It takes a worried man

Stephen Dixon's brilliant new novel takes the American male beyond adolescence.

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Stephen Dixon has done something very difficult in his career -- he has mastered the voice of worry. This novelist has been devoted, from the very beginning, to the perfecting of one narrator, a male oversoul of the postwar American generation. His name in "Frog" was Howard Tetch. In "Interstate" he was Nathan Frey. Lately, in Dixon's last novel, "Gould," and in his newest one, "30," he's Gould Bookbinder, a writer, with two daughters, originally from New York and now teaching at some unnamed college. Sometimes Gould is plunged in grief, occasionally he is out of his head, and sometimes he is even happy, but as surely as the gnat is accompanied by its hum, Gould's internal voice is accompanied by a periphery of nagging. His relationships to women are couched in terms of this -- he can't seem to approach the topic of sex without an awful tone of begging seeping in. We've heard this voice before, in comedians like Woody Allen, but the anger in that voice -- the violence just held back -- is always defused in comedy, enlisted in the invariable, detumescent arc of the routine. Here it is the whole world, and one feels the menace of its resentments and the fierce, guilty bliss of its affections.

Dixon's reputation has suffered from the continuing affection of the literary establishment for what is taken to be the authentic American voice. It is the old hickory voice that first comes out of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales" and tells us, as D.H. Lawrence observed, that "I am alone, a stoic, a killer." Old hickory still speaks in Cormac McCarthy and Robert Stone, and after its infinite filtration through popular culture, is slyly parodied by Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon. But this voice has no place for women, other than as scolding Aunt Pollys -- from whom our men must save their balls in some utter flight to the territories -- or as sexual oppressors, Sister Carries who leave their men sucked dry; night battles with these are the staple of Miller and Mailer. Dixon simply detours around that whole complex. Gould's relationship with his mother, and with his daughters, is as important to his existence as fucking his girlfriends; nor are any of these things subsumed to some central romance. Gould has more moods than randy. Which means that the full prism of gender relations is on display here. Dixon is an exception to the perpetual adolescence American male writers tend to foist off on their characters, and his voice sounds odd partly because it never falls into the usual tough guy strain -- not even in "Interstate," which deals with murder in a horrifically convincing fashion.

The "30" of the title refers to the number of chapters in Dixon's book. The chapters aren't marshaled into the outline of one event, and they aren't even chronologically coherent. They are related by a voice at one remove from Gould, in that quirky version of free, indirect discourse Dixon has made his own. The chapters have odd names like "Eyes," "Ends" and "Shortcut," giving them the air of entries culled from some naturalist's journal, as if this book were field notes on Gould's psyche.

The focus of each entry is Gould's take on a memory or an experience. One's idea of what is important in the standard story has to bow to that focus. In "The Wash" (a sub-story within " Ends"), for example, Gould is doing his laundry in the basement of his apartment building in New York. This is a perfect Dixon setting, since it involves repetitive action and a host of those little urban events and traits he loves to depict: the collecting of change, the habits of elevators, the proximity of strangers. As Gould goes down to put his clothes in the drier he meets a woman. In the same casual tone in which Dixon has told us about Gould collecting his quarters, he informs us "they get engaged, married, have a child."

In other words, they did what we usually read novels to find out about. But in this story Dixon is more interested in Gould's laundry habits, so he tells us these other things only to mention, briefly, that they bought a washer and drier, and then he goes back to Gould in his apartment building, finding out that he doesn't have enough quarters to do the drying, meaning he'll have to go up the elevator to his room and get the quarters, unless, as he briefly thinks, he can borrow the quarters from somebody who has already finished his drying.

This is plain weird, but the style is how we know this is Stephen Dixon writing.

Here's the beginning of one of the first entries, "Popovers:"

A girl ... a young woman ... a college student or someone of that age -- when he was in college they were "coeds," or maybe by then they were no longer called that, but even if they went to an all-girls school? -- comes over to their table and says, "The seater didn't give you menus?" and his older daughter says no and she says, "I'm sorry, I'll get them in a flash -- nobody make a movie," the last in a movie tough guy voice ...

This is writing that has come out in its undershirt. Aren't all those dashes, that puzzle over what to call the damn waitress, and the limp punch line, things that the writer goes through in the first draft? Sometimes it seems Dixon has deliberately chosen just the style that would drive the well-meaning reader away at first glance. Even when one sympathetically, and then admiringly, wades into the book, there are times when this refusal to settle on objects, description or even thought seems like a challenge, as if Dixon were gauging how much the reader can take. Add a penchant for paragraphs that go on for pages and a focus on the homiest details of domestic life -- Gould's wife Sally's degenerative disease that confines her to a wheelchair, his oldest daughter's proneness to accidents when she was 4, Gould's sneaking lust (a focus given ugly rein in the "Popover" chapter and in other chapters exposed to the wintry light of Dixon's resolve to hold nothing back) -- and Dixon seems like the last writer one would recommend.

I do, however, recommend that you read him. Indeed, go out and get "Frog," all 700 pages or so of it, and read that. OK. I know. All those pages. Read that eventually, is what I'm saying.

My last observation is a little flighty, perhaps, but I will put it before you for what it's worth. I've pointed out that the 30 stories in Dixon's latest novel are joined together in what looks like a random sequence. The real chronological sequence within which Gould Bookbinder physically exists is at some distance from his mental life. Since worry is the dominant trait of Gould's mind, it must bring with it a certain attitude toward time. In worry, the present is always too late, and the future is always too early. Time, in other words, is experienced primarily in terms of superlatives. (Of course, the worrier worries about that, since the worrier has a vague impression that there is some neutral time, some chronological time, with which he is out of synch.) Worry, the clichi goes, ages people. But absolute worry, ironically, frees one from age because no issue is ever resolved.

Dixon's ploy of shuffling these chapters so that one thing does not necessarily precede another is animated, perhaps, by this dim insight into Gould's thinking. It pays off in "The Place," the final subchapter in "Ends." Gould is shown breaking through the compulsion of mood to actually touch that moment in which time does assume its grand neutral flow, regardless of the tasks by which Gould measures it. That moment possesses a grave beauty of a high order. It is here that we feel Dixon's risky stylistic gambit edge us into that serenity for which we wait, in art, and which is, after all, the only reward for our long patience.

By Roger Gathman

Roger Gathman is the editor of the webzine Calumny and Art. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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