“His skin was pale, his hair was dark and all over the place, and he was wearing Doc Martens. He was just the embodiment of cool,” a former student said after meeting writer and editor Richard Peabody. In a milieu populated by poseurs and wannabes, Peabody’s bohemian cool was the real thing, a hard-earned byproduct of four decades at the epicenter of the underground Washington literary scene. His journal Gargoyle has served as an incubator and showcase for two generations of writers since its founding on the fringes of the punky alternative fanzine scene of the 1970s. A prolific poet and writer in his own right, Peabody has finally made his inimitable work available in this substantial compendium.
The writing collected in “The Richard Peabody Reader,” edited by Lucinda Ebersole, is sprawling, genre-bending, politically barbed, occasionally sloppy and often bruisingly funny. Peabody’s poetry is quick and witty, with a laconic, conversational swing to it that makes the sudden leaps into metaphor or whimsy especially striking and effective. An angry father “puffs up bigger and bigger/ — like a barrage balloon”; an ancient gospel singer owns an “Aerosonic stand-up piano/ whose yellowing keys clashed with her wallpaper.”
The stories, in contrast, tend to be loping, shaggy-dog misadventures in stalled domesticity and misplaced love that lurch to a sudden, quirky epiphany. Their invariably male narrators are often brazenly predatory, even ruttish — a startling disjunction coming from the pen of a man who published three anthologies of women-only fiction and co-edited a pro-reproductive freedom anthology.
Both the stories and poems are rooted in the grain and fiber of Washington, installing this notoriously anomic city with a real sense of place. Peabody’s characters and stand-ins walk “along the C&O Canal in Georgetown,” they drink “at the Varsity Grill or Town Hall,” they “go to free concerts” at Fort Reno — a refreshing specificity in a time when American culture seems to be accelerating toward a kind of willed placelessness, a flattening of civic and regional identity.
And in a town — and industry — famous for collegial logrolling, these stories have real bite: Many of them are open in their depiction of the spiky combination of envy and resentment endemic to the zero-sum fishbowl of publishing. The rollicking sexual roundelay of Peabody’s 2000 novella “Sugar Mountain,” included here in its entirety, features a scene in which the ex-wife of the suspiciously Peabody-like protagonist, Hal, calls with the news that “somebody in New York” has “paid twenty thousand up front” for her “chick book,” while Hal is stuck “waiting on people who buy books because they watch Oprah.” The writers’ conference depicted in “Country Porch Lights” is a cesspool of snobbery and sycophancy, gilded with “self-indulgent aphorisms and psycho-babble.” In Peabody’s world, success inevitably signals a telling lack of seriousness and integrity.
This is entertaining, but one must ask — in a discreet whisper — whether Peabody’s renowned editorial savvy and eye for talent are not in some way suspended when turned inward. Moving through the stories, one fights the uneasy sense that while many are lively and engaging, on the whole they lack the spark that animates truly great prose. There’s no shame in this; the list of important editors who never quite made the jump into full-fledged authorship is long and distinguished. In a haunting passage near the end of “Sugar Mountain,” Peabody explicitly summons this very specter. Hal’s daughter rifles through her father’s desk and concludes that his unpublished magnum opus is “not a masterpiece after all. Wanted it to be for his sake. Breaks my heart.”
No hearts need be broken here, though. In his wise and affectionate introduction, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda writes of the redeeming power of Peabody’s “moving reflections on time and the passage of time and the failure of our youthful dreams to come true.” So it is: The life work of this proud, bitter, principled, generous man and the immeasurable service he has done on behalf of literature command respect and deserve attention.
Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
On May 30 at 6 p.m., Richard Peabody will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
THE RICHARD PEABODY READER
Edited by Lucinda Ebersole
Alan Squire. 435 pp. Paperback, $24.95