NYRB Classics has just released a new edition of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Gass, one of the greatest prose writers of the past century, only has one short story collection, this one, which was originally published in 1968.
Of the five stories, written over the course of a decade or more, three—“Mrs. Mean”, “The Pederson Kid”, and the title story—are among the best you will ever have the chance to read. Masterpieces of language and introspection, the stories have a unique cadence and complete aesthetic that, once you pick it up, carries you, like Beckett, like Faulkner, like Shakespeare (the Murderers’ Row of language lovers), through its idiosyncratic passages to the end.
Gass is, hands down, the greatest living essayist in the English language. He writes essays like poets write poems: not a word out of place, not a phrase unpolished, still thematically taut and as swift and adhering to the logic of argument as any. NYRB has included one of these essays in the book: Gass’s 1981 preface to this very collection. It is one of his best: virtuosic, exciting, enlightening, of a piece with his other lush, acrobatic, pun-and-wit non-fiction masterpieces. But it all started with his fiction.
“Pederson” opens the book with a strange, surreal mix of story and dream consciousness. It feels half 19th-century Russian, half pioneer prairie American. It’s one of those Gass stories—and he has a few, particularly those published later as novellas in Cartesian Sonata—enjoyable only by its own logic, its own internal language and pace; it speaks to nothing outside it. As he writes in the story, “All that could happen was alone with me, and I was alone with it.” Gass is frequently, in his fiction, alone with it. His most utilized point-of-view is that of the intensely contemplative, isolated individual.
“Mrs. Mean”, the second in the collection, is like the title story: watchful and sarcastic, lonely and indignant.
If I were old or sick or idiotic, if I shook in my chair or withered in a southern window, they would understand my inactivity, and approve.
Gass’ choice is not rhetorical language over reason and thought, but the integral nature of reason and thought and language over their enduring separation. Morality is tied up in language like a sail strapped to a ship. The heart is in the words, the soul is in the sentence.
The trouble is, we don’t really believe this anymore—we don’t believe in language or in our deft ability to use it. The rapidity and shallowness of much contemporary interaction and media has lifted this burden blissfully from our backs. Already in the 1981 preface, Gass is aware of this: “The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward…Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art.” The fact that this was written before the Millennials were born, before the Internet’s ascendancy and the ubiquity of cable television, is either incredibly prescient, or simply a sign that the times, being always the same, are never so bad but that a good writer can’t live in them.
Well. If you want to take some time off and feel what it’s like to simply sit and think, to ponder your world and the existence around you, the decisions we make and the passing lives we glimpse, our successes and failures, then this is the book for you, and the title story is the story for you.
“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is about a man who has moved to a small town in Indiana to grieve as it were, for his own lonely life and his wasted heart. He is “in retirement from love” and, like many of the recently retired, hopelessly preoccupied with his former vocation. He looks out over his town like a Sibyl, commenting and self-reflecting in equal measure.
Steeped in our fluids, miserable in the folds of our bodies, we can scarcely think of anything but our sticky parts. Hot cyclonic winds and storms of dust crisscross the country. In many places, given an indifferent push, the wind will still coast for miles, gathering resource and edge as it goes, cunning and force. According to the season, paper, leaves, field litter, seeds, snow, fill up the fences.
The model for the town ‘B’ in the story—Brookston—is fifteen miles outside of Lafayette, Indiana, home of Purdue University, where Gass taught for sixteen years. Gass explains that the story was engendered by a request that he write an article about life in the Midwest. His notes for the article became “Heart”.
My god, I said, this is my country, but must my country go so far as Terre Haute or Whiting, go so far as Gary… This Midwest. A dissonance of parts and people, we are a consonance of Towns. Like a man grown fat in everything but heart, we overlabor; our outlook never really urban never rural either, we enlarge and linger at the same time.
“Heart” paints a complete picture of a way of life in America. Gass is at his best when—paradoxically for a mind in such isolation—he deals with other people. In perhaps the greatest string of paragraphs in the story, the narrator speaks of his neighbor, the ancient Mrs. Desmond.
A thin white mist of hair, fine and tangled, manifests the climate of her mind. She is habitually suspicious, fretful, nervous.… It is herself she hears, her own flesh failing, for only death will preserve her from those daily chores she climbs like stairs, and all that anxious waiting. Is it now, she wonders. No? Then: is it now?
The other two stories in the collection “Icicles” and “Order of Insects” are narrower in focus and harder to enjoy (though Gass claims “Order” was “the best thing I ever wrote”, so go figure). Both are spiraling ruminations on form and metaphor, driven by some wonderful writing.
Gass opens his preface by imagining these stories’ likely demise, comparing the 1981 reprint to “the landed fish who startles us with a late flop”. Of the rest of the sentences that make up the preface, he says, “I wonder whether they should serve as muffled drums or slow steps do: to ready respect before the coming of the hearse.” Thankfully, that day has been once again forestalled. May we never see it come to pass.
– Jeff Lennon is from California, and lives in Brooklyn. You can read a story of his over at Slush Pile Magazine, and visit him online at The Coastal Literary.