Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Marvelous Millhauser

In 1972--for a reason I cannot recall--I bought and read a new novel by a new writer, Steven Millhauser.  The novel had a very unusual title: Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright.  The novel sits inside a couple of frames: Millhauser wrote it; there is an "introductory note" by a fictitious guy named Walter Logan White, who gives some background about the mysterious Jeffrey Cartwright.  Then there's a "preface to the first edition," by Jeffrey Cartwright,who states simply: "Edwin Mullhouse is dead.  ... He is as dead as a doornail."  And then--finally--the novel begins with the birth and boyhood of Mullhouse, whom Cartwright introduces as if he were ... well, just read this: "Edwin Abraham Mullhouse, whose tragic death at 1:06 a.m. on August 1, 1954, deprived America of her most gifted writer, was born at 1:06 a.m. on August 1, 1943, in the shady town of Newfield, Connecticut" (3).

And off goes the story--a miraculous piece of fiction about a boyhood, about a "friend" who has grand ambitions for Edwin, and about how it could have possibly happened that a boy could die at the same minute of the day, the same month as his birth eleven years earlier.

Well, I devoured this book in 1972.  Read it more than once.  After all, I was born in 1944, so all the boyhood stuff (the candy, the clothes, the popular culture, the schooling) seemed to me so precise and authentic, so achingly accurate.  I gave the book to Joyce, to friends, to students (I was teaching seventh grade at the time, but the kids I gave it to loved it).

And for the next decade or so, I read every new Millhauser that came out--even assigning one of his novels (Portrait of a Romantic) to a group of students at Lake Forest College during the year (1978-79) we were there.  I still think that book is one of the best I've ever read about a middle-school-aged kid.

But then, somehow, I stopped reading Millhauser--although I still dutifully bought his books--his collections of stories, his novels; one of the latter--Martin Dressler--won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1997.

A few years ago, however, I got the chance from the Plain Dealer to review the newest Millhauser story collection, Dangerous Laughter, 2008.  To prepare, I caught up on the ones I hadn't read--and was once again in his thrall.  I loved Dangerous Laughter and was thrilled when the publisher quoted some of my review on the paperback edition that appeared a year later.

And recently, a new collection appeared--We Others: New and Selected Stories (2011).  Only the first seven of the stories are "new"; the other fourteen appeared in earlier story collections.

It was not until last night that I read the first of the new ones--"The Slap"--and, once again, Millhauser had me in his grasp.  No, not a grasp.  He grabs, yes, but then he whirls us off into a world that seems so much like ours--but so profoundly different too.  Much we recognize; much is--to use the older meaning of the word--marvelous.

In "The Slap," for example, the first-person narrator tells us about the fairly well-to-do community on Long Island Sound where the story takes place.  A guy named Walter Lasher gets off his commuter train, and another man--a stranger in a trench coat, "stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face" (3).  He turns and leaves.  Lasher is stunned.  And in the ensuing pages, the stranger slaps other people in town.  No one knows who he is; the cops can't catch him.  And he spreads the pain--commuters, a high school girl walking home from school, just about anyone.  The town becomes obsessed with the man, with his motives--and the story unfolds to its unusual--but usual for Millhauser--conclusion.

Here's a typically wonderful sentence from Millhauser--describing the high school girl moments before she's slapped as she's walking home alone after an evening basketball practice.  The narrator notes that people think they know her, but they don't.  "They thought all she liked was to be surrounded by friends, lots of friends, and though she loved her friends, every single one of them, even Jenny Treadwell with her endless problems and complaints, she also loved these solitary walks between school and home with her cell off, her book bag slung over her shoulder, her long hair bouncing on her back, her arms swinging, her tights showing off her legs, and why not, if you've got it flaunt it, and she had it, she knew she did, it was why she loved walking down the halls between classes, walking in town in her stretch tops and jeans, or on the beach in summer, in her pink string bikini, along the hard sand at the water's edge, the heads turning, the friends waving, the gulls skimming the water, and as she left the park and started along Woods End Road she listened with pleasure to the knock of her heels of her cognac-colored boots against the shady sidewalk" (15-16).

Oh my.

Millhauser, who teaches at Skidmore, is a master.  As I said, he can whirl readers into new worlds that seem weird and tilted.  But, later, we realize we've been nowhere at all; we've been home, all the while.

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