Page Stegner, Editor
(Heyday/Santa Clara University)Up to a quarter-century ago, Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck and possibly William Saroyan were the Grand Old Men of the literary west. Saroyan and Steinbeck polished their world with sentiment, a romanticizing of the lives of farmers and fishermen and itinerant wanderers and the dispossessed. Steinbeck even finished his career by following the Okie trail west, but instead of the Joads and Rose O'Sharon, he drove with a mutt named Charley.
Stegner was of a different order. His early nonfiction spoke of the arid world far beyond the imagination of those who grew up in the eastern United States. He told of "the waterless pale desert spotted with shadscale and creosote bush and backed by barren, lion-colored mountains." It was a world of wanderlust and constant movement. And despair.
I spent my youth envying people who still lived in the house they were born in, in neighborhoods that they knew yard by yard, among people who had been familiars since earliest memory.
What was the thing Stegner most wanted? "I wanted an attic, to prove to myself that I had lived."
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For many of us, Wallace Stegner's West will give us the first chance to read his fiction. There are seven selections from his early and late novels --- and what a grim bunch they are.
Tom's mother comes to visit in the "The Double Corner," but she's mad as a hatter, getting off the train in the heat, hiding a cat in her heavy black coat, her chest bloody with scratches, muttering to herself. The family life there in the Central Valley is ideal, but she ultimately murders her cat by stuffing it in her suitcase ... then ends up eyeing the twin boys, Oliver and Jack, presumably as two other Gladstone stuffers.
The four ladies at the mail boxes in "The Women on the Wall" are patiently waiting to get the eleven o'clock missives from the "boys" overseas (it takes place towards the end of the Second World War). But it appears that three of the women are bearing what we also used to call "love-children" --- i. e., bastards. And one of the ladies is "hopped."
"She goes to a joint down there," Mrs. Vaughn said. "Fortune telling in the front, goofballs and reefers in the rear. She's a sucker for all three."
"Goofballs?" Mr. Palmer said. "Reefers."
"Phenobarb," Mrs. Vaughn said. "Marijuana. Anything. She doesn't care, long as she gets high. She's high as a kite now. Didn't you notice her eyes?"
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Finally there is an excerpt from the novel Angle of Repose. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, and was before its time, I guess. Lyman Ward, late fifties, lives alone in the family home in Grass Valley, California. He is a double amputee, confined, as they used to say, to a wheelchair, a result of degenerative bone disease:
I am like a piano on a dolly. Since I am battery-powered, there is no physical effort, and since I cannot move my head up, down, or to either side, objects appear to rotate around me, to slide across my vision from peripheral to full to opposite peripheral, rather than I to move among them.
The excerpt here represents the first seventeen pages Angle of Repose. I won't be reading the rest of it, no matter what prizes it got. It's an easy shot: the old man in his wheelchair, the bitter old man alone in the ancestral manse, alone except for the faithful black retainer, who comes at nine to help him bathe, "She helps her grotesque doll to stand up, and it clings to her while her gnarled hands ... fumble with zippers and buttons."
I cling there, in pain as always, naked, helpless, while she flops a testing hand in the water. Then she returns and hefts her maimed doll bodily into the air until the last clothing falls from its foot, and lowers it with grunts and sighs into the tub.
Lyman Ward: such an easy shot for a cynical writer, who got the Pulitzer for it. In truth, Stegner's West is simply not worth the candle. Except for the story of John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, July 6 to August 30, 1869.
Now that's a grabber. You might think of buying the original, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Then you won't have to wade through all the rest of the despair handed out here in what turns out to be Wallace Stegner's dreadful West.--- C. A. Amantea