Friday, September 10, 2010

When OMENSETTER'S LUCK runs out

In April 1999, Salon magazine published David Foster Wallace's list of "five direly underappreciated U.S. novels since 1960." His selections (in chronological order):

  1. Omensetter's Luck by William H. Gass
  2. Steps by Jerzy Kosinski
  3. Angels by Denis Johnson
  4. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  5. Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson

I haven't read the Markson and Johnson books (but I probably will, and soon), and McCarthy's Blood Meridian is by now a widely acknowledged modern classic--a fact that surely owes more to Harold Bloom's endorsement than to DFW's--so I'll limit my comments to the first two books on Wallace's list.

Steps is a remarkable work of fiction. Of the three books by Kosinski that are still worth reading (The Painted Bird and Being There are the others), it's probably the best and certainly the most original. (Although his last book, the almost unknown Hermit of 69th Street, has a great deal of formal originality.) Over the past 30 years, Kosinski's reputation has suffered from tales of plagiarism (perhaps true), unacknowledged collaboration on novels attributed to Kosinski alone (absolutely true; the young and then unknown Paul Auster was one of K's 'assistants' and writes about the experience in his memoir Hand to Mouth), and even a smear campaign directed by the old Polish Communist Party. None of this changes the fact that Steps is one of the most bizarre, surreal, original, horrifying works in all of American literature. Anyone who hasn't read it should definitely check it out.

My praise of Omensetter's Luck is considerably more qualified. While I consider Gass one of America's best essayists and most eminent prose stylists, I've always found his fiction fatally uneven. There are some stunningly beautiful passages in Omensetter's Luck, there are many gorgeous sentences, and the book's second section, "The Love and Sorrow of Henry Pimber," reads like the work of a Sherwood Anderson who has been deeply influenced by James Joyce, but for me the novel goes seriously off the rails when Gass turns his narration over to the consciousness of Rev. Jethro Furber. The bad reverend's interior monologue is too much under the shadow of the "Proteus" section of Joyce's Ulysses, and Gass's little book is swamped by the implicit comparison. Omensetter's Luck is a beautiful book, yes, but it's not nearly so great as Gass wants it to be.

Note added Sept. 30, 2010: I have now read Angels and Wittgenstein's Mistress. My rave about the former and my parody of the latter can be read in later posts on this blog.

2 comments:

Robert Dornenburg said...

Angels comes recommended. I read it after Jesus' Son (everyone's introduction to Johnson tends to be Jesus' Son I think) and it's remarkable to see the control he had over his prose considering it was a first novel. It's not perfect, but a good read.

biblioklept.org said...

I've been going through this list as well. Loved Omensetter's Luck and Steps; haven't been able to find Markson's book (used anyway) yet; had read Blood Meridian a few times before I saw Wallace's list. I'm reading Angels right now and it's crushing, absolutely crushing.