Of Bears and Literary Lions

YOU CAN hardly say hello to George Garrett before he starts telling stories. "You see that stretch of fence there?" he asks, pointing to a much-newer section of the wooden barrier separating his Charlottesville house from that of his neighbor, short story master Peter Taylor.

The fence story, slightly condensed: "A black bear tore the fence down, about two years ago. I was out here in the back yard with my dog. I didn't know what to do. I was trying to think things like 'dog,' 'out' . . . I was turning around the corner of my house when I saw these two guys coming down the driveway: a ranger with a Smokey the Bear hat and a tranquilizer gun, and a cop with a pistol. The policeman said a great line. 'There's a bear yonder in your back yard.' I said, 'Yes sir, I know that. We've met.' Incidentally, my dog, who was a hunting dog, paid no attention to the bear until I got him inside, when he got very bold. The bear disappeared onto the university campus. The ranger and the cop said they couldn't follow him there, they had no legal jurisdiction."

Garrett recounts all this in high spirits. To describe him as good-humored would be like calling Santa Claus upbeat. His skills should be in evidence Dec. 7 at the Folger Library, where he'll give a reading as the third recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award -- a signal honor, considering the first two winners were John Updike and Saul Bellow (Tickets: 202-544-7077).

It's just coincidental that the award, which is given for excellence in short stories, arrives the same season as Entered From the Sun, the third and last in his cycle of Elizabethan novels. Although Garrett has worked in all forms ranging from contemporary novels to poetry, plays and short stories, these three novels are generally seen as his major work. They've certainly been on his mind for much of his career.

Death of the Fox, the first of the books, was published in 1971 but conceived of as a biography of Sir Walter Raleigh some 20 years before. Over the years he made many notes, decided to do it as a novel instead, thought briefly of making a play out of it, made more notes, and finally figured out a method. There's a story about this, too, which starts with him as a Princeton student earning spare change by cutting editor Saxe Commins' lawn. Faulkner was one of Commins' authors; when he was there, Garrett had to turn off the power mower and cut the lawn by hand, for fear of waking up the novelist.

But that isn't the story. Once, Faulkner said he wanted to meet another Princeton resident and Commins buddy, Einstein. "Commins was very nervous about bringing together old and dear friends who probably wouldn't get along at all," recounts Garrett. "When they got there, Einstein came bounding out of the house, in the sweater and the full hairdo. He put his arm around Faulkner and said, 'Tell me, how do you do it?' Commins was ready to be driven into the ground like a tent peg, because Faulkner's going to come back with some horrible answer. But Faulkner kind of paused, took him with utmost seriousness and said, 'Well, Mr. Einstein, I hear voices. That's how I do it.' Einstein said, 'Isn't that interesting, so do I.' And they walked up and had a lovely time."

Garrett, too, began to hear voices during the composition of Death of the Fox. "My model was a term paper, which is very dull -- you're just trying to show off how much you know. Suddenly I thought of putting all of the notes away in a trunk. In a sense it was like that other model of American prose in our age, the final exam. I was going to have to remember this stuff, and anything I didn't remember wouldn't be in there. So it began to take shape as if I were remembering it or as it were being dictated."

Entered From the Sun is winning impressive reviews, but the author says, with a sort of resignation, "Doubleday kind of wrote this off before it hit the stands." Authors almost always say this, but in this case Garrett appears to have a large slice of truth on his side.

His long-time editor left several years ago. His current editor works out of his home, which generally translates into limited influence over things like reading tours (of which there wasn't one) or ads (also largely nonexistent). The two earlier novels in the cycle, published by Doubleday in 1971 and '83, were not reprinted in paperback and thus are unavailable. Shortly before the new book was published, the talented publicist who had handled many of the literary titles at Doubleday and was just starting work on this one, quit in frustration.

Factors such as these affect the success of a novel just as surely as the writer's choice of verbs and nouns. Luckily for Garrett, he has a large number of well-wishers who are eager to do battle for him.

For example, Entered From the Sun was not among the novels mentioned in Book World's Sept. 2 preview of forthcoming fall books. A letter to the editor dated that very same day was sent off, spearheaded by poet Henry Taylor and signed by novelists Robert Bausch and Richard Bausch (who helped select Garrett for the Malamud prize and will also introduce him), literary jack-of-all-trades Alan Cheuse and six other writers. "Lovers of profoundly skillful and ambitious storytelling," it said, "will not want to miss this culmination of a major American achievement."

But this was only a morning's work, involving a few phone calls and a spirited debate about just what language to use. A much more ambitious homage, featuring the work of seven of the signatories of the letter and numerous others, was published last year by Texas Review Press, a 186-page anthology titled To Come Up Grinning.

As long ago as 1971, there was a special issue of the Mill Mountain Review titled In Appreciation of George Garrett. Most American writers can't get even one of these festschrifts, at least not while they're alive.

"I can't complain," the subject says, "although there certainly is an elegiac tone to some of this. Back when I was about 40 years old, they were already writing as if I were over and done with."

So just what is it that provokes his friends to these and other tributes? He says he doesn't know. "I have to be careful about this. I consider them one and all people of great integrity. But I don't quite understand what my role is in this." Two writers who detest each other will sit in the same room, he reports with a certain wonder, just because he's there.

Mary Lee Settle, another longtime Garrett supporter, explains it by citing his own loyalty and enthusiasm. "When no one knew about me at all," she says, "he was out barking like a bull dog. And I'm not the only one, by any means."Kennedy on Hold THERE HAVE been conflicting reports about just what was happening with Joe McGinniss's book on Ted Kennedy, so it seemed a worthwhile move to call up the writer himself. The bestselling author of Fatal Vision and Blind Faith says the Kennedy project is on hold while he completes a story with "true-crime elements" about "an extremely dysfunctional family" in North Carolina. That should be finished by next summer.

"I didn't feel there was any pressing need to rush the Kennedy book into print," McGinniss says. There has been no cooperation from the subject. During his '88 reelection campaign, McGinniss says, the senator appeared to leave the door open for interviews, "but when the time came, the time never came."

Says the writer: "I'd certainly like to talk to him at some point, but I've found that despite his wishes a number of people who know him well have been willing to talk quite candidly and sympathetically, although with the understanding that he never know."

McGinniss characterizes his book as more of an effort at understanding than sensationalism. "The National Enquirer version of his life is in a way the least interesting. I've never been drawn to writing scandalous exposes."

Meanwhile, the McGinniss/Janet Malcolm controversy (briefly: she accused him of being less than candid with one of his subjects, convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald; she, in turn, had her own albatross in the form of being sued for allegedly making up quotes) appears to be receding into history. McGinniss says any resulting notoriety apparently hasn't affected his Kennedy sources: "The kind of people I'm talking to {about Kennedy} haven't exactly been convicted of triple homicides."A Military Coup PROPELLED BY the popularity of Ken Burns' "Civil War" TV epic, the two latest volumes in the Library of America are the fastest-selling titles ever in the 51-volume series. Memoirs and Selected Letters of Ulysses S. Grant has more copies in print than any except Lincoln's two books. Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman is also doing extremely well.

Earlier this month, filmmaker Burns spoke at a meeting here of the National Council for the Humanities, a board of advisers to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cheryl Hurley, publisher of the Library, told the board that "I imagine comparing oneself favorably to Ken Burns these days has probably achieved the status of a national pastime, at least among grantees."

Still, she added that there some valid points of comparision between her books and his film: "Both were started with funding from the NEH, and both are ambitious, sweeping projects that have as their aim reaching millions of Americans."

Accordingly, Hurley presented Burns with the Library's complete works. The point of the gift, which was the idea of NEH chairman Lynne Cheney, is to encourage Burns to investigate other aspects of American history instead of going Hollywood. "You have drawn on Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and Stowe," Hurley told him, "but the full sweep of American literature and history await you."On the Town ROSS THOMAS is the poet laureate of the spymaster's Washington. His new novel, Twilight at Mac's Place, takes up again the story of former agents McCorkle and Padillo and their bar: "After nearly a generation it could still be found at the same location a few blocks north of K Street and a little less than that west of Connecticut Avenue. Because it had endured so long in Washington, where restaurants often have the life span of a mayfly, many thought of Mac's Place as either an undesignated landmark or, if they were under 30, a quaint and curious monument to the sixties."

To advertise the novel, Mysterious Press is using the unlikely venue of the back of Metro tickets. Not every ticket, of course. "I rode out to Rockville," the novelist commented during a swing through town. "I figured if I got a more expensive ticket it would pop out. That didn't happen. Maybe you have to keep putting in money, like with a slot machine." (Thomas also said that on this tour he had met for the second time a fan who had named his son Ross Thomas. Top that, George Garrett.)

Thomas may still use Washington as a setting, but he long ago abandoned the city for the more pleasant climes of Malibu. Three of those who remained behind were celebrated in the eighth annual Authors' Recognition Day at the Martin Luther King Memorial Lobby. Children's author Eloise Greenfield, poet and fiction writer Josephine Jacobsen and poet and biographer Reed Whittemore were honored in a ceremony full of poetry and warmth.