The Driftless Zone by Rick Harsch
One thing I learned from this trilogy is that satire diffuses meaning without defusing its force. Or not necessarily either. Luckily I was already aware that books are not typically received as they are offered. Yet equally alien were the thoughts of dastardly Christopher Atamian, who gave the book The Driftless Zone short shrift in the New York Times review that could have made my career or unmade it (the latter) and the unnamed (because I can’t find the review) author of an unbearably laudatory review in a Midwestern literary journal. I recognized my work in neither review. Happier is the writer who understands this inevitability.
And why should all be so clear in the first place? I did not set out to write these books at that most important stage in my writing life when I was at the University of Iowa, where I fit so well as an ingrate who by every gesture irritated, nauseated, undermined, mocked, disgusted the leader of leaders, Frank Conroy, may their never be another such to lord his gaseous arrogance over a writing program, much less one of such undeserved prestige as the Iowa Writers Workshop was at that time. An ingrate? In that I was there because they offered me two years of freedom to write, which I took fullest advantage of without respecting any tradition that bore semblance to colonial crotch rot. They took me out of a taxi into their midst, and I, well, I left Frank exhausted.
One of the quotidian irritants of the workshop environment is the infantilization of the writers, who ranged in age during my years of attendance from 22 to somewhere in the 40s, yet were all treated alike: as neophytes of mouldering and/or moldable subtalents. No one was yet a writer. I was saved from the multitude of insults, dismissals, inanities, fractures, knockout blows and night terrors that derive from such dystopian subverba by having entered the program with one toe, the fullness of my body entering only the novel I intended to write, had been writing in my mind for months, The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman. I am working on a minor revision currently and may bring it to print one day. I thank James Alan McPherson for not only recognizing what I was up to, but making the one valuable practical suggestion I received in two years at Iowa, to utterly re-think the opening to that book, which elevated to a more mystifying yet far more deep and elegant novel.
I finished that book with about six months left at the workshop. And I will say one more thing about it because this is an anecdote that means more to me than any other I can relate that should prevent writers seeking help from too eagerly accepting what they are served up as wisdom. Generally, I was writing the book page one to page 252, but during the first year, I found that over the Christmas break I had precisely ten free days alone. Coming up in the book was a section that I estimated would require 100 notebook pages. It was coming up, yes, a long way up, but I had had it in my mind along with the rest of the book for some time. I figured that if I could write ten pages a day for ten days I could finish that section, which was close enough to self-contained. I dedicated myself to the task and after ten days I finished, having covered 96 or 98 pages, writing in varied styles, some wild and hallucinatory, some satirical, some degraded descriptive…But I had what I wanted and I had estimated nearly precisely. How does one explain such a thing? I am not a wizard. Art is mysterious.
Some time after finishing the book, I went to visit La Crosse, Wisconsin, where The Driftless Trilogy takes place, and came across Bob Armagost, quoted above. We had driven taxi together and when I ran into him he had what seemed at the time an endless series of very funny tales that resonated with me. Probably even before the conversation was over I had decided to fill my spare time in Iowa with a novel about La Crosse. I don’t know if any of his stories made it into the book, but I returned and wrote the book in six weeks.
I will likely add more later, but here I stop for now to introduce the other two books of what became a trilogy, a trilogy of place I once considered it, but other terms are likely as acceptable. The next book was Billy Verite, featuring a minor character from The Driftless Zone, and allowing the Mississippi to play its role in a novel about a town that grew up on its shore. Finally, I wrote The Sleep of Aborigines, which began with my death so that the trilogy would remain three books, and which perhaps taught people once and for all that if they expect something from me, they are likely to be disappointed. In this case, the plot was too slender and at the same time too absurd for many tastes, the writing too post postage or something. I admit to its being the book of the three most liked by writers. Otherwise conversations about which of the three is best normally centered on the first two. I think the answer is that of the three Billy is best, the first the most iconic, and the last the closest to what I needed and wanted to write.