Earlier this year, NYRB Classics released William H. Gass’s short treatise on language, On Being Blue (review here). It was my first experience with the writer I’d heard so much about, and it was a good experience: I definitely wanted to read some of his fiction. NYRB Classics followed up On Being Blue by releasing Gass’s short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), and it’s fantastic. I’m still intimidated by Gass’s larger novels, and I don’t know why because what I found here was beautiful, unique, complex, and absolutely engaging.
This collection contains five short stories (though a few are relatively long), each set in, as the title suggests, the heart of the country: the American Midwest. But not just the heart of the country; the heart of the heart of the country. What we find here are worlds so unique, alienated, and insular that we come to understand, as strange as the physical world we see in these stories might be, we’re actually within a character’s head. That is the central space, and everything else emanates from it, is formed by it. In a way, this is another chapter in Gass’s treatise on language, though I don’t want to suggest these stories are dry. Quite the contrary.
For example, the first story, “The Pedersen Kid,” is tight and tense, violent and visceral. Once I started reading it, I could not stop. The story begins with a deep sense of mystery. Our narrator is the young Jorge, and he’s an abusive member of an abusive family, run to terror by its patriarch who has passed his violent and vulgar response to life down to the two boys, Hans and Jorge. Into this mess comes a mostly dead, half-frozen outsider, the Pedersen kid, a neighbor who lives some ways away. For his part, Jorge wants nothing to do with the Pedersen kid. Indeed, they’d better get rid of him before their father wakes from his nap.
And yet, the kid, in his delirium, has a story that seems ludicrous. He ran from his home, into a blizzard, because some stranger showed up there, had rounded up the rest of the family, and presumably was going to kill them. Father, of course, does wake up, and the way this family discusses the situation is fascinating. It’s through language — how they frame the situation — that they eventually get to a vague understanding and embark on their quest to find out what is going on at the Pedersen’s. Several times, Jorge resents the fact Hans states something in a particular way, because then it becomes real. Strangely, we may never know just what is real. As cold and fear cloud the young narrator’s mind, we become increasingly aware that no one knows just what is going on, and it’s all the more terrifying for it.
“The Pedersen Kid” was my favorite story in the collection, possibly because of the cold weather and my own desire right now for some beautiful winter scenery, but certainly because it’s exciting and terrible and sophisticated without ever once drying up in order to philosophize. Indeed, Gass, in writing a story that is at least in part about the power of words, accepts the implicit challenge that his words had better be meaningful and magical, capable of conveying, captivating, and transporting. This has quickly become one of my favorite stories of all time.
That said, the remaining four stories are wonderful as well.
In “Mrs. Mean,” we meet another insular narrator — indeed, more insular than Jorge — who watches his neighbor, whom he has called Mrs. Mean, closely . . . very closely. In “Icicles,” a depressed real estate agent becomes preoccupied to the point of obsession by the icicles dangling from his home, beautiful icicles that come to represent some dangling hope for meaning. Speaking of meaning — and beauty . . . and obsession — in the next story, “The Order of Insects,” a woman becomes captivated by the imagined lives of the bus in her house.
I no longer own my own imagination. I suppose they came up the drains or out of the registers. It may have been the rug they wanted. Crickets, too, I understand, will feed on wool. I used to rest by my husband . . . stiffly . . . waiting for silence to settle in the house, his sleep to come, and then the drama of their passage would take hold of me, possess me so completely that when I finally slept I merely passed from one dream to another without the slightest loss of vividness or continuity. Never alive, they came with punctures; their bodies formed from little whorls of copperish dust which in the downstairs darkness I couldn’t possibly have seen; and they were dead and upside down when they materialized, for it was in that moment that our cat, herself darkly invisible, leaped and brought her paws together on the true soul of the roach; a soul so static and intense, so immortally arranged, I felt, while I lay shell-like in our bed, turned inside out, driving my mind away, it was the same as the dark soul of the world itself — and it was this beautiful and terrifying feeling that took possession of me finally, stiffened like a rod beside my husband, played Caesar to my dreams.
Lastly, we have the title story, which for me gives “The Pedersen Kid” a run for its money. Here, in a wonderfully stylized story, a poet lets his mind wander over B, “a small town fastened to a field in Indian.” With a series of captions — “A Place,” “The First Person,” “Another Person,” etc. — the poet describes many facets of this town. As in the other pieces, these external features are actually stand-ins for the narrators psyche, which is at once beautiful and dark.
Of course there is enough to stir our wonder anywhere; there’s enough to love, anywhere, if one is strong enough, if one is diligent enough, if one is perceptive, patient, kind enough — whatever it takes; and surely it’s better to live in the country, to live on a prairie by a drawing of rivers, in Iowa or Illinois or Indiana, say, than in any city, in any stinking fog of human beings, in any blooming orchard of machines. It ought to be. The cities are swollen and poisonous with people. It ought to be better. Man has never been a fit environment for man — for rats, maybe, rats do nicely, or for dogs or cats and the household beetle.
And yet, that large world the narrator/poet is describing . . . it’s a whole world contracted inside his head. It’s humbling and empowering, or, as Lee said when we shot a quick email about the story just a bit ago, futile and necessary — just like trying to figure out what happened in some far away house on the other end of a blizzard, or in the house next door, or even in your own home, in the dark spaces occupied by mysterious voiceless beings. This is the world we live in — right there, right where you are, in your head.