Yeah . . . stubbing out another cigarette, in a voice like warm asphalt -- this was an arrangement I had in hard times. I had root canal work to be done, and this man, who was an endodontologist, which is a root canal man, was writing pieces for dental journals. But he was not awfully good with the language, so we made an agreement, a barter arrangement, of one paper, one root. So I'd come in with one tooth with two bad roots and he would do them and then I'd rewrite, really write, because these were very, and there was a battle in the endodontological world about whether debridement was desirable or even possible. Debridement is when they try to remove any source of infection so that when they do pack the root, it won't come to life. And his side was debridement was possible and necessary and can be done. So that's the side I was supporting.
-- Nice word, isn't it.
-- Oh yeah. Debridement is one of the great words . . . says novelist William Gaddis, one of the great survivors.
His novels churn with dialogue, swirl with nameless American voices -- "the babble," as he puts it, "of confused conversation." He has produced just three in 30 years, when not compelled to script training films for the Army, write keynote speeches for corporate vice presidents or ghost the odd polemic for his root-canal man.
His first book, "The Recognitions," published in 1955 when he was 33, and sprawling over 956 pages around a failed seminarian turned counterfeit painter, was a drily comic toppling of the artifice of western civilization. Widely attacked as unadvisedly ambitious, not to mention impossibly recondite, it was remaindered into oblivion, though it gained him an ardent band of followers.
His second, "JR," published 20 years later, was a 726-page conversational cacophony concerning a schoolboy who builds a financial empire, a relentless lampoon of the free-enterprise myth. A mass of dialogue offset by dashes, all but lacking in narrative, it got a better critical reception as well as the National Book Award, notwithstanding The New Yorker's judgment that it was "unreadable," like "molasses -- though the image is unfair, there being in molasses a varying structure and something that catches the light." Very few people managed to read "JR" before it, too, dribbled into remainders.
Now William Gaddis' third novel, "Carpenter's Gothic," is here from Viking Press, pursuing all of the darkly comic themes of his previous works: fakery, conspiracy, religion, greed, his notion of America as "a country of decent people who do terrible things." At 262 pages, it is positively laconic. And it is selling quite well, as the first two novels never did, but yet may, since Viking Penguin has just reissued both in paperback.
What's more, this new book has inspired a noisy celebration -- to go along with the quiet one in various corners of academe -- of Gaddis, Great American Novelist. As Cynthia Ozick declared recently on the front of the very establishmentarian New York Times Book Review, "Mr. Gaddis was, in fact -- and is -- new coinage: an American original."
Says the original himself, grinning an impish grin, "It cheers a fellow up immensely."
Until now, he has been as tight-lipped in public as his fiction is talkative, lending him something of the literary mystery that attends Thomas Pynchon, who is said to have produced his own mammoth first novel "V." under the heavy influence of "The Recognitions."
Gaddis holds forth at a house by a cloistered pond, in a room looking out on an immaculately barbered lawn. From "Carpenter's Gothic": His face appeared drained, so did the hand he held out . . . drained of colour that might once have been a heavy tan . . . hard irregular features bearing the memory of distant suns, the cool, grey calm of his eyes belying . . . belying? Gaddis sits tensely, bracing his body -- ready, it seems, for anything.
"Well. I've been ready for 30 years."
He lights up a low-tar cigarette and commences chain-smoking. "When you come right down to it, it is a massive act of ego, first to get out of The System and say, 'I'm not going to go to an office every day if I can possibly avoid it,' and then to write a novel. A novel is absolutely one's own creation, on one's own terms. It is one ego saying, 'I want you to read my work, accept my vision and agree. And applaud. And pay -- what is it? -- $16.95 for this privilege.' It is a unilateral kind of affront."
Among famous writers -- famous for being old, young, fast, slow, prolific, meager, hermitic, hermetic, sociable, drunk, rich, nasty or just famous -- William Gaddis is famous, as Ozick remarks, for not being famous enough. By writing long, difficult novels in an age that favors the short and simple, he has almost willfully courted obscurity.
He has been doggedly reticent about his personal life -- marriage and divorce, his two grown children, his private pleasures and affections -- and rigorous in his nonobservance of many of the rituals that most writers naturally accept as duties or delights. He simply refuses to answer the most mundane biographical questions -- a stance, he acknowledges with a chuckle, that only inflames people's curiosity.
