He's a lover -- and also a hater

Dale Peck, the madman critic famous for his trash jobs on Moody, Eggers and Franzen, talks about forgiving his abusive father in his new "fictional memoir" and wonders why we can't all get along.

By Virginia Vitzthum
Published December 12, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Dale Peck the novelist keeps digging in, but Peck the critic is backing off the fight for literature's soul. The 36-year-old author has written three well-reviewed, ambitious novels, a handful of short stories, and a new "fictional memoir," "What We Lost," about his father's wretched childhood. But he's better known lately for his long, savage book reviews, particularly one in the New Republic in June 2002 that began, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation."

Peck charges on for almost 6,000 words from there, flogging every misused dash and antecedent-less pronoun in two paragraphs from Moody's memoir "The Black Veil"; calling the book "lies" and "criminal," and then extending his fuck-you to the horse Moody rode in on. Peck lashes Moody together with Davids Foster Wallace and Eggers, Jonathans Franzen and Lethem, and assorted other Lit Boys as "heirs to the bankrupt tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is 'Ulysses'; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov ... the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis ... wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon's ... and the stupid -- just plain stupid -- tomes of DeLillo."

"Hatchet Jobs," a forthcoming collection of Peck's critical flayings-cum-manifesto, will be Peck's parting shot. He's quitting reviewing in part because he hasn't gotten the response he hoped for. After years of reviews just as withering, the Moody piece for some reason inspired a burst of articles in places like Salon, the Believer and the New York Times. The writers of the "think" pieces for the most part passed up the opportunity to debate the canon or the state of the art, poking instead at nonburning side questions like whether harsh reviewing is nice, or fair, or civil, or appropriate, or hurtful -- or just good fun.

"They just quote the zingers," Peck complains. "I'm quitting because there's no point; I've become this class clown, the guy who hates everything." In the thumb-suckers' defense, it's not always easy to pry Peck's diagnosis of literature's ills from the rhetorical flail of his essays -- he conflates conventional apples like Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides with unreadable oranges like William Gaddis and John Barth; he embraces, denounces and mischaracterizes modernism and postmodernism; he cops out in the afterword to "Hatchet Jobs" with unelaborated pronouncements like "the heart of the novel ... is a diffuse locus of ideas and ideologies loosely tethered to a set of individual visions and personalities" and "literature is an act of revenge that aspires to elegy."

But he's right to lament a certain chilly remove in much serious contemporary literature, and in our interview, he succinctly names the problem as "books that point to other books rather than real life." Literature has gotten insular; the brilliant literary tool of irony has been dulled to a nihilistic-yet-wimpy "whatever"; and too few books, as Peck puts it, "work toward a goal of rendering the truth of human experience rather than the truth of aesthetic expression." He may even be right that a rude and aggressive gay man who grew up in a trailer home gets shut out of "a publishing context that's quicker to embrace [Franzen, Eggers, Wallace, Moody et al.] than it is to embrace me because their message is more palatable."

His strategy of denouncing the competition and the system, however, may backfire onto "What We Lost." Not only has he alienated potential blurbers and reviewers in the cozy literary world; worse, he's misrepresenting himself as a writer. The quality of his fiction is a pleasurable shock if all one's read is his criticism. Moving, as I did, from the confused and nasty reviews (which he writes on a computer) to the clear, taut novels (composed in longhand) is like leaving a clanging boardwalk arcade for the roar and whisper of waves on sand. Peck's fiction writing is visceral, risky yet controlled, lyrical and -- especially in "What We Lost" -- enormously compassionate.

Peck and I spoke in his East Village apartment on a rainy afternoon in November. It was the day "What We Lost" was being released, and he was understandably nervous about revenge-by-review. As it turned out, Andrew O'Hagan's Nov. 16 review in the New York Times Book Review did stink of chickens coming home to roost. O'Hagan bizarrely asserted that "When gay men write about fatherhood, they are often ruminating about manhood," because they won't have children themselves, and then added that "it is not a book about his father's farming episode [the book's ostensible subject] at all, but a rather oblique account of Dale Peck's grapplings with the notion of male authority." Unsupported by anything in the text or even Peck's readily available biographical info (the subtext is certainly Peck's own childhood, not that of his unborn sons), O'Hagan's was not so much a hatchet job as a self-directed hand job. It was as if Peck hadn't written a book: He's gay, so his subject must be childlessness.

