Publications
Review: Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty Print E-mail
Criticism

gracenotes(San Diego Union-Tribune September 14, 1997)

Song of Ireland

What is it with Ireland and its writers?

Why do so many leave—Joyce, Beckett, Frank O'Connor, Frank McCourt—and then, in one guise or the other, write the story of their exile?

Must every tale mix unforgiving parents, oafish young men and an inhospitable Catholicism that dislocates the artist's bones and resets them, stronger at the broken places, in another country? Such questions shadow Bernard MacLaverty's fine Grace Notes. Composer-protagonist Catherine McKenna is like the author: AWOL from the armed camp of Northern Ireland.

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Freshman Comp, 1967 Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Thomas_MacAfee(Anchor Essay Annual: Best of 1997 edited by Phillip Lopate)

That I was a severely bookish eighteen-year-old must have been fairly evident to my dormi­tory roommates at the University of Missouri, my freshman semester. The night before classes began, they tried to pry me away from my desk for a keg party to which I responded, “I can’t go. I need to finish studying the introductions to my textbooks.” I believed those small Roman-numerated pages would offer insight into the learning models that awaited me. In fact, so intent was I to begin my education that after saying goodbye to Mom and Dad a few days earlier I rushed out to purchase my course books and then, parked at my desk, nearly memorized the glossaries of each text. I wanted more than a head start; I wanted to achieve, as my dad sug­gested, the notice of those who mattered, the professors with whom I was soon to be engaged, and I hoped, enthralled. If called on in class, my responses would prove just how formidably prepared I was.

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A Severity of Conscience: Writers & Self-Censorship Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

maxwell_perkins_nywts3(Written May 1997)

Her name is Arianna and she says to me, the professor, after creative writing class, after I had put her in the dunce spot of staying around to speak with me, “I know you wanted me to com­ment on Phillip’s writing, but I can’t because it disgusts me.” She is an older woman, my age, with dread locks and dark brown eyes. There’s a fierceness about her like one who clerks a night shift at 7/11. “It’s his language that repels me,” she goes on, “the language of ad­dicts, using shit and fuck incessantly, typing women as no more than whores who want dope. I’ve heard it a hundred times before, and it doesn’t deserve my attention.”

I shouldn’t be surprised she’s upset. Her objection, though, is rare. “Were you to tell him this,” I say, “he might understand more about his audience than he realizes, that his sensibility is not the only one he can write for.”

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Review: The Saskiad by Brian Hall Print E-mail
Criticism

saskiad(San Diego Union-Tribune February 9, 1997)

An Epic for Our Times

What captured my eye no doubt captured yours: That ancient-sounding title with the "-d" suffix, -d for epic. Indeed, the gall of Brian Hall to claim epic status for his novel, a self-promotion few writers would dare. Yet it is not long into this absorbing, protean contemporary story of a 12-year-old girl’s search for her mysteriously absent father, before we realize the claim is justified. Few novels published in a given year have Hall’s magnificent compassion and intellectual daring. Why not say it: This is a masterwork of fiction.

Not only are there reverberations to Homer’s The Odyssey and Melville’s Moby Dick, both sea-faring journeys away from and back to home which Hall evokes geographically and psychologically. But the author also parallels those books for themes of alienation and the importance of home. Much mischief cometh from one little "-d."

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Review: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion Print E-mail
Criticism

didion(San Diego Union-Tribune September 19, 1996)

A Postmodern Disaster

What's a reader to do when one-bewildered-third of his way through Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted, a novel ostensibly about arms-smuggling to the Contras in 1984, the story's mercurial narrator announces she has "lost patience . . . with the conventions of the craft (i.e., novel writing), with exposition, with transitions, with the development and revelation of `character' "? A reader can a) persevere, b) marvel at the artistic feat of salvaging some intrigue from the wreck of obscurity, or c) lose sympathy with Didion's characters, who appear to be no more than sacrificial pork penned in the cold-war sty of Ronald Reagan-led misadventure in Central America. Can-do kinds of readers can do all three: persevere, marvel and lose touch. Persevering, we meet Elena McMahon, a reporter for The Washington Post and a well-to-do divorced mother of a disconsolate grown daughter.

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Fellow Teachers, We Are Not Mr. Holland Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Magritte-11680digi-L(Inside English May 1996)

Some days I think that I might have been something other (I almost wrote more) than a writing teacher. What? A columnist, a novelist, a screenwriter, an editor, a publisher. Yet these fancies dissolve in a mist of maybes because for me there’s so much to like about teaching. Teaching—at least in college—is remarkably nourishing for student and instructor: Students who use the encouragement and structure a good teacher provides typically excel far more than they could on their own, and teachers who balance the autonomy and collegiality which the profession demands usually find their work very gratifying.

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The Memoir of Parental Responsibility Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

img092(Talk given at American Literature Association's "Symposium on American Autobiography" Cabo San Lucas, Mexico November 14, 1994)

Sometimes, listening to my 17-year-old son speak of his future, I find myself staring at him, seizing a moment I desperately hope to hold forever. How tall he is; how much his acne has receded; how soon he'll be gone to college. How bushy black his eyebrows have grown, reminding me of his mother's dark beauty. How happy he seems. How quickly I forget that less than a year ago he swallowed a bottle of antidepressant pills, trying to kill himself.

He has attempted suicide more than once during adolescence, that mire of alienation which he has, I hope, outlasted. Hesitation marks remain on his wrists, as do severe pangs of anxiety in his stomach. When the phone rings after ten p.m., I steel my fear, then exhale, dramatically. Yes, he and I have searched for answers together, alone and in therapy. And yes, some of his depression is due to my failures as a divorced father, my inability to understand and express how that has affected him.

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