I interviewed myself once, years ago, and, having found myself to be charming, witty, and exceptionally well-informed, I was of course delighted when TNB offered me this opportunity to get together with myself again, and find out what I’ve been up to. So I Googled myself, and sure enough, there I was! I immediately got in touch with myself (so to speak), and we arranged to meet at our place where, over drinks (many drinks), we discussed our illustrious career and other subjects of mutual interest, as follows:
Golly gee, Mr. Clammerham, you sure have aged since our last interview!
Fuck off, sonny.
Age hasn’t done much for your disposition, I see. Suppose we move along, Mr. Mackrelham.
Suppose we do.
Okay, for starters, why did you choose “Great Moments in Sports” as your contribution to TNB? Isn’t that story getting a little … shopworn?
I wrote “Great Moments in Sports” and a companion piece, “Another Great Moment in Sports,” expressly for my book My Vita, If You Will (Counterpoint, 1998), a genuinely good book which the reading public, to its eternal disgrace, largely declined to purchase. So, ten years later, I thought I’d give the oblivious nitwits another chance by including both stories in O the Clear Moment (Counterpoint, 2008), now available in a nifty little paperback edition at fine booksellers everywhere.
More to the point, though, I love this story. How could I not? The characters—people—in it are very dear to me, as is that place and time. And, for once, I get to be the hero! The story is about as true as I could make it, and it takes place at just the right nanosecond in my life to serve as the beginning of the larger story that I wanted to tell in O the Clear Moment, my “implied autobiography.” And the icing on this sweet little cupcake was that the story’s epigraph, the Robert Graves poem that begins “O the clear moment … ,” provided what seemed to me the perfect title for a book which is, when you come right down to it, all about those small epiphanies that grace our lives if we’re alert to them.
So this would be your favorite story, eh?
Nope. My all-time favorite is “Finch’s Song,” the novella-length story in my collection A Congress of Wonders (Counterpoint, 1996).
That story haunted me for almost 35 years, and the tortured mutations it underwent over the course of all those years are, for me, a sort template of what was going on in the slow evolution of my own ideas about the kind of writer I wanted to be.
I spent my entire Stegner Fellowship year at Stanford (1962-63) writing what aspired to be a grim, unblinking, “naturalistic” account of a rural tragedy—a schoolbus wreck—somewhat after the manner of Erskine Caldwell, a writer whose work I still admire, by the way. But I was no Erskine Caldwell, and my attempt to be one had produced a 130-page enormity called (saints forgive me!) “Consider the Lilies, How They Grow,” with a cast of characters about whose real lives I knew, essentially, nothing at all. Believe me, it showed; aside from good intentions, my novella had almost nothing to recommend it. Worse, the story had been vaguely inspired by a real event that had taken place here in Kentucky, and I gradually came to realize that, inadvertently (those good intentions again), I had completely misunderstood and misrepresented the very nature of the people whose world I was presuming to explain and empathize with.
Yet I couldn’t quite let go of the story—or, more correctly, it wouldn’t let go of me. The first version had portrayed the bus driver, a meager little fellow named Finch Fronk, as the Pied Piper reincarnate, a man so maddened by the derision and rejection of his townsmen that he literally wills himself a heart attack in order to destroy his tormentors’ children. The writing had its moments—although even those were too often marred by faux-Faulkner stylistic flourishes (Faulkner having been my alternative southern literary hero)—, and I had also allowed myself to grow fond of some of the characters; but the story as I had written it became more and more an embarrassment to me. Finally, I wanted to disavow it altogether, not just to abandon it but to unwrite it somehow, to unravel it like an ugly, ill-made Christmas sweater, as though it had never been, and then to fashion a whole new garment with the yarn.
Which is what I hope I accomplished in “Finch’s Song.” After thirty-five years of obsessive reimagining and reshaping and reconfiguring and generally dicking around in a thousand ways with this long-suffering narrative of mine—the Yarn—, I ended up with not a whole new story but rather a whole new way of telling the same story. It’s still a story about Finch’s quest for vengeful justice, but now it’s also—and far more importantly—about the transformative power of revelation, whether the epiphany happens in a micro-moment of truth, as with Finch, or over thirty-five years, as with me.