"I don't want to be seen in People magazine, romping with my dog," he says. "It's the television influence on America, the tendency to put the man in place of his work, to think you get more of the writer by seeing him talk nonsense than from what is in the work on the page, which is really what he has sweated over, rewritten 90 times . . .
"I have really tried not to run along and explain -- 'But what I really meant was this or that.' Eventually there is the book and the reader -- and that's all there is to it . . .
"I get a steady stream of letters. I mean, from graduate students, doctoral candidates, who sometimes practically ask you to write the thesis. And then I write back, 'Listen, if I answered your questions in the detail that you put them, this is about two weeks' work and I can't afford it.'
"And odd, odd letters: 'Dear Mr. Gaddis, How do you get an idea for a novel?' You know, real simple, kind of touching, hopeless . . . You never know who's reading the books or what they're making of it. There are some very odd people in the world -- especially, it seems, nowadays.
"The one thing I am pleased with is that frequently they're so young. Young people -- those are the people whom you want to be in touch with. Three kids came, 10 or 15 years ago. They had called me once at two o'clock in the morning from California to talk to me about 'The Recognitions' and I was woken up. And then suddenly they called here, two guys and girl, and they were at Kennedy Airport, and wanted me to come into New York to take me to dinner. They had no idea of the geography. And I said 'Well, look, why don't you just come up here.' So they were elated. And they came up to this house and stayed overnight and they all flew back to California the next day . . .
"I get requests -- you know, a publisher sends me a book with that inevitable line about 'We think it's splendid and it's marvelous and we hope you'll enjoy it and give us a comment.' And then I laboriously write back and say 'I've never written blurbs and I don't ask for them.' I've never written a book review either. I know it would probably bring out the worst in me."
Gaddis pounces when a photographer asks to be shown where he writes.
"That I don't do . . . I work in a little room there. The one thing I don't care for is the writer at his typewriter, even if it's with bookshelves and an old typewriter, if you remember the old ones. And the other thing is the writer -- he's generally got a tweed jacket on and a pipe and he's looking right into the camera with that sincere . . ."
The sermon burns out in a trail of white smoke.
"Norman Mailer has talked about writing as an athletic contest. Hemingway said something once about 'getting in the ring with Mr. Tolstoy.' I see it totally differently. Have you read -- I think a stunning story -- 'Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner' of Alan Sillitoe? Oh, it is lovely.
"Even though the runner is in a race or training for one, even though that supposedly is the whole idea, there's a passage where he says something like, 'Really when I'm running all I'm doing is running -- and it's the most glorious feeling of freedom.'
"So the idea of the race is completely out of his mind while he's actually doing it. And that's much more the way I look at it, having run two long-distance races myself."
From "JR": -- Okay so what am I suppose to do! he kicked up a burst of leaves before him, stopped there to shift his armload -- . . . like I mean this here bond and stock stuff you don't see anybody you don't know anybody only in the mail and the telephone because that's how they do it nobody has to see anybody, you can be this here funny lookingest person that lives in a toilet someplace how do they know, I mean like all those guys at the Stock Exchange where they're selling all this stock to each other?
"He captures the sound of America with a great comic perception," says Frederick Karl, a literature professor at New York University who has published several essays limning a new academic frontier: Gaddis scholarship. He is, Karl has written, a founding father of a "profoundly American" fictional form -- "written mainly by white Protestant males" -- called the Mega-Novel. It is "open-ended, spatial, expansive, resolute but without resolution."
Karl argues that unlike "categories of Jewish novelists, gays, Black writers [and] female authors" who address special interests, "these white Protestant males [Gaddis, Pynchon, John Barth et al.] write very close to what America is," having "sensed the country as a whole."
Gaddis nods in agreement.
"In my case it certainly is true. I mean, the entire Protestant Ethic has been very much in me from my boarding school days on. My mother's family was Quaker. I was brought up pretty much in New England. I was taught that 'This is what you do and you do it right. These are the rules.' But now in America there are thousands of honest men who have worked hard -- and things haven't turned out very well."
His own life story -- or the part of it that he's let slip out -- has seemed at times to mirror the country's. It was not without self-mockery, in the late '70s, that he built a seminar at Bard College around the theme of failure in American literature. At about this time, Gaddis showed up for a weekend at a friend's house in his rusty red convertible, apparently much taken with a new Bee Gees tune on the radio. He was often heard to murmur the title while grinning to himself. "Stayin' alive," he repeated in a giddy refrain.