To write "What We Lost," Peck interviewed his formerly violent, alcoholic father, Dale Peck Sr., about the older man's childhood, which was even worse than the childhood he in turn inflicted on his own children. "What We Lost" is a generously embellished account of a year-and-a-half-long reprieve Peck Sr. had from the one-room house on Long Island he shared with seven siblings in two beds, along with a father who passed out in his own piss almost every night and a mother who hated her third son with a terrifying focus. She regularly beat him with a hose, kept food from him and, when a younger son was killed in an accident, told Dale, "It should have been you."

One morning in 1956, Peck Sr.'s already-drunk father dropped off "the boy," as he's called in "What We Lost," at the dairy farm of an uncle he'd never met. He worked the farm with his uncle and started running track at school, missing his brothers and sisters but enjoying the freedom from his mother's Olympian spite and his father's degradation. The boy is just unclenching, starting to trust in order, responsibility and the kindness of his aunt and uncle, when he's abruptly returned to the chaos back home. There's a harrowing scene of the boy and his big brother stalking the drunk "old man" through the pine barrens to lift his paycheck for the family. The story then leaps to 2001 and the trip Dale Sr., 10 years sober, and his 34-year-old son Dale Jr. make to the dairy farm.

What's left out is the years in between. They've been covered before: Episodes of drunken cruelty bob to the surface of Peck's three novels like a corpse carried down a river. Fifty pages of autobiography explode from the middle of his second novel, "The Law of Enclosures" (1996), where Peck repeats his suspicion, also hinted at in his debut, "Martin and John," that his father struck the blow that ultimately killed his mother. Peck Jr. was almost 4 when she died, and three stepmothers followed in quick succession. Peck Sr. brutalized all of them, with the second getting it the worst. His father once dragged Dale Jr. and his sister Dalene out of bed to make them watch him put a gun to his third wife's head and then to his own, before finally passing out. In that household, as Peck writes in "Enclosures," "everything flew ... her body, eight and a half months pregnant, over a chair -- that was the morning she gave birth to her son -- and her son's body, across the dozen feet of the room we shared."

The new book, with its tender portrait of the 13-year-old Dale, strikes me as a Jesus-caliber act of forgiveness. Peck says, "It may have taken my father 60 years to fix himself, and it's ongoing, but I think he did. That's what made me want to write 'What We Lost,' an acknowledgment of his ability to be true to his nature, which is a loving nature ... In my fiction, there's a divided aspect. I have to write the book where I go after my father's jugular ['The Law of Enclosures'] and then I have to write the book where I lionize him. It's very hard to put those two things together."

Peck says he had a head start on the interviews he conducted with his father for "What We Lost" because "I knew a lot of this stuff from growing up." He's already told me that his father, a plumber, is "not a therapy type," so I ask about the context of those first tellings.

What happens next on Peck's living room couch is an eerie channeling. Peck grabs his empty coffee cup off the table and throws his head back and sucks at it. He slams the cup down and pokes his finger into my leg so hard it hurts for 10 minutes. His eyes narrow and he yells in an angry slur, "'You fink you got it bad? I had it bad. My muvver used to beat me wif a rub-ber hose!' That was the context," Peck continues, his voice staying loud and furious. "Over and over again. 'I'm going to get drunk and tell you why I'm such a bad father.'"

Peck says he and his sister were only badly beaten themselves once each, Peck for a "faggy haircut," but they saw their stepmothers beaten whenever their father drank. Peck conjectures that "my father's violence was as much a correction by example as it was punishing his mother -- keeping your woman in line. If his own father had kept his mother in line, she'd never have done those things to him. My father was never as incensed with my stepmothers as when they disciplined me."

Peck says, his voice back to chatty, "All that chaos had a very progenitive effect; it's like atomic energy. It made me a writer. I'm not that creative, I'm analytic, not in a logical way, but I'm always trying to put together extremes, to see what they generate. I don't think I would have had the temperament or desire to turn real things into fake things if I hadn't had such a complex set of things to reconcile."