My, how I do go on. Next question?
(You are a windy old party.) So Finch is your favorite fictional character?
Nope. My favorite character is the original windy old party (I heard you say that!), the celebrated Dr. Philander Cosmo Rexroat, B.S., M.S., and PhD., “internationally acclaimed explorer, globe-trotter, author, archaeologist, zoologist, ichthyologist, herpetologist, lepidopterist, philatelist, cosmologist, natural theosophist, minister of the Gospel, and licensed practitioner of colonic irrigation … ”—a man of parts, by any measure.
Rexroat, “the Cecil B DeMille of Sex Hygiene Entertainment,” and his consort, Wanda Pearl Ratliff, first turn up in my one and only novel, The Natural Man (still in print after all these years!) as the purveyors of an appallingly cheesy, sordid “sex education” film and traveling roadshow. The happy couple—my homage to the Duke and the Dolphin, although I’m certainly no Mark Twain either—return in A Congress of Wonders to play leading roles in the first two stories, and then make a cameo appearance in “Finch’s Song,” the third story in the book.
What I love about old Rexroat is just that he’s a post-Victorian fount of old-fashioned eloquence adapted to new uses, a spontaneous, jivin’ prose poet in the manner of Lord Buckley or Professor Irwin Corey or Neal Cassidy. When he appears in a story, I always breathe a sigh of relief, because for the next few pages all I’ll have to do is sit back and take down whatever he says. Rexroat is deeply, darkly cynical and as amoral as a pickpocket, yet he has what seems to me a discernible moral dimension, along with just the merest soupçon of human kindness, as well as a vast store of worldly wisdom:
“You must never presume upon the Cosmos, my lad,” he gently advises young Wade Capto, having just disabused him of every illusion the boy has ever possessed, or will ever entertain. “That wouldn’t be … good policy.”
Well, while we’re on the subject of favorites, do you have a—?
Favorite sentence? I thought you’d never ask.
By the oddest of coincidences, I was asked that same question years ago, on a literary panel at the University of Virginia, and I answered with some disingenuous piety like, Oh, I’m awfully fond of all my sentences, indiscriminately, even as the spawning trout adores all her little troutlings as they slip away downstream. Or words to the effect.
But I’ve always been dissatisfied with that answer, because in fact I do have a favorite sentence, and I do wish I’d had the presence of mind to think of it, and to read it aloud in my most stentorian tones before that august body. The sentence I wish I’d thought of is in my novel, The Natural Man (still in print after all these years!); it’s about 400 words long, a great, lumbering freight train of a sentence, and it’s laden with the punch lines of, as best I can count, 35 gloriously indecent jokes—a cargo which I hope is sufficient, in its rich, aromatic variety, to offend all but the most jaded local sensibilities at every whistle-stop along the line.
Do not suppose for one second, however, that I’m about to disclose here, free of charge or obligation, the actual words of that priceless sentence. For that, you have to buy the book—or at least check it out of the goddamn library. The enterprising McClanafan will find my sentence chuggin’ fragrantly along on pages 68 and 69.
One last question, Mr. Clamhammer, before we let you go: What the billy hell is an “implied autobiography”?
When I was a slip of a lad, taking undergraduate creative writing courses back in the 1950s, we used to talk about something we called the “implied novel,” by which we meant collections of short stories that had an over-arching narrative or a common setting (Joyce’s Dubliners, for example, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio) or that focus on a single central character (Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, or, many years later, our own Gurney Norman’s Kinfolks). The stories in O the Clear Moment are autobiographical to a fault (and largely true as well), but it took me a long time to realize that, amongst ’em, there was a narrative arc—an implied autobiography—striving to assert itself.
Thus was born a whole new genre! And I was there!