>  
 

Recent Work By Ed McClanahan

The Day the Lampshades Breathed

 

“We must all be foolish at times. 

It is one of the conditions of liberty.”

—Walt Whitman

Like just about everybody else who lived in California during the 1960s, I Went Through a Phase. I grew me a mustache and a big wig, and got me some granny glasses and pointy-toed elf boots and bell-bottom britches (which did not, Charles Reich to the contrary notwithstanding, turn my walk into “a kind of dance”; nothing could turn my walk into a kind of dance). I threw the Ching. I rocked and I rolled. I ingested illicit substances. It was épater le bourgeois time, baby!

But this was not my first attack of mal de Californie. I’d been through it all before.

By way of explanation, let me go all the way back to 1952 just long enough to say that after that uninspired freshman year at Washington & Lee, I moved on for three more uninspired years at Miami of Ohio, where I majored in 3.2 beer and blanket parties on the golf course and published uninspired short stories in the campus lit mag. In 1955, I went to Stanford to try my hand at creative writage in graduate school.

Stanford was too many for me. I lasted just two quarters before I received a note from the chairman of the English Department inviting me to drop by and discuss my highly improbable future as a graduate student. I declined the invitation but took the hint, dropped out, and slunk back home to Kentucky to conclude a brief and embarrassingly undistinguished graduate career at the state university in Lexington. Thence to Oregon, and four years of honest toil at Backwater State College, in the freshman composition line.

But California had left its mark on me. For I had gone west as the blandest perambulatory tapioca pudding ever poured into a charcoal-gray suit, and I came home six months later in Levi’s and cycle boots and twenty-four-hour-a-day shades, with an armpit of a goatee and a hairdo that wasn’t so much a duck’s-ass as it was, say, a sort of cocker spaniel’s-ass. I had been to San Francisco and seen the Beatniks in North Beach, I had smoked a genuine reefer, I had sat on the floor drinking cheap Chianti and listening to “City of Glass” on the hi-fi. I’d been Californified to a fare-thee-well, and I’d loved every minute of it.

So when I weaseled my way back into Stanford—and California—in the fall of 1962 via a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing, it was a case of the victim returning to the scene of the outrage, eager for more. Immediately, I sought out my old Stanford roommates, Jim Wolpman and Vic Lovell, who were now, respectively, a labor lawyer and a grad student in psychology, living next door to each other in a dusty, idyllic little bohemian compound called Perry Lane, just off the Stanford campus. Among their neighbors was Ken Kesey, himself but lately down from Oregon, whose novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had been published just a year ago and was in fact dedicated to Vic—“Who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs”—for having arranged Ken’s enrollment as a test subject in a drug-experiment program at the local VA hospital. And the neighborhood was fairly crawling with writers and artists and students and musicians and mad scientists. It was just what I was looking for: a bad crowd to fall in with. I moved in a couple of blocks down the street and started my mustache.

In a lot of ways, it was the same old California. We still sat on the floor and drank cheap Chianti, though now we listened to Sandy Bull and called the hi-fi a stereo, and the atmosphere was often murky with the sickly-sweet blue smaze of the dread devil’s weed. The manner we’d cultivated back in the fifties was sullen, brooding, withdrawn but volatile, dangerous