Captain Midnight, Part Two

In the previous installment [Issue 12], Gordon Lish, age 26, arrived in California in 1959 with his wife and young daughter. There he started a literary magazine and was hired and fired as a high school English teacher. His firing, for insubordination, attracted some press attention.

He was losing track of how to save himself. He needed someone to commit an act of mercy. Instead a man named Allen Calvin called, said he admired how Lish had handled the school board case, and offered him a job as a textbook writer. This was not the work Lish dreamed of, but he was without options. He tried to imagine himself as a young professional and hoped a stable family situation would follow.

Allen Calvin was a sharp, impulsive man, about a decade older than Lish, with several short careers behind him. He had trained as a psychologist and caught on quickly to the new theory of radical behaviorism, which proposed that personality could be rebuilt from the ground up. He became interested in the behaviorist method of programmed instruction, which used textbooks to deliver small increments of information and reinforcement, and produced training manuals for the army. Now he was trying to break into the education market with a new company, Behavioral Research Laboratories, that would use programmed instruction to make classroom teachers redundant. His textbooks would take care of the teaching.

Lish started driving an hour north each day, in the fall of 1963, to a low office building on the edge of the Stanford campus. It was across the street from the hospital, and the hallways were lined with medical practices and research outfits. Calvin’s office was filled with sales and marketing specialists and his own engineers and technicians. They were former teachers and recent graduate students who translated their fields into mechanized instruction. The situation was absurd, but Lish was determined to make it work. As soon as he found a piece of letterhead, he wrote Hayden Carruth, “I am now employed at the above as their Director of Linguistic Studies. I am also learning how to behave. The pay is better than I deserve and the duties quite beyond my capacity. But our leader believes, and that’s good enough for present.”

Lish sat with his feet on his desk and a Dictaphone strapped to his belt, rattling off grammatical rules and examples. For better or worse, he was good at this work, and within two months he was promoted. Being encouraged by a company he distrusted made him feel real resistance. He wrote Carruth, “First time something like this has happened to me, and I must confess I don’t like it. Makes you feel more owned than usual, not rewarded.” But he and Frances still were struggling to pay their bills, and their landlord was forcing them to buy their house. Soon Lish was working harder than ever.

His first big project was an English grammar, and he approached it as ambitiously as he could. Programmed instruction became a tool he could use to improve the conventional approach to grammar, and soon he was obsessed with the project. Parts of speech became “elements” because the standard term was “awkward and fundamentally misleading.” The distinction between nouns and pronouns was eliminated “because the scope of this text is function, in which capacity nouns and pronouns are identical.” He was trying to rationalize the language, and as he worked he saw that he could incorporate a progressive agenda. He would teach students that language was a “problem-solving mechanism” they could understand and use to their advantage.

He also tried to empower readers when his grammar system failed. Each time he was forced to admit an exception, he treated it as a major conflict in order to give students what he called a productive “confrontation with reality.” These confrontations were the ghost in the behaviorist machine, and his ideas about how they could be presented became increasingly extreme as he finished the project. His teacher’s manual meticulously described how his programmed approach to grammar worked, then offered a modest proposal. He wanted teachers to give their students a week to formulate a new language, then forbid them from speaking English. “Obviously, the project is doomed to failure, but, to be sure, after one week of wrestling with the elementary problem of naming themselves and the things around them, the class becomes critically conscious of the miracle that is manifest in a language so fully developed as is English, and this, after all, is the sole objective of the project.”

Lish was realizing what he could accomplish simply by speaking, and the possibilities excited and alarmed him. Calvin sent him to the East Coast for three weeks to promote his new grammar textbook, and without even meaning to Lish seemed to persuade people of his authority. He wrote Carruth, “One writes such a book for the ugliest of motives and becomes, notwithstanding, an expert. People ask you to wrestle with classic conundrums. Most astoundingly, you provide answers. But what else do we have if not sham?” He was developing a cynical idea of himself that gave him confidence and also made him deeply uneasy.

His success felt unsustainable to him, and the more he succeeded the more anxious he became. His psoriasis was now as bad as when he took steroids and ended up in the hospital, so he signed up for a study at Stanford that gave him a drug that was used for chemotherapy. The treatment made him even more nervous and exhausted, and he came home each day discouraged. He started to develop a sense of hopelessness about his marriage. He wrote Carruth, “Sure, she puts up with me — so long as I wash the dishes, mop the floors, clean the windows, put out the garbage, mow the lawn, turn the flowerbeds, put away the kids’ things, dress well, report to work daily, and say yes more often than not.”

