IOWA City. Mmmmm.
True story. Several years ago, as I left an American novel class that I teach at the University of Iowa, I ran into a novelist friend of mine -- we'd ended many a cocktail party slumped on a sofa, sipping drinks and trading stories -- who greeted me, his eyes ecstatic, with the pronouncement: "I've quit my job!"
His job was teaching fiction writing at the well-known Writers Workshop here, and I guess I'd gotten used to tipping glasses with him at those parties, because my immediate reaction was, "Awww, why'd you have to go and do that?"
His eye kept gleaming. "I've sold a new book! It's going to be a hit! I'll make so much money I won't have to teach anymore!"
He was almost jumping up and down. Oblivious students herded past us. I found myself numbed. Make no mistake. This man was talented. His novels were a credit to him. But none had ever attracted so wide an audience that resigning from the Workshop would have seemed financially possible. I recalled friends having cautioned me not to quit my own teaching position -- in the Literature department, not the Workshop -- after my novel First Blood had been published. The IRS, they reminded me. Inflation. The fickle public. As things turned out, I could have quit teaching, but I'm a sucker for a captive audience, and I stayed. Those cautions remained in my mind, however, and I pointed out to my friend that maybe quitting wasn't the right way to go. Maybe a leave of absence. Prudence. Burning bridges, etc.
"No, I'm sure! I know it! The book'll be big! I've handed in my resignation!"
"Well, if your mind's made up . . . Say, what's this book called?"
And when he told me, I didn't know what to think and urged even further caution.
But he did resign, and the book did become a hit. The writer? John Irving. The book? The World According to Garp.
I mention that story not to give you a chance to feel superior by hindsight. Remember, I knew nothing about the book, and even if I had, predicting literary success is like betting on horses. A lot of could'ves and should'ves. My point is that such a conversation isn't unusual out here. Iowa City has 50,000 residents, half of them students, and sometimes it seems that nearly each of them -- doctor, lawyer, undergraduate, and census taker -- has a manuscript in a drawer. One of few communities like it, this is a writer's town, and placing your bets on literary success is an ordinary part of the day's activity.
Indeed when I had that conversation with John, other luminaries -- or potential ones -- were here as well. Gail Godwin had not yet written her best-selling A Mother and Two Daughters, but the books that she'd already produced were remarkable. John Cheever was a guest professor: "What was your latest advance?" he wanted to know at the start-of-semester cocktail party. Vance Bourjaiy was on the Workshop staff, his fiction a favorite of mine, and he himself a favorite of writing students, not to mention a wicked trumpeter at jazz parties (I fondly remember my stint on piano) that he hosted in his school-house workroom on a hill 12 miles through rolling wooded countryside from town. The Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Donald Justice, gladly took my money at winter poker games that he organized at his house.
ALL OF THESE and more -- I've mentioned just the famous ones -- were as close as the telephone or the corridors of the English building. And every week, it seemed, a writer of eminence came to town for a day or two to give a lecture and meet with writing students -- Barth, Borges, Gass, Hawkes, Hell,Snyder, Updike, Vonnegut. On and on. You get the idea. And then there were brilliant students. T. Coraghessan Boyle was producing short-story stunners that he placed in Esquire and The Paris Review, and along the way he handed me classroom assignments so striking that I indeed put my bets on him. Two wondrous novels later, he's achieving the large reputation he deserves. Ron Hansen was doing the research for his well-received Desperadoes. Again, on and on. You get the idea.
The town itself has a charm. After having lived here for 14 years, I'm still not jaded. Granted, there are some trashy neon-blinding fast-food strips that can give you a cholesterol attack merely by suggestion. But as for the rest of town, well, a century ago, Iowa City was for an eye-blink the capital of the state, and the legislative building -- what we call "Old Capital" -- has been preserved, a university administration complex high on a campus hill, its glinting golden dome distinctive for miles around. Some of the brick- paved streets survive from the old days. The trees are majestic. A river flows through the middle of town. From my office window, I watch ducks floating by in summer -- and students standing on ice, scuffling scatalgical messages in the snow during winter. Recently, after a party, I drove a friend home late at night, and coming back, seeing mist that drifted off the river to reflect street lights, enshroud dormitories and classroom buildings, and halo golden-domed Old Capital, I felt an overpowering happiness. The good, right place. Indeed.
I haven't mentiond the practical matters -- survival you might say. On an average, the town seems to have more doctors and dentists than almost any community in the country. If my 12-year-old son wakes up with suspicious white spots on his throat, I've never had to wait more than 90 minutes to get him into the doctor's office. And if you've got a problem with your teeth, consider this. A movie producer once came to town to talk to me about a project. While we ate dinner, I bit down too hard on a piece of steak, struck a bone inside it, and shattered a tooth. The crack was so loud that everybody in the restaurant tured to look at me. As my face went ashen, the producer started laughing. "You really did?" he asked. "You broke a tooth? That's wonderful. Now I've got a David Morrell story." Too much in shock to lunge across the table and strangle him, I managed to stagger to a phone, woke up my dentist (we're talking midnight), and 30 minutes later I was in his chair while he cheerfully performed a root canal. Where else in the country could such a story be possible? A dentist who'll see you in the middle of the night? With 30 minutes notice? And be cheerful yet? Can this be paradise?
And how about chicken for 60 cents a pound, hamburger for 98 cents a pound, and beefsteak for a $1.08 a pound?
But back to the writers. You'll notice that in my earlier catalogue of names, I used the past tense. Irving, Godwin, Bourjaily, Justice and the rest -- they're living in other places now. Sure, writers frequently like a change of scene. But a part of their spirit remains. Indeed this town thrives on its past -- Vonnegut startingSlaughterhouse-Five here, Tennessee Williams failing to gain distinction in his drama courses here, Flannery O'Connor moving from apartment to apartment here (many writing students want to live in those apartments, hoping to be affected by the ghost of her inspiration), Nelson Algren losing disastrously at poker here. Walter Tevis, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Nicholas Meyer -- stories are told about them all.
And in the present? The noted poet, Marvin Bell. The Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist, James Alan McPherson. The International Writers Workshop brings in several hundred foreign authors each year. The parade of noted two-day visiting writers continues. Clark Blaise just bought a house here. Last night at a party, I spent a pleasant hour with Rust Hills and Joy Williams, delighted that they'll be teaching in the Workshop this semester. The writing students continue to strive toward recognition. No doubt, bets are now being placed as to which of them will distinguish themselves and take their own place in local folklore.
A WHILE AGO, they got some help. James Michener arrived to donate a million dollars to the Workshop. The interest from that magnificent sum is intended to supply scholarships for writing students who otherwise might have to give up time at the typewriter in order to support themselves at nonwriting jobs.
But even without Michener's generosity, the job would get done. At night as I write at my desk, I glance out my window toward the lights of the town, and sometimes I imagine that I can hear it, faint, isolated, then merging, louder. Tap . . . Tap, tap . . . Taptaptaptaptap tap. A legion of fingers hitting keys. A city of words. CAPTION: Picture 1, John Irving, By John Bingham; Picture 2, Gail Godwin, By Jerry Bauer -- The Christan Science Monitor; Picture 3, James Michener. Copyright (c) John Kings