Friday, January 03, 2014


One of Montana’s claims to fame has been the MFA program in Missoula, which was particularly praised during the years that Richard Hugo taught.  I just finished reading “The Inhabited World” by David Long, who was one of his students.  In googling him, which is difficult because there are so many people named David Long, I found this Pacific U. website and spent some time pondering it.  In fact, I watched all the video interview snippets at the site.

Pacific University, Forest Grove campus

These are my peers -- demographically, educationally, aspirationally.  I’m about their age, the same age as Jimmie Welsh and Ivan Doig who are not in this list but easily could be.  My path did NOT go their way and I’ve never really understood why except that I get so involved with a different kind of life and I’ve not given priority to publication which to some people is synonymous with writing. These are “nice” academic people who don’t scare the horses -- not that they see themselves like that.  I’m like David Long’s protagonist in “The Inhabited World,” watching without participating.  No disappointment or chagrin, just curiosity.

“Evan,” according to Long, is in purgatory because “men are dogs,” and he has pursued women, been involved with them, betrayed them, without really understanding them. Now he is dead, a suicide, and trapped in the purgatory of his own former house where an estranged and possibly suicidal woman is trying to get her feet under her.  Though he has unlimited access to her presence so long as she’s there, he cannot touch her or interfere because he is dead.  He can only watch and learn.  Sort of like a writer with his own characters.  Sort of like me reader-shadowing this community of Pacific Northwest writers, which is itself a sort of shadow of the more famous MFA writing programs like Iowa or Stanford.  

None of these people has the intensity of a Richard Hugo.  Long’s protagonist’s father is an ironworker along the lines of a Sam Shepard character, i.e. working class but never willing to pick a physical fight and nowhere near the roadie alcoholic that Hugo was in real life. Maybe this suggests that Long is a second generation away from the WWII-veteran working-class guy.  None of these writers is identified as a veteran.  There are one Native American, one African American, and one seminary graduate who stays within major religions.  (The visiting writers are a separate list.)

Long was writing in Kalispell, and teaching English while I was doing the same on the east side of the Rockies.  Reviewers looked at Long’s Montana location (He’s moved to Sea-Tac since then -- in fact, in 1999, the year I moved back to Valier.) and assumed that it was cowboy-land.  But the Flathead Valley, feeding south along the lake to Missoula, the self-appointed humanities capital of Montana in those days, was always more attached to the Pacific Coast.  Wetter and therefore more prosperous, the people are quite different from those on the windy sub-zero prairie.  Now that the novel is in Seattle, the characters are even more upscale.  (The women used to smell like flour and salt -- now they smell like ginger and clove.)

Mary Clearman Blew, Judy Blunt, and Claire Davis took refuge in Missoula from tough lives on the east side and went on to professorships in Eastern Washington.  I have sympathy with them.  The women in Long’s “Inhabited World” are familiar to me and yet inscrutable, though they are very much the kind of women in the UU congregations I served, especially in Seattle: attractive, capable, employed, willing to take on men who weren’t much of a threat but were “interesting” or maybe crippled in some vague way.  I don’t really respond to them (I don’t respond sexually to women -- I’m talking about friendship) and am as baffled as Evan for different reasons.  They wanted to form feminist conspiracies with me (they wanted power) but I didn’t want that, so they got frustrated.  The question of who is using whom always comes up when I read this sort of novel.  Long identifies Roth as an influence, but this book seems more like Updike.  The writing is straightforward, less involved in metaphor than Updike can get.  Less than Long himself used to get.

I own “Home Fires”(1982), “Blue Spruce” (1995), and “The Flood of ’64” (1987).  I don’t remember the contents because I read them when they were first published, which was mostly during my ministry years, but I’m looking at the dust flap of “The Flood of ’64.” (It’s the west side version of the event, much less tragic than the east side where dams broke.) I see by a quote on the flap that Long might occasionally take on the east side:  “Longest night of the year, Reuben thinks, could be the coldest, twenty-two below, with a killing wind.  The winter wheat’s like eight-penny nails pounded on the slant.  Ten thousand acres in any direction, broken by fallow.  The stars are prickling overhead.  Too cold for new snow.  Too cold to be sitting in a truck on the county road.  Too cold to be out looking for your wife.”   The scene is like right here, right now, just outside my window.  Maybe I’m all wrong about this eastside/westside stuff.

I also see on the flap that this author photo above was taken by Marshall Noice, who took the photos for Bob Scriver’s two books about Blackfeet: “No More Buffalo,” and “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”  Noice is now an impressionist/fauvist/visionary landscape colorist.  shows him working, evidently near Kalispell.  I met him briefly.  Long thanks him in acknowledgements.  To live in Montana is to glancingly meet a lot of people, but to be surprisingly limited to one's own demographic for closer friendships.   Maybe it's the power thing.

Here are links to two interviews with Long.  I like the second one best.

I’ll go back and reread the earlier books now and maybe look for a copy of “The Falling Boy.”  The puzzle is, in part, that originally long is from Boston.  None of these writers seem to blog, but they teach, which can be very similar except that the writer then has to read all sorts of writing by other people.  I only do that now and then.  Not students anymore. 

They seem to belong to a level of society that is preoccupied with the Great American Novel as (surprisingly) described this morning on the news source called OZY: “The Great American Novel is a unique term globally, displaying America’s distinct fascination with its national life. The American landscape as portrayed in masterpieces like “Moby Dick” and “Grapes of Wrath” is predominated by themes including grandiose views of American life, the desire to bridge the country’s immense social divisions, and the enterprising individual. While hubris and the American Dream have their place in American literature, historically the Great American Novel has been critical of national claims of exceptionalism.”   The particular category of the NW American writer, maybe defined as the "Wet West," seems to be more interested in the small moment of emotional shift, the accurate depiction of a resigned people who have survived catastrophe but only barely.  More regional than national, rueful about the great romance of the frontier.  HEY!  Doesn’t that describe both the Dustbowl and the whaling industry?

"Wet West" writing is quite different from the outdoorsmen Bozeman/Livingston area writers who tend not to be academic:  Brautigan, McGuane, Harrison, Chatham.  Far more dramatic, extravagant, experimental, more like the movies.  Genre benders.  (There are exceptions to all generalizations, including this one.)

I turned out not to have a writing career on the terms of either of those “sets.”  I just write.  I have no idea whether I’m exceptional.  Or even -- at this point -- American, at least not the conventional, conformist, bullying way I see demonstrated a lot.  I feel as though I’ve escaped, but I’m not sure from what.  Maybe I'm a ghost in purgatory.  Not unpleasant.

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