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The Northern Novel : A fiction manifesto from the author of "The Village"

October 09, 1994|DAVID MAMET

I recommend to the reader the works of Eliott Merrick: "True North," "Northern Nurse," "Green Mountain Farm," and the stories in "The Long Crossing."

For a while, in the '20s, he lived in and wrote about my town in Vermont. In "Green Mountain Farm" he describes skiing down the hill to the school, with his young son in a pack on his back.

I know the hill and the school, and when I discovered his books I felt the joy of recognition.

I remember a similar sense of recognition, in my teens, on the discovery of Sinclair Lewis--it was the shock that the life I knew could be the subject of literature. Carol Kennicott's longing, and Arrowsmith's idealism, and Dodsworth's confusion and sense of betrayal were all things I'd experienced. I remember I sat in the library of the Olympia Fields High School and read all Lewis' books, one after the other. Outside the sun went down too early, and the day was too cold, just as in the books; and we hid our longings and confusion behind the same Midwestern Boosterism he described, and went back to the same unhappy families. I exhausted the school's catalogue, and began to haunt the stacks downtown.

At the Chicago Public Library on Randolph Street I discovered Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather, whom I denominated the two greatest American writers--35 years later I still think so. The great American novel was, to me, the novel of the frontier, and the frontier was the Northwest, and the novel was written by the settler's children.

The writers and their story dealt with the North--with harshness, and it was written by people from the North--cataloguing the Scandinavian and German experience of immigration: Willa Cather's "My Antonia" and "O Pioneers"; Rolvang's "Giants in the Earth"; Frederic Phillip Groves "Settlers of the Marsh" and "In Search of America."

Dreiser was of German descent, Sherwood Anderson of Scandinavian, they came to Chicago and wrote of the experience of the second generation. B. Traven was also a Chicagoan and a Scandinavian, and there you have, as Tristam Shandy would say, my hobbyhorse.

I have always found the literature of our East effete, and prefer the boredom of much of Sinclair Lewis to, as I see it, the triviality of much of Henry James, or, for that matter, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was a poor boy from St. Paul, and I'd rather hear about that--in some of the Basil Lee stories--than have that longing sanitized and abstracted into the arrivisme of Jay Gatz.

I'd rather not have it cleaned up for me. I'd prefer to get Freudian, the latent to the manifest dream. I am not interested in Art, nor in Fitzgerald's wish to be like and accepted.

The novel of the East is, to me, too pretty--a second-class European experience. I prefer to read about survival.

The second generation, the children of Polish Jews, came to Chicago and wrote that powerful novel, Phillip Roth's "Letting Go"; Saul Bellow's "Augie March"; Albert Halper's "The Chute" (and, to give New York its due, Anzia Yerzierka's "The Bread Givers").

These books are, to me, romantic, because they eschew the nicety of romance.

They are not the Victorian triple-decker, penned to amuse, or even to pay the rent. They are not neat, and do not intend to be neat. They are about death and love, and the struggle for survival in a climate and in a country that wants you gone.

Dreiser, in a rare flight of epigrammatism, begins "The Financier" with a description of the protagonist, as a young boy, watching a lobster and a squid. They are displayed in a tank, at the front of a restaurant, for the amusement of its customers. The customers are treated to the gradual destruction of the squid. Every day the lobster eats a little more, and then, one day, the squid is gone. It is explained to us that the hero, Frank Cowperwood (the financier Charles Yerkes), learns, at the tank, the essential lesson of life: that it is a relentless struggle.

But, of course, he could have learned that lesson in whatever land he happened to find himself.

The lesson of America is that a restaurant would stage such a show to lure in customers; and that, to me, is the American--the Northern--novel. It isn't pretty, but it's true.

An old show-business adage has it that anyone can find amusement in the spectacle of an actor, dressed as a little old lady, pretending to fall downstairs; to amuse a comedian, however, it has to be a real little old lady.

In my beloved novels there is no question of waiting till the final act to see the knife used--the knife is used in every scene. The aura of foreboding is not an effect designed to manipulate the reader's interest. It is the stuff of the novel. It is not added to the narrative, it is the narrative.

I prefer Ernest Hemingway writing of his father in the Montana stories, and Nick Adams in the Michigan stories--I prefer these to his novels, and I think his novels are superb.

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