Old School
Tobias Wolff
He's a prep school student, one of the literary types you and I envied because he, in his classic derivative way, could write stories for the school lit magazine that sounded like Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Joyce.

His prep school is one where he also can get to meet the famous. When Robert Frost comes to visit all students are welcome to write poems. These are mailed off to the poet. Frost chooses his favorite, and the author gets to spend an hour --- an hour --- alone with him after he does his reading. The same for Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway and any of the other visiting celebrities.

We've meandered through some Tobias Wolff before. This Boy's Life was an autobiography much beloved of the New York Literary Clambake. It was an artful but chilly New Yorkerish story: a fair amount of light, not too much heat, keep the passion under control. It was certainly no Philip Roth firebomb.

Even so, I set upon Old School in all good will and, after a few chapters, it does come to life, brings back some memories for those of us who entertained literary ambitions before we reached the age of reason, the literary passions we fell into at 14, 15, 16 --- mad passions for this or that author.

For me it was Richard Wright, Sherwood Anderson, Aldous Huxley. For Wolff's young hero, it's Hemingway. How does he choose to model himself after his hero? He types out, day by day, one of Hemingway's stories. That is his great literary love, at least until he stumbles across Ayn Rand.

You remember our Ayn Rand phase, don't you? We went through The Fountainhead, at least three times like our lad does here. It must be that sulky, powerful Roark, our hero: If they screw up your dream, blow it up.

    His face was a law of nature --- a thing one could not question, alter or implore. It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint.

§     §     §

The portraits laid out here of Frost and Ayn Rand and their visits are nigh about perfect. This is Frost:

    [He] was good at masking his eyes under those hanging brows, but now and then I saw him shift his gaze from the page to us without losing a word, He wasn't reading; he was reciting. He knew these poems by heart yet continued to make a show of reading them, even to the extent of pretending to lose his place or have trouble with the light . . . His awkwardness took nothing from his poems. It removed them from the page and put them back in the voice, a speculative, sometimes cunning, sometimes faltering voice.

The plot of this one, having to do with various types of plagiarism and fake associations, works ... sort of, but the ending is a sausage: cut it off and wrap it up and send it out to the world.

It's the passages on the writers and the writings that are such a pleasure. The kids' naked adoration of what comes across in print, and the delightful contrast with the real person: that's where the fun begins.

Ayn Rand: the gold dollar-sign pin on her chest, the stockings with a run, her lipstick slightly smeared at both edges, her way of trashing any question or opinion that does not support her belief in the übermensch, the cigarette in its holder, ashes falling in her lap, the dozen sycophants --- pale, dressed in black, taking up the front row seats to cheer her wildly. This is delicious reporting.

I suspect that this is where Wolff shines. His autobiography had that feel of the very competent work of a very competent reporter. When he shows us the ins and outs of politics in a small, rich school --- it is competent. But when he is sketching an Ayn Rand or a Robert Frost, he turns into a magician.

--- A. C. F. Winters

The Poems of
Dylan Thomas

Daniel Jones,

(New Directions)
Once, too many years ago, I used to work devotedly for a radio station which, in this narrative, will remain nameless.

It was a station of High Culture --- the plays of Shakespeare, the musics of India, the commentaries of pacifists, the feeling of Truth. I worked as a volunteer, my on-the-air contributions being, on the hour, to name the station and its city of license, to identify the music or talk we had just heard, and to introduce the next program. Then I'd turn off my microphone, start the next tape or the disc, and then wait a half-hour or an hour until I could announce what we had just heard, where we were (dial, city) and what we would be hearing next.

The only freedom we volunteers were given would be those rare instances when a program ran short and there were a few minutes to fill. We were then free to do a short reading, or to choose a cut from a selection of discs or tapes stored behind the control panel. One of those was a Caedmon recording of Dylan Thomas reading his own poetry.

Because of some strange aesthetics to which I was hostage in those days, I would, when I had a few minutes, invariably pull out the Thomas album. I can hear him even now, as I read these words,

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light...
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

I have to confess that part of my affection for him was that Thomas did not recite. No, he would bellow, and roar, and croak, and cry, and rave (and rage): Do not go GENTLE into THAT GOOD NIGHT,


§     §     §

I and many of my peers were enamored of Dylan Thomas and his rants. Not only did he deliver his lines like a Southern Baptist preacher, like a Southern Baptist preacher he also drank incessantly and, we were told, spent his days traveling about, giving readings, fondling the college ladies who flocked to hear him, leading the kind of dissolute life expected of poets, writers, painters, and, we hoped, some day, ourselves --- when the world finally recognized our talents.

