Thursday, March 07, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 3

Robert Anderson on Bill Roorbach's BIG BEND

"In Lieu of Flowers"

Stonewall Jackson was calling from Baton Rouge. His cordiality was true to its reputation. Within minutes, he had a name and a history. He turned out to be Charles East, 76-years-old, feature writer for the Times-Picayune, and senior editor at the University of Georgia Press. Was I willing to make cuts in my story collection? Would I be available to come to Athens, Georgia in three weeks? Had I ever received an award before?

There were two Flannery O’Connor Award winners that autumn, myself and an Ohio State Creative Writing professor named Bill Roorbach. His wife’s folks lived on Central Park West, and he and I would be booked on the same Georgia-bound flight leaving LaGuardia. The first time I saw Bill and Juliet, they were casting glances around the terminal. It had to be them. They had that chatty air of people going to meet good fortune. He was wearing tan corduroy. He had fading red hair and compensatory mustache, the kind of rig that kids back in Minnesota called “a wally.” He kept pointing at passengers as they came down the airplane aisle. “Anderson? You, Anderson?”

I’m Anderson,” I said, squirming to extend my hand across the high-backed seats and getting some of Juliet’s chestnut hair mixed in with the handshake. In the corner of my eye, she either winked or winced.

“You were one of the three people we thought you could be,” he said.

That night we visited Flannery O’Connor’s hometown of Milledgeville. A campus library had a roomful of personal effects including her Remington and cookie-cut color snaps of the peacocks that, guides explained, were the ancestors of the flock that still inhabited the family homestead. The planned midnight visit to her gravesite was forestalled by a phone call. Her impossibly still-living mother did not want people milling about in her garden that late at night.


Bill and Juliet lived in Columbus, of course, but they talked a lot about Maine where they spent their summers. Before Bill’s collection, Big Bend, came out, Charles East, who would sign off letters with the words, “Pray contact if there is anything else I might do,” sent me the book in galleys. I had a girlfriend who had a day job, and we cohabited, disastrously, in a studio apartment. The only place to burn a light when I came home from my restaurant job was the bathroom. I can remember sitting on the rug with the checkerboard tiles swimming around me and the faucet dripping, reading that book. Bill had told me that the quality of sunlight in Maine always seemed to have that crystal texture of the surface of a stream on the clearest, most interminable of July afternoons. It was as pristine as memory, he either said, or more likely I later imagined that he had said. He also said that the residents of Maine had grown too accustomed to the beauty around them. This accounted for a great deal of the locale’s strangeness. Maybe, I thought, it was all like that Bob Dylan line about what paradise was like after awhile, religion, or the lack of religion, always being a matter of aftermath.

So, it didn’t really make much difference when the stories intercut between Manhattan and New Castle, Delaware, or between and among other backdrops too indistinct from the stories’ characters to warrant place names, sitting there on that rug, I knew that I was deep in the land of coves. Small, narrow, shifting bays formed by different varieties of erosion.

Teddy, the luckless painter, for instance, in the story Thanksgiving, paints a mural of his estranged family members on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, dipping into his destitution fund to do it because this is the best of all faces that he can sketch over his perennial inadequacy when he freights it in for the obligatory holiday reunion. He later upends the dinner table and repaints his loved ones with the turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing spread. “We’ll get this picked up in no time,” Dad says, needling in that motif of the regularity, the mundanity of aberration that Bill must have thought best defined our 250-flavor culture. In the rock ‘n roll story, Blues Machine—and I can’t but guess that the comp. professor was mindchecking and in-joking dues ex machina in this instance—Rockin’ Joe Heath collects a hellish dividend on his misspent decades of living onstage offstage when he is forced to hole up with his dead ex-bandmate’s son. The boy, Jesse, son of the real top gun, turns out to be a virtual serigraph print of his reckless father, pressed into an even sharper, more startling image. Richard Milk, in A Job at Henry’s, befriends and even makes a run at criminality with Dewey, trailer troglodyte and yardman, after Dewey has cracked two of his ribs, conferred a facial hematoma, and then dispatched his girlfriend to Richard’s front door with a conciliatory rhubarb pie. “So can he come back to work?” asks the girlfriend.

I thought of Big Bend as the product of a very rarified environment, and it was not long before that environment took a definite shade in my own mind. Yes, I imagined my own Maine-eccentric story about an Androscoggin County mortuary home, a kind of one stop, full stop, last stop service center with a brick exterior, a service star in the window, and flags dangling. When the villagers know that they are terminal, custom in the story mandates that they not sit with loved ones and tombstone designers; no, they get busy and write wry narratives that reflect their individual times on this earth. Then these stories are read at their funeral rites in the parlor with wine, cheese, candles, and cross-commentary that reflects good old Yankee resentment. And that pristine light that defines the region continues to shine. But when the last surviving town resident —the kids have naturally all decamped for the city—no longer survives, NPR, the voice of God through a grant from a foundation, breaks the story anthology nationally, and the book becomes kind of a New Age cult Book of Mormon, without the proselytizing and the addenda with Second Thessalonians. For the faithful, strangeness becomes a sacrament.

I never did find the time to write that story. When I saw Roorbach, years later, at a bar in the Village, he couldn’t remember the name of my only published novel. I told him that it was entitled, Crib Death, and he laughed. He and Juliet live fulltime in Worchester, Massachusetts now, and he has a chair at the College of the Holy Cross. Bill turned out to be one of those people who I thought he could be.

Robert Anderson is the author of ICE AGE (2000) and the novel, Little Fugue. He teaches English at the Hua Ren Academy and lives in New York City.