He was born in New York to comparative prosperity, was estranged early on from his father, went to boarding school in Connecticut and public high school on Long Island, enrolled at Harvard -- dropping out after some youthful highjinks with the Cambridge police -- went on to become a fact-checker at The New Yorker and frequented Greenwich Village saloons with members of the Beat Generation.
A kidney ailment forced him to sit out World War II. In 1947 he quit his magazine job and trekked to Mexico and Central America, where he managed to find adventure before returning by banana boat in 1948. A few months later he set off again, this time for Europe, where he wandered for three years and worked on his first novel. He came back in 1951 to finish it.
In 1953 one of his Village acquaintances, the legendary Jack Kerouac, portrayed Gaddis in "The Subterraneans" as "a kid called Harold Sand . . . a young novelist looking like Leslie Howard who'd just had a manuscript accepted and so acquired a strange grace in my eyes . . . flushed successful young author but 'ironic' looking with a big parking ticket sticking out of his coat lapel . . ."
"Jack made me rather more attractive than I felt at the time," Gaddis says. "I would go down and hang around at the San Remo, the bar that was sort of the place. You'd see Maxwell Bodenheim floating around, quite crazy by that time. [The once-celebrated poet-novelist, an enfant terrible of the Roaring Twenties who later took to panhandling, was found murdered along with his wife in their New York tenement in 1954.] And we were all just barely starting. I don't remember ever discusssing my work or poetry or literature or anything. Mainly we discussed what young men discuss in bars."
From "The Recognitions": There was a yelp from the end of the bar; and a few, who suspected it of being inhuman, turned to see a dachshund on a tight leash recover its hind end from a cuspidor. The Big Unshaven Man stepped aside. -- I'm God-damned sorry, he said. -- Oh, said the boy on the other end of the leash, -- Mister Hemingway, could I buy you a drink? You are Ernest Hemingway aren't you?
-- My friends call me Ernie, said the Big Unshaven Man, and turning to the bar, -- a double martini, boy.
Mostly, the novel got reviews like the one in The Washington Post, which noted the author's "vivid" imagination and "awesome" erudition, but condemned his work as "tedious" -- a book that could "cast little light on the terrain that most of us travel."
William Gaddis was crushed.
"Yes!" he says with an abrupt laugh. "It was quite painful. It was quite a blow. It took a while to recover. When you're that age, and you spend that much time on that complicated a book, you expect something to happen. And when it doesn't happen, it's very discouraging, to put it mildly. It took a while to recover really. And then I did the same damn thing all over again." He laughs. "Another long, complicated book."
Two decades intervened, during which he attempted a Civil War play and a western movie script among other projects, received federal and private grants and lived as a writer for hire. Later he would win a $280,000, five-year stipend from the MacArthur Foundation, and a place on the prestigious American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, but for awhile he labored on training and propaganda films for the Army. One imparted the ins and outs of field artillery, another celebrated the esprit of American advisers in Southeast Asia. He often visited the Pentagon in the early '60s.
"What of course struck me is I could have been carrying a hundred pounds of explosives, there was no security at all. Right in the center of the Pentagon there was a little kind of gazebo thing, a center court. And I would sometimes stand and look out there and think, 'My God, that is ground zero. That is where everything is aimed.' "
He stopped doing such work in 1964, out of distaste for the goings-on in Vietnam, and instead churned out speeches for Eastman Kodak. "Other people I knew who did this kind of work were appalled at the amount of research I would do and then the writing and rewriting and so forth. You can't afford to do it that way. You got to just snap it out. But it's my nature to sit down and try to do the best job I could."
America's desperate attempts to recapture the honest values of yore, only to grasp at mere counterfeits and perversions, is a unifying subtext of Gaddis' work. In "Carpenter's Gothic," a character named McCandless, a chain-smoking failed novelist who earns his living as a geologist and textbook writer, delivers liquorous stem-winders against such modern symptoms of American misguidedness as the corporate exploitation of Third World countries and the demagoguery of religious fundamentalism: Revealed truth is the one weapon stupidity's got against intelligence and that's what the whole damned thing is all about.
He sounds like an exaggeration of the author himself, an unabashed liberal who decries President Reagan's policies in Central America and South Africa ("If we only had constructive engagement in Nicaragua and sent money to the antigovernment forces in South Africa") and watches television evangelists ("Jimmy Swaggart is worth seeing") with the perverse delight of a connoisseur.
"As one grows older one realizes that the people who listen to you are the people who agree with you, and you agree with them. And the others just get harder in their positions. So there is a sense of futility, finally, in the effort. But the effort is worth continuing to make."