He was starting work on a new project he had pitched when he was out promoting his grammar. The Job Corps had just been founded to help poor young men get steady work, and the program needed training materials. They were asking for the sort of practical guidance that he had wanted to give his students, and Lish approached the Job Corps administrators with an air of true authority. Following his first meeting, he wrote Carruth, “They wanted to know what I could do to help teach kids how to get and hold a job. I said I’d begin by trying to get whatever kids they were talking about to want a job. Naturally they countered by asking me just how I’d go about that.” His answer was that they would read great short stories describing the value of ordinary work.

To some extent this must have been a self-motivational project, one that would persuade him to continue on as a textbook programmer. He wrote to the authors he most admired (including Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Tillie Olsen, and Grace Paley) and convinced many of them to contribute. He wrote constantly to J. D. Salinger until Salinger finally called to decline his offer. (I was worried about you, the famous recluse said.) The stories would have to be short and simple, but there were no other limitations. Lish told his writers, “Maybe these kids don’t read well, but they’ve been there, so nobody’s going to edit this thing into a Dick and Jane series. And please don’t get the notion we’re looking for stuff that promotes the nine to five, Saran-wrapped types. We want what you do best — honest prose about the way it is.”

Lish was looking for fiction that could save your life. The longer he worked on the project, the more he needed it. His expenses were forcing him to take on more work than he could manage, at Behavioral Research Laboratories and as a freelance textbook editor. He was also, he admitted to Carruth, “working my way through my first marriage, about which I have nothing to say since all the commonplaces apply, and all the pain, and I ask you not to mention it in mail to this address but it is all becoming my major terror, this losing out on days because I won’t end this scene.” He was becoming convinced he would have to leave Frances, but was afraid to lose his children.

For months he had been holding the latest issue of Genesis West, worrying about whether he could afford to print it. Seeing even more bills and difficulty ahead, he finally sent it to press with a note that it would be the last installment. For the opening page, he wrote, “It was decided at presstime. Genesis West dies. And there is this to say. Mostly it was an effort of love and pretense. And increasingly pretense. With less energy, always less energy, to sustain the pretense.” In its defense, he claimed that with Sometimes a Great Notion, featured in the previous issue, Ken Kesey had written a great novel and that his sometime poetry editor, Jack Gilbert, was himself “the fact of greatness.” Now Kesey was tired of Lish’s anxious striving and Gilbert was taking a Guggenheim Fellowship and moving to the Greek Islands.

Lish tried to force himself to focus on textbooks, but his anxiety and unhappiness were escalating to beyond what he could control. After months of being unable to imagine an exit, he abruptly left Frances and their children. With almost no possessions, he stayed with friends, then rented an apartment an hour north, across the train tracks from work, and tried to prevent himself from crashing. Several weeks later, he wrote Carruth, “Have split with Fran and pulled out just short, thereafter, from another wigout. Okay enough now and readying to change my life. But still not steady enough to write letters — particularly in my own hand.”

He tried to impersonate a man in a more stable state of mind. He got back to work and pitched another motivational project to the Job Corps. He started resolving relations with his family through divorce proceedings. He found some relief in seeing a woman from the art department, Barbara Works, a tall, temperate blonde, “a polarity from Fran, at every level of human behavior.” He wrote Carruth, “How nice it is to get screwed as if you were being granted amnesty, just temporary, from the fault of being ugly, sweaty, mottled, and anxious.”

Still the least provocation could throw him off and turn him toward self-destruction. He was increasingly impatient with his eccentric boss, and as the problems of living alone and dealing with a divorce set in, he edged toward a confrontation. Calvin, a small, frenetic man who was not particularly gifted at charming his associates, had hired a former football player to represent the company. The presence of this goon drove Lish up the wall, and when he saw a letter the man had drafted, he marched into Calvin’s office and exploded with corrections. “Yes, the bastard fired me over a comma,” he wrote Carruth. “Told him one belonged in such and such a place, he said shut up, I said don’t tell Gordon to shut up, and he said you shut up or you’re fired, and I said I’m fired.” Lish claimed that now that he was separated he could get by without a steady job, but in fact the divorce and his own expenses meant he needed money more badly than ever.