There was something else that drew us to Thomas. It was the content of his poetry, a curious mixture of romanticism and mystery, perhaps even gnosticism. For instance, take these lines that he bellowed so beautifully:

    If I were tickled by the rub of love,
    A rocking girl who stole me for her side,
    Broke through her straws, breaking my bandaged string,
    If the red tickle as the cattle calve
    Still set to scratch a laughter from my lung,
    I would not fear the apple nor the flood
    Nor the bad blood of spring.

When this poem was delivered by Thomas, it sounded like we thought poetry should sound. But when we looked at it on the page, it became enriched, a puzzle loaded with contrary meanings. Why tickled? (Are we talking passion here?) The rub of love? (Ditto.) Why a rocking girl? (Ditto.) Who broke her straw? (Ditto.) What kind of straw? (I can guess.)

For those of us who were raised in the awful 1950s, where Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence were banned, the Kinsey Report a best seller, and Jane Russell a scandal, Thomas was taking us into lovely depths of passion, disguising it under the soulful banner of poetry.

He was immensely popular, had the following of a contemporary rock star. At the same time, when I told one of my older English friends of my adulation, she said "Well, just remember, Lorenzo, what they say about people from that part of England: Taffy was a Welshman / Taffy was a thief."

When Thomas finally drank himself to death, many of us were thrilled at the Perfect Artistic Termination of the self-destructive, quasi-mad poet. Too, we were saddened --- not with the death per se --- but because we had not had the chance to go mad along with him: to adjourn to the nearest pub, to match him gin for gin, watch as he got into a fight, or cozied up to some lady, or threw up, or passed out, --- so we could reconfirm our loving fiction about artists: They suffered, they suffered openly, they suffered destructively, they died for their art.

And I tell you, I can hear him now, forty years later, chanting, as he would, using his mad noisy bellowing chant,

    Through THROATS where MANY RIVERS meet, the CUR-lews CRY,
    Under the CON-CEI-VING MOON, on the HIGH CHALK HILL,
    And there this night I WALK in the

--- L. W. Milam
Go to a poem by Dylan Thomas

Rancho Costa Nada
The Dirt Cheap
Desert Homestead

Phil Garlington
Garlington claims to be useless at holding down a regular job, saving money, and making a living in the normal ways. He used to be a reporter, but, because of his wise-ass ways, he got laid off. Repeatedly.

One day he decided to dump it all, and move to the Southern California desert. Years before, he had bid on ten acres of wasteland in a tax sale, got it for $325, so all he needed to do was to build a desert dwelling for zilch dollars. This is the story of Rancho Costa Nada.

It is not merely a handbook on cheap construction, it is, too, an inspiration to many of the rest of us who cannot fit into the world of zoning laws, condos, bosses, building inspectors, the workaday world.

Garlington is very good at convincing us that he has little ambition and few talents (although he is a respectable writer). He is also very clear on how to build a usable shack in one of the bleakest places on earth --- the desert around Blythe, California --- using sand bags, scrap lumber, a bit of cement, an old car, and some ingenuity.

His primary source on how-to-build involved following up on the work of Nader Khalili, a Persian architect who developed sand bag buildings for the UN --- "a simple hut that could be built by refugees" --- and NASA (for building usable shelters on the moon!)

The author's principles are artfully plain: His hutch has to cost almost nothing, must involve nothing fancy, to be built with little or no labor. "No hard, repetitive, boring work," he writes: "I don't have the grit for it."

The first step is that one must start out buying land that no one else wants:

    Mother Earth News likes to depict the woodsy homestead in the tall pines by a gurgling brook. Fact is, even the rawest land these days is pricey if it comes with water and timber. The only really cheap land left in the States is worthless land. That means desert land. Bone-dry land.

The big problems that Garlington must deal with are (1) Constructing a house that won't get blown over by the desert winds; (2) Keeping cool in the summer and warm in the winter; (3) Always having enough water and, apparently, beer; (4) Getting stuck --- his place is fourteen miles from the nearest highway.

Part of the fun of Rancho Costa Nada is not only watching him solve these problems with a certain lazy resolve but, too, getting to know his crabby desert neighbors (he quotes at length the ramblings of one he calls "The Demented Vet.")

Too, there is the pleasure of getting to know Garlington himself. He tries to convince us that he is not too bright:

    Maybe it would be different if I were smart. But I had to let that bird go free early on, after I attended a couple of family reunions and saw my gene pool. The biological laws of Mendel were immutable and harsh, for fruit flies and for people. I had to face it: being a smart ass was not the same thing as being smart.

I have no plans to build a sand-bag castle in the Sonoran Desert, ever --- but Rancho Costa Nada was hard to put down. The very fact that Garlington can write a valuable book about survival, and --- all the while --- make it fun to read convinces me that his claims of stupidity should be billed on the cover as false advertising.

--- Lolita Lark
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