Forgotten Writers: Michelle Hoover on William Gass

Michelle Hoover talks about William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country:

I doubt William Gass will ever allow himself to be forgotten, but there are still far too many readers out there who haven’t opened the above story collection only to find themselves dreaming and alone in a cold, windswept place.  I read the collection’s first title, the novella “The Pedersen Kid,” when I was in grad school.  It was 95 degrees that day, and even the flies were sweating, but by the time I reached the last page in one dizzy session, I was wrapped in blankets and shivering.  That’s what Gass’s descriptions of a Midwestern storm does to a person, for he repeats the word “snow” like a mantra.  When the characters finally venture out to discover what sent the neighbor’s son (the before-named Pedersen’s kid) running mid-blizzard from his home, the story, as told by the family’s only child, Jorge, falls into frozen territory:

“There wasn’t any wind.  The harness creaked, the wood creaked, the runners made a sound like a saw working easy, and everything was white about Horse Simon’s feet.  Pa had the reins between his knees and he and Hans and I kept ourselves close together.  We bent our heads and clenched our feet and wished we could huddle both hands in one pocket.  Only Hans was breathing through his nose.”

But weather isn’t the only thing that haunts this plot.  Having found the kid nearly frozen near their front door, the family has to wait until he wakes to hear the boy’s story:“Just his back.  The green mackinaw.  The black stocking cap.  The yellow gloves.  The gun….  He put them down the cellar so I ran.”

The murderer of the Pedersen family is never identified more clearly than that, and the fact of his existence remains a question throughout.  This is exactly what Gass intends.  In a family lost to drink and suspicion, one that beats (and possibly does worse to) its sons, the villain is as much Pa and Hans as it is the young narrator’s mother, the winter’s unrelenting cold, and Jorge himself.  This is a story that twists to such a terrible, ecstatic ending that you will reread it ten times over and never get it out of your bones.

But it’s the collection’s title story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” that fewer readers know.  The “heart” in this case is two-fold.  First it is the heartland, as the story begins, “So I have sailed the seas and come… to B… a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.”  It is also the “heart” of the speaker, having been abandoned by his lover in this dusty, nowhere place, as he explains:  “I am in retirement from love.”

Like the narrator, the story structure itself is shattered, more a prose-poem than story, with short sections titled “A Place” and “Weather” and “My House.”  Though both pieces are grounded in loneliness, this one meditates on isolation without violence, and the slow ache of the narration not only nails a lost, Midwestern town in style and tone, but also the state of having been left, of that peculiar kind of absence that follows when a person believed himself loved and found he was wrong.  “In the Midwest,” the narrator writes, “around the lower Lakes, the sky in the winter is heavy and close, and it is a rare day, a day to remark on, when the sky lifts and allows the heart up.  I am keeping count, and as I write this page, it is eleven days since I have seen the sun.”

In his must-read collection of essays Bringing Down the House, Charles Baxter writes about “stillness” in fiction, and he mostly cites stories either told by Midwestern writers or set in Midwestern territory.  Although Baxter didn’t cite Gass, I believe such stillness is what defines much of Midwestern literature and what also keeps its identity so ambiguous. This stillness quietly brims with far more emotion and event than any cosmopolitan party scene.  I’d rather keep such parties in my real life (as I tend to do) and explore the greater silences in my fiction.

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