He needed the stability of regular work, too. Almost as soon as he quit, he started worrying again about how he would keep himself in line. He wrote Carruth, “Marriage was vital to me insofar as it compelled me to think in terms of a defined framework. Just after the end I cared little for living — not from hurt so much as from a failure to see what mattered thereafter. Now I am somewhat improved, though I am even now informed by the steady voice within that should the right fillip occur, I could cut out on everything with all gears prepared for a high speed askew toward infinite behavior.” The only way he could think of to control himself was to marry Barbara, whom he was beginning to blow up in his mind as his only hope for stability.

A second marriage was a long way off, though, as long as he was fighting with Frances about expenses, running out of options for an out-of-court divorce settlement, and paying for a child to be hospitalized with chicken pox. The Stanford doctors canceled the drug trial that made his skin tolerable for him. A woman smashed into his old Austin-Healey sports car and the last thing he wanted to do was sue her. He got home from the accident and in a frantic state of mind wrote Carruth that he was cutting out. “I see great change coming. Out of the present stress I am to shoot clear like an artful quarterback accepting the kickoff and driving to the pileup at the fifty yard line. I have promised myself the determination to break loose for the empty turf ahead.” Never mind that, during a kickoff, there is no quarterback.

During the next few weeks, he lined up a handful of freelance textbook contracts and left with Barbara for Arizona. He documented their life there, or what passed for it, in letters to Carruth.

(No date) — Gila Bend, Arizona
Am in Gila Bend, for the sun, because there’s nothing else to be in Gila Bend for . . . Have taken a job with the Herald as the night city desk editor. What I lose in income I make up for in thrills. Lots of highway accidents, rezoning ordinances, and revivals. Was saved four times last week — twice in the same cafe.

(No date) — Gila Bend, Arizona
The sun here shows definite signs of clearing me up — so promising a performance I am thinking of going out with an agent tomorrow to see about the purchase of land out near the foothills. If I buy something, I will build a modest bungalow thing to retreat to for two or three months in the winter. It may also be the spot for you, dig?

March 20, 1967 — Guadalajara Hilton, Mexico
No adequate housing for 6Gs in Gila Bend. Fact is there’s not an adequate house in Gila Bend for 40Gs. I turned off the whole deal. Found out from informed sources that one must be mad to buy land in Gila Bend, for complex reasons, for any price.

June 2 — Palo Alto, California
These few months back here have amounted to such trouble for my skin, I’m off again — this time more or less permanently. Tucson or nearby. Not easy to leave the kids. I’m a quick one with guilt.

Busy. Still active and trying to remain so for as long as I can. Though I feel collapse is on the way. Too fatiguing trying to fake it, that it matters. And nowhere to go for a cure.

(No date) — Tucson, Arizona
Am not collapsing. Am trending toward collapse. Will always trend toward collapse. But no more than that. Simply my way of keeping my wits about me. Helps me renew myself . . . No, no collapse. Lish will come through.

Because that’s my major talent — survival — and not the stuff I write or otherwise create. Survival’s a full-time vocation, undeniably in conformity with my Jewish ground notes, and genuinely a task I can commit myself to without reservation. And me, I’m short on such tasks.

July 15 — Tucson, Arizona
Got to keep on the move, or else it will catch me in one spot and fall on me. I’m convinced paranoia to that extent is healthy. Will try to stick here for at least fifteen months, the lease period. Thereafter, back to Palo Alto, perhaps — after I’ve arranged for something here to retreat to whenever the psoriasis flares.

(No date) — Tucson, Arizona
Steady in my determination to take the long, hard view. But there are too many contradictions in me that I find pleasant. It must be this Jewishness, this wanting to squirm. A professional squawker — that’s what I despise in the Jews and in myself. But I am trying to learn.

September 28 — Tucson, Arizona
Tucson is killing us — probably because I was married here and spent those early years here. Probably because the infernal heat is wearing us out. Probably because the skin has not improved as much as I had hoped it would. Mostly because I don’t work here. Loaf and sleep and get damn little pleasure out of either . . .

Be hell to pay if and when we try to leave here. . . . The lease is terribly binding and the monthly tab is enormous. Alimony and child support are amounting to a murderous drain. And out of rage I spend all that’s left and then some.

November 6 — Tucson, Arizona
The last two weeks amounted to a $6,000 loss, which went like this: $3,000 for lawyers, $400 for bail, the old car impounded by the United States Government, the tab for renting a car until we find out if the government approves our petition for the return of the old car, and the fines that we will surely have to pay . . .