That reconciliation has produced layers of complexity in Peck's fiction, but it may have clouded his judgment as a critic. It's funny and touching how disappointed he is that his reviews didn't spur more literary discourse: Part of him meant those outrageous, often cruel attacks as tough, and toughening, love. "I think I read more closely than 90 percent of the critics working," he says wistfully. Later, he adds, "Jeffrey Eugenides was the only one who responded to anything I said."

He calls his critical method "aggressive misreadings" à la Harold Bloom. "That's how Bloom says literature grows," he explains. "The anxiety of influence produces misreadings which in turn leads to this desire for differentiation that produces new kinds of literature." I'm not sure if this is how Bloom meant it, but Peck's suggestion, from his review of "Infinite Jest," that David Foster Wallace "shut off his goddamn word processor and try to find someone who would passionately shove a dick up his ass" certainly qualifies as aggressive, and is not a reading that ever occurred to me, even when I was most annoyed by Wallace's infinite footnotes.

Another reason Peck expected more literary back-and-forth is that he takes criticism of his own novels very seriously, adjusting when he agrees with a review. His first novel, "Martin and John," came out in 1993 and was widely hailed for its "beauty," "wisdom," and "mastery of literary form ... that belies [Peck's] 25 years." Edmund White called it "the best book of the year," and Michael Cunningham declared the "launch of an important career." The book is a succession of linked stories told about Martin by John, who grows up on a farm with an alcoholic father, Henry, and battered mother, Bea, before moving to New York.

Young Peck focused not on the praise, however, but on the censure, and accordingly reshaped his second novel, which he already knew he wanted to be about a "long, unhappy marriage." "'Law of Enclosures' was responding to my critics, who said the marriage in 'Martin and John' was very black and white," Peck says. "The reviews said the father was this demon and the mother was this victim ... The marriage hadn't gotten the full complex treatment it deserved. I said, 'They're right,' and I tried to rectify it" in his second novel, which also featured Henry and Bea.

When I ask why he's so anxious that his possibly murdered mother not come off like a victim, Peck says, "I think one of the way we perpetuate our hurts is by not looking at the context in which they were produced. One reason my father was so violent is that he could only see how he was wronged and he was going to make other people see that, even if he had to hurt them to do it. When you put things in a larger perspective, you see that the things that happened to you happened in a bigger context."

This echoes what Peck says about postmodernism, which he embraces despite his loathing of postmodern fiction writers like Barth, Gaddis and Pynchon. "The incredibly difficult but I think profound gift of postmodernism is that there's no aspect of human knowledge or existence that can ever be fixed, except that phenomenologically we know we exist," he says. "What postmodernism taught us to do -- and that's why I love Jonathan Safran Foer's novel 'Everything Is Illuminated' so much -- is to locate ourselves in context, not how the realists did or how the modernists did with their stream of consciousness. Rather than looking inward and trying to find out who I am, which is impossible, because we can't see ourselves without prisms of language and culture, you can set up points of reference, maybe through refraction. But your points will constantly change and you have to, too, and that's very real."

I can't help it; I go all Oprah on his ass. Perhaps, I venture, he learned about changing reference points earlier than most people, from a series of mothers and from a father who became someone else when he drank and from the early entwining of love, hate and fear.

Peck replies breezily, "Love and hate and fear are equally intertwined for all people, but I'm very fortunate because I have very vivid stories to dramatize that." He says later, "I write my books in a series, and I'm placing the character of John in greater and greater contexts," he says, perhaps to get to "something more positive." This really is a man writing, as the cliché has it, for his life: Domestic violence is a gift and postmodernism is the religion through which he interprets it.

Late in the afternoon, Peck is raging, not for the first time, about Joyce and DeLillo's bad, aesthetics-over-experience "message," and I ask him, "OK, so what's your message?" He's tired by now from my badgering and the rain and the worry about how "What We Lost" will be received. He sighs. "When you talk about fiction themes you're reduced to statements that are trite or simplistic but true, and my fiction's message is, 'We are all suffering and in our suffering we seem to like to make others suffer too and maybe there's a way around that.'

"What's my message?" The hatchet man shrugs. "'Can't we all be nicer to each other?' But how do you make that true and believable?"

Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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