Publications
Almost Beautiful: A Life of Nathanael West Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

14_4cover(The Gettysburg Review Winter 2001)

Impossible, he would have said, but he is flying. Air above, air below, sudden yet with a strange everlastingness. A splay of arms and legs, and still he is shooting higher, as in a scene from a novel or a movie script he has written, a back-lot stunt off a trampoline: the soldier’s life, from small-town romance to war in the trenches, has been told in flashbacks, then BOOM! a bomb blows his body skyward. Any moment now the director will bullhorn, “Cut.”

And yet this flight also feels larger, a world and time apart, novelistic. He is making mental notes already, everything expanding, not contracting—in the air.

**

The writer making notes is Nathanael West. He is a screenwriter for the motion-picture industry and the author, most recently, of a terrifying novel about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust. The story is about a group of misfits in Tinsel Town, drawn powerfully together until their amalgam of ambitions turns ugly. West has written four novels, but only this one concerns the people who “had come to California to die.” Each novel was published to small acclaim—and very few sales—during the 1930s, his decade of emergence.

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He Could Always Teach: An English Professor's Education in Fifty Vignettes Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Weston-Self_Portrait(Compiled Spring 2000)

(1)

Herb Caen, the great San Francisco Chronicle columnist for close to fifty years, liked to retell an anecdote about our society’s estimation of its teachers. It seems Caen was having lunch one day with his cronies at Enrico’s Coffee House when the great novelist John Steinbeck joined them. Steinbeck had just arrived in the city on his trip west, a journey which would form the basis for one of his most beloved books, Travels With Charley, a road-trip adventure story starring Steinbeck and his poodle companion.

"When Charley and I were driving through the redwood country," the famous author said, "I looked around till I found the largest redwood in the area—an absolute beauty, probably two thousand years old, a considerable tree before Christ was born. And then I let Charley out of the camper so he could go and pee on that tree. Now I ask you, gentlemen, what is left in life for that dog?"

There was a silence which brought nods to the sublime. Nothing could top such a holy moment for Charley or the group. Finally, an advertising executive at the table named Howard Gossage said, "He could always teach."

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"In Spite of Everything": The Definitive Indefinite Anne Frank Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

anne_frank(Antioch Review Winter 2000, Volume 58, Number 1)

The definitive edition of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, published in English in 1995, restored her original entries which her father, the diary’s compiler in 1947, had deleted from the first edition. Many of the new edition’s reviewers (Or is it readers? Can one "review" Anne Frank’s diary?) have expressed the standard adoring praise. In fact, one writer noted that even the reborn diary’s 30-percent more material "does not alter our basic sense of Anne Frank." I didn’t know we shared the same "basic sense" about her. What is meant, I suspect, is that despite the additions Anne remains a victim par excellence, whose afterlife must forever gather together—and give thanks to—the penitent rememberers of the Holocaust. But studied carefully, away from Anne’s iconolatry, the new edition disrupts this putative notion of her goodness. This version, in Susan Massotty’s brilliant translation, is an even more incisive and tangled human document in its final form than the text which preceded it. It is true that Anne’s anger with her parents and confusion with her own feelings were in the original diary. But now the definitive edition accumulates and intensifies so much more about her inner life that Anne’s self-scrutiny dissuades us from enshrining her "goodness" and challenges us to love her honesty. (Which is what all teenagers seem to want.) This complete text discloses an author whose artistic subtlety and autobiographical truth-telling alone can command reverence.

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A Walk Through the Long Schoolroom Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Law_School_Rooms_-_Old_1(Written August 1998)

How could it be that during the semester I became a full professor of English at the community college where I’ve taught adult learners for eight years, I also realized that I was disillusioned with my teaching, our school and some of our students? How did it happen? While I was garnering a stellar evaluation—fourteen of fifteen check marks landed under exceeds standards, indicating my job performance could rise no higher, to wit, the Dean joked that my next career step was retirement—I had also returned to therapy to explore why teaching was no longer satisfying, why I wanted to work half-time, why my labor had morphed from creative exploration and student-centered joy to a job with both a stultifying sameness and a neurotic unpredictability about it which I couldn’t shake.

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The Gospel of Basic Writing Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

H475_luke(Written July 1998)

The first class of my new semester begins Monday morning at eleven on the dot. English 51, Basic Writing, one hour three days a week for the next eighteen weeks. Big breath to calm myself, then entering with composure, distinction and, I hope, curiosity, walking the gauntlet between two long rows, a good forty-five students swarmed before me, some slouching, some sitting upright in the little brown desks of this unadorned beige-walled classroom.

I sit on the veneered metal desk, touch a finger to my lips. They hush; this is college. I don’t write my name on the board, but introduce myself and say, "I would like to get a sample of your writing ability, so if you would, please take out paper and pen and we’ll get started writing an essay."

"Man, I knew it! What I tell ya, man," from the back corner. A hand slaps another hand, a head exaggerates its frustration.

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Falling Back to Earth Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

falling back 1(Chicago Reader July 3, 1998)

The summer before ninth grade, I fell in love with fire. On weekends, when my parents were golfing and my two brothers were holed up in their rooms, I would douse one of my few flawed model cars with gasoline, set it afire and drag it behind my bike, creating spectacular curbside wrecks. One day in the garage, I inadver­tently dribbled a bit of gas on the concrete and, when I struck the match to light the model, the flame ran along the floor and set the can on fire. While the flames danced on the can’s silver top, the only thing I heard in my head was my father’s order, “Save the house, boy.” I lifted the can and carried it outside, burning my fingers badly. After my frantic phone call, the hook and ladder came, and a slickered man dusted dead the can in two seconds flat. Later my dad joined a shamed me at the hospital, and we watched white pus poc­kets billow like pup tents on three finger pads where the can’s handle had melted my flesh. Surprise: The hoary little lumps elicited his forgive­ness. He was awed by my boneheaded courage. I felt distin­guished then, a prince of clowns, wearing a white garden glove on my bad hand.

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Honesty, Confession, and Other Dramas of "Creative Writing" Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Klee_Monument(AWP Chronicle March/April 1998)

My "Creative Writing" class begins with the same assignment every semester, an idea I stole from the fiction writer and essayist, Carol Bly. Each student must write a ten-page autobiographical essay about a significant person, place, or phase in his or her life and finish it in one week. Raw is fine. First draft encouraged. I read the essays, meet privately with each student, then suggest revisions. I hope this task focuses students on one personal story, which most will produce anyway, and allow their imaginative pieces to emerge separately. Fact differentiated from fiction. A few years ago, when I began this assignment, I received one of the most brilliant and disturbing first drafts of my teaching career—a paramedic's nightmarish story of his worst shift ever on the job. His piece would change my thinking about the "creative writing" classroom forever.

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