That’s right, we were, as they so vulgarly say, busted. For possession. Worse it was at the border, which amounts to a smuggling charge and, of course, a federal one. Spent, thank goodness, no more than one night and one day in jail — an almost Mexican jail: Nogales. Just about as bad as the bughouse I was held in when I was picked up in Miami those many years ago. Barbara was penned up with only one other woman, a heroin addict going through withdrawal, while I was in with about thirty men . . . half heroin heads spitting up their guts, groaning, crapping on the floor. Bad fights, worse food . . . and unbelievable cruelty and despair. The maximum penalty stands as a felony and threatens five to twenty years.

November 25 — Tucson, Arizona
[No jail.]

December 7 — Tucson, Arizona

Leaving for San Francisco in an hour, to try salvaging my job. Doubtful that I’ll be successful. And can’t afford the fare to New York, where the contracts are. Telephoning there and trying to pitch product over this distance both costly and ineffective. And the mail is so damn slow.

December 31 — Tucson, Arizona

We are still becalmed here in Tucson, and hoping to return to San Francisco or try New York as soon as we have satisfied the cancellation clause in our lease. Looks as if I have another contract, to produce an anthology (fiction) of sorts, for Addison-Wesley. Nine months of work and then maybe I will turn up a better way to use my life.

Lish had made a decent living on textbooks, but as he told Carruth he spent it fast. After paying the fines and fees from his arrest, he was deep in debt and still running up bills. He came back to Palo Alto thinking he could get by on the advance from his new contract from Addison-Wesley, but from the first month he was struggling to pay his rent and alimony and child support. His children had stopped speaking to him, Barbara was taking his lawyer’s advice and staying in Arizona until the divorce was final, and as soon as the divorce went through he would have to find some way to pay his lawyer.

He had gotten out of Tucson, but nothing much had changed. He found it harder to treat his skin with sunlight outside the desert, so the discomfort that went back and forth between his mind and his body was even worse than in Arizona. He wrote Carruth, “It is this eternal discomfiture that distresses me. What I mean is, I am uncomfortable in the world. Because, I think, I don’t fit in my body, and my body in turn fits nowhere, too. Of course, I’ve done my level best to exploit this disease, to turn it to a profit, but I’ve not been successful in proportion to my burden. And that is what disturbs me most of all.” He hated himself for not doing enough with his twenties and now his thirties, but the most he could do about it at times was punish himself and call himself lazy.

The one commitment that kept him in line was his new textbook contract. It was the steadiest work he had gotten since he left for Arizona, and the closest he had come in years to getting paid to do what he wanted. Lish had pitched the anthology of new short stories, with recordings of the stories being read aloud, under the cover of a high school textbook. He wrote to the writers he had loved for years, Stanley Elkin, Tillie Olsen, and Grace Paley, and tracked down the radio stars he had listened to as a child to do the recordings.

When it came time to write the preface, he was able to summon a part of himself that remained confident and appealing. However much he had suffered, he was able to imagine a voice that was as insistently charming as ever. He began, “A preface is for making friends. So let me begin by saying something about writers and readers inasmuch as my aim was to make a book that would be friendly to both.” What he meant by being friendly was finding a way to reconcile the two ideas about fiction he had developed since his adolescence. Lish wanted to maintain his early belief that the writers he had fallen for completely, from Salinger to Kesey, worked through charismatic magic. At the same time, a programmatic approach to language had become a part of him and made him a more deeply engaged reader.

Lish was not the first person to try to preserve his love of fiction even after perceiving the mechanics of language, but the solution he came up with was distinctive. Surveying his table of contents, with work by Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, Grace Paley, and Richard Yates, he wrote, in the language he had created to break down grammar for programmed instruction, “Each of these stories is a machine of persuasion; and so long as we are here, it will be useful to see how each of them performs its labor.” Still, he added, “We are first of all here to surrender to persuasion, to submit to the story’s tyranny, and only ninth of all to discover its sources.” It turned out that fiction, like education, was a potentially benevolent system, one worth submitting to because in the right hands it could produce extraordinary effects.

What form of fiction was better for education than the short story? For decades, editors and writers had seen it as apprentice work and preparation for a novel. For Lish, the way it expressed these qualities was by being the form with the most mechanistic construction. From his perspective, short stories were not works of careful elaboration but models of technical efficiency. He wrote, “The short story is the art of efficiency, of compression, of economy, of doing everything right, and of not doing one more thing than must be done. There is no room in the short story for one word more than is positively required, and every word present, both in terms of content and form, must contribute a consistent and additional thrust forward to the achievement of the total effect.” The total effect was the thing, and Lish wanted both to believe in its magic and to prove it to be a standardized product.

