turning Shelby Foote’s proposition inside out.”

Of course, writers live real lives, lives of, as Garrett emphasizes, facts. A writer’s work necessarily reflects, distorted or not, those facts. But this was true of Faulkner—acknowledged by Garrett as a major influence on him—as well. Garrett has put his life into his work as completely as Faulkner did, and done it with more candor.

As is true of Faulkner, if we look at the body of Garrett’s work, with all its doubles and doubling, we derive the sense of a master, of—and here I offer my best regards to the theorists—an author, the mind overseeing the work. This creation of authorial self is what I mean by a “shadow-work,” but now I realize that “light-work” might be a better term, because we are talking about illumination. It is as if, reading the work, we are watching from an angle that permits us to see an image reflected in a mirror, and that mirror-image reflected in another mirror, and so on. I won’t pursue this simile as far as God, because I am not a deist of any kind, but I do believe we recognize through the images a mind that has become its own—its unique and indispensable—body of work.  

George Garrett's work appears in this issue of Blackbird, v7n1, and in previous issues. Work outside of this issue opens in a separate window.
   Thanksgiving v7n1 spring 2008
   Garden Spot, U.S.A.
v4n2 fall 2005
   Gator Bait v3n1 spring 2004
   Empty Bed Blues v1n1 spring 2002

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