At 88, Gass is still a magician of the word, the writer of a prose so rich that it makes Vladimir Nabokov’s seem impoverished. I exaggerate, but only to underscore how intense, how original, how witty Gass’s use of language can be: “Panic followed him like a jackal waiting for a show of weakness.” A radio commentator has “a voice melting over its vowels like dark chocolate.” Flaubert once dreamed of writing a novel about nothing, one where the style alone would create excitement and pleasure. Gass actually does this in “Middle C.”
Not that he has totally eschewed a story line. The book’s protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, is the son of an Austrian couple who, in the 1930s, pretend to be Jews so they can escape to a new life in England. Once in London, the Skizzens try to blend in as Cockneys, the father now dressing and talking like a race-track tout, until one day he just disappears. His wife, Miriam, then makes her way to America with her two children, where they settle in Woodbine, Ohio. The daughter, Deborah, goes entirely native, becoming a baton-twirling majorette, later marrying a high school sweetheart who almost got into Yale.
But Miriam, who only in old age discovers some happiness in gardening, and her son don’t quite fit in. From an early age Joseph is reserved, guarded, the kid who always sits in the back of the classroom. In German his last name means “sketches,” and Joseph presents only the outlines of a self to the world: “He didn’t dress up his thoughts like toffs or tarts and parade them about on the avenues.”
Whether he helps out in a music store, attends a Christian community college, works in a library or lands a job as a teacher, Joseph lives a hidden life. He has no friends, no lovers, few possessions. His driver’s license is forged, his college credentials “slightly squinked”; he never acquires a credit card or pays taxes; he makes up a past in which his father played second violin for the Vienna Philharmonic. While growing up, the young man does interact with a series of colorful, slightly insane people, mainly women with lives as stunted as his own. By middle age, though, he has become a professor of music at Whittlebauer College, an institution where “academic standards were so relaxed as to seem asleep.” He specializes in Schoenberg — whose music he doesn’t like.
As you can tell: thrills a minute.
Actually, that’s exactly right, but those thrills mainly derive from Gass’s diction. As he once said, folks who go to books for lifelike characters or plots “are really not interested in literature. They are interested in folks.” As in his many essays, in his fiction Gass always makes his writing the center-ring attraction. Metaphors leap through hoops, similes elicit oohs and ahs, and daredevil paragraphs bring down the house. There’s never any fat or slack to his sentences, though sometimes they unfold quietly, almost slyly, until blossoming into little stories all their own: Annoyed at how people always “excuse” God, Gass here writes, “A tornado might trash a trailer park and the poor wretches who survived would thank him for sparing them, as well as preserving a children’s plate and one photo of the family grinning at the Falls as if they’d pushed the water over by themselves.”