The more Lish thought about short stories, the more impatient he became with novels. He was back to reading a few each week, but he rejected them all as “either bad or amusing.” His vision of short stories as machines was what held his attention, and he was adding names to the list of writers he believed in, “Joyce Carol Oates, Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay Friedman, Anatole Broyard, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, William Gass, John Cheever, and poor, dead Flannery O’Connor.”

His idea of efficiency was spreading, too, beyond the boundaries of fiction. He wrote Carruth, “Listen, I have given up food, which amounts to a major change in my style. I am now down almost forty pounds from my fighting weight — and enjoying my scrawniness as a sort of esthetic.” He was also looking to reduce his family commitments. As soon as it was legal, he and Barbara drove down to Carmel and got married, and they wanted to leave the state as soon as they could, which he thought would allow him to reduce his alimony and child support.

He was starting to focus again on making himself into a fiction editor. The problem would be finding someone to pay him to do it. He knew a former textbook editor, Curt Johnson, who ran a literary magazine out of Chicago, and got Johnson to add him to the masthead while he tried to plan his next move. Johnson wanted him to spend time with another editor based in Palo Alto, and although Lish had met the man and did not much want to see him again, he agreed to meet for a drink.

Raymond Carver was a few years younger than Lish, but worse for the wear. He had grown up poor, he drank far too much, and he had spent the last decade writing short stories that were only starting to get published. He struggled with his weight and his wife and kids, and all the rest that Lish was trying to put away. Once the two men were put together, though, they lurched toward what they had in common and became drinking partners. They talked about local writers, tried to come up with ways to make money, and claimed they were starting a new publication, better than the ones they insulted, called the Journal of American Fiction.

Lish’s ambitions were bigger than ever, and every reminder of where he stood was an additional frustration. He found out that a man he had published in Genesis West, Leonard Gardner, had just sold his first novel to Hollywood, and out of resentment and poverty Lish stole a copy from a bookstore. The truth was that he admired the book, Fat City, a short, plainspoken novel about second-rate boxers in California. He liked the look of the author photo, too, with Gardner in a denim workshirt. When Carver needed his own author photo, for a short story anthology Johnson was editing, Lish got him to borrow a workshirt and pose with the same melancholy affect.

They were still planning their own journal when Lish abruptly decided not to waste another day in Palo Alto. Late at night, impatient and panicked, he persuaded Barbara to help him pack up their small apartment and start the long drive across the country. As fast as they drove, it took them more than a week to cross the long stretch between the place he had once believed he belonged and the one he now felt compelled to return to. They stayed at his parents’ house on Long Island while Lish called everyone he could think of, asking if they knew of any open positions.

Johnson told him to call Hal Scharlatt, an editor at Dutton who had said he was hiring. Scharlatt said they could meet for lunch, and Lish took the train into town to sit across from him at a dingy booth at Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue South at 18th Street. Scharlatt told him there were no more openings at Dutton, but that the Esquire fiction editor, Rust Hills, was burnt out and looking to leave. Hills, who was as famous as any editor could be, had somehow heard of Lish before and was willing to meet with him. He was waiting at his office. Go now, Scharlatt said.

Lish jumped into a cab headed uptown and got out at Madison and 52nd. He rushed into a bright white skyscraper and took the elevator up to the Esquire office. Everyone was out watching the World Series, it seemed, except for Hills, who sat in his back office smoking cigarettes and listening to the game. He was broad and fair, with the relaxed, open face of the better man Lish always wanted to be. As they talked about themselves, Lish started to think he could make Hills like him. As they talked about writers, he started to think he could persuade him.

Back at his parents’ house in the suburbs, Lish wrote a letter to Hills’s boss, Harold Hayes, telling him what he brought to the table. He concluded, “The plain fact is, Mr. Hayes, I have earned this job — through great love for the short story and great labor to know it, to make it the province in which my sensibilities live. Reading short fiction is the work I do best, and for this task I have a natural ear. What I mean to say is that I am good and that there is in me the will to leave a mark as an editor, and I want this job because it represents the best chance for me to be all that it is in me to be. I want this job, and I want it with more eagerness than is becoming to a man of my age because this is the work I was meant to do, and because I have not been doing it.”

For reasons that have never been fully explained, Hayes and Hills believed him.

To be continued

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