Dispatches | December 20, 2011

In U and I, Nicholson Baker writes about the books of John Updike without actually looking back to reference the books of John Updike. Sometimes Baker tries to quote Updike from memory. He doesn’t do a good job of it, almost on purpose it seems, though footnotes are included so readers can look at Baker’s corrupted recollection of Updike side by side with Updike’s actual words. It’s funny, of course. Nicholson Baker is funny. In U and I, a lot of the humor comes from how much precision Baker devotes to his enormously imprecise task. 

U and I brings up questions about brains and texts: What stays with the reader when the book is done? What determines what remains? What does it mean to write about the “anxiety of influence” while (as Baker does) aggressively refusing to read Harold Bloom, the guy who popularized the term? To what degree do we warp the memory of what we love to our own image? How do people enact texts with their bodies?

Like Baker, Billy-Billy Jump, the narrator of Rudy Wilson’s 1987 novel The Red Truck, wants to know how the intangible carves itself into the tangible. He thinks, at one point, “Our brains have lines on them from what we do…Probably born smooth and then the ditches began” (108).

I learned about Rudy Wilson only a couple of years ago. My MFA thesis advisor told me about Rudy, with whom she went to MFA school. Her writing professors would praise Rudy’s stories so highly that other student-writers started to feel jealous of what he could do.

When I found out that Ravenna Press had reprinted The Red Truck, I ordered it online. I read it and I read it again. I ordered Sonja’s Blue. I searched Abebooks.com for literary journals with more stories of his. I tried to find his novella A Girl Named Jesus but I couldn’t. I wrote a short note about Sonja’s Blue on Goodreads, the only review of Sonja’s Blue on Goodreads (which is ridiculous).  Rudy saw it and he emailed me a message to say hello, and we emailed each other a few times, and I felt happy.

Now I am going to write about The Red Truck without looking back at the book.

I remember the narrator Billy-Billy, as a child, remembering an old merry-go-round. He thinks about it, sitting there in the dark, shiny, and then this sentence happens (I think): “Wind blew on it.” When I first read that, I couldn’t believe a sentence had been used just to say, “Wind blew on it.” It is amazing! Later, Billy-Billy is being held in the air by his father (I think) against a sky full of light, and Billy-Billy says (I think), “He held me. He looked at me.” It’s heartbreaking in its simplicity, but the precision is vital to the meaning–the act of father holding son and the act of father seeing son are miraculous enough alone; to inflate the language into anything more would clutter the import of the action. I remember a sex scene between Teddianne and Billy-Billy, built mostly (I think) with prepositions and uncertain objects and lines like (I think) “She was naked underneath,” and somehow through its surgical omission the scene grows so deeply and embarrassingly private that I recognize its truth, unfettered. I remember the color yellow, Teddianne painting herself yellow and painting Billy-Billy yellow, all the color, everywhere, and the light, and the hands of people, touching each other. I remember how Billy-Billy’s little brother Ned falls purple and dead out of the icebox that the two children get trapped in for too long and afterward Billy-Billy says (I think), “I was still alive; my lungs were bigger.” I remember how I called my little brother on the phone soon after I read that. I remember how I cried at the end of the book at the last line (I think), “Sometimes I lift my eyes to look out the window at the sea.”

I rarely read books more than once, but I’ve read The Red Truck so many times. Rudy Wilson’s writing is tangible. It’s big and bright, and fever-like. I don’t exactly put The Red Truck down; it’s more like I wake up from it.

What stays with you after you’ve finished a book? Which books have you read more than once, and what does it take for you to read a book again, and again?

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