He is meticulous, almost plodding, off the starting block, given to detailed note-taking, exhaustive outlining -- "I even outline paragraphs" -- and strenuous working-out of concepts and characters. Inspiration does not come in an illuminating flash. "That's too mystical for me. I mistrust mysticism profoundly . . . The point in writing anything is to set some kind of a problem up. Or die of boredom at the typewriter."
Thus the present book is a departure from everything Gaddis has done before. "Carpenter's Gothic," although it took him the better part of a decade to produce, some of it in a house of that ersatz architectural style, is not a Mega-Novel. It reads like a tightly plotted potboiler.
"I wanted it to move very fast. Everything that happens on one page is preparing for the next page and the next chapter and the end of the book. When I started I thought, 'I want 240 pages' -- that was what I set out for. It preserved the unity: one place, one very small amount of time, very small group of characters, and then, in effect, there's a nicer word than 'cliche',' what is it? Staples. That is, the staples of the marriage, which is on the rocks, the obligatory adultery, the locked room, the mysterious stranger, the older man and the younger woman, to try to take these and make them work.
"In 'JR' the problem was to try to eliminate the author completely, the authorial voice if you like, the narration. Force the characters to tell the story themselves, create the story with the participation of the reader . . . In a sense, I did want people to sit down and read the book at one sitting, as absolutely absurd as that idea is.
"People are not prepared for something like 'JR' and so they find it inaccessible. I mean the mentality! A reviewer like [The New York Times'] Christopher Lehmann-Haupt found it absolutely impenetrable. A man like George Steiner [The New Yorker reviewer who compared it to molasses] -- I mean, he was outraged! And when I was working on it, I was hearing these voices and thinking, they come to life on the page and come off the page, and of course they're accessible."
Does he actually hear the voices?
"I must sound like Joan of Arc, but yeah."
From "Carpenter's Gothic": -- I told you why I wrote it, it's just an afterthought why are you so damned put out by it. This novel's just a footnote, a postcript . . .
Nine years ago when "JR" came out, Gaddis made a foray to A. Brentano's on New York's Fifth Avenue and discovered the sales people knew nothing about it. This time, when he went, incognito, to a bookstore in East Hampton, not only was "Carpenter's Gothic" on prominent display, it had quickly sold out. The apologetic manager said another shipment would be in soon.
These days Gaddis tends to smile a lot.
"A mint first edition of 'The Recognitions' will bring you $450 now. And somebody just told me that the prepublication, paperbound review copy -- someone quoted $950 for one of those. Imagine. I've often thought that I might end up making more money on my papers and notes and all this kind of stuff than I will on the books, but we'll see . . .
"One thing, especially with the first book, and this was 30 years ago, that terrible word 'erudition' got bandied about. There seemed to be a panic on everyone's part and they didn't want to say it was funny. That it was, in a way, a comic novel. But these other aspects of 'erudite' and 'complicated' and so forth, so of course it frightened people away.
"I mean, the last line of 'The Recognitions' [ . . . most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played] was there with forethought. I knew 'The Recognitions' would be highly spoken of but seldom read.
"I haven't read it in years. Every once in a while I pick it up, maybe looking for something, and read 10 or 20 pages and think, 'My, that's not bad at all' . . .
"There may be something in the notion, and someone has made the rude observation, that every writer writes only one book and writes it over and over and over and over again. One's frame of reference is constricted to one's thinking along certain paths, and you realize half way through something that it is a path one has trod before elsewhere.
"The myth of Philoctetes for instance. He was the hero with the bow, the great champion of the Greeks, who goes into the sacred garden where he's not supposed to be and is bitten by the snake, and has a festering wound and they get rid of him, they exile him. Then, when there's trouble and they need him and his bow, Ulysses and the prince come and say, 'Please, come and help us.' And that idea has always fascinated me."
Wounded years ago in the literary garden, exiled from the land of plenty, Gaddis has now been summoned back for his share of recognition.
"Somerset Maugham said, 'I think when all is said and done, I will be seen at the very front of the second rank.' A very painful, touching observation. But he was a marvelous storyteller. And I'm not, and this is not what I want to do, I don't want to be a marvelous storyteller. Conrad does it all. He's the marvelous storyteller and his work has depth under depth under depth."
And where will he be seen when all is said and done?
"I wouldn't say a word. What the Greek said -- 'Count no one happy until he's dead' -- that's about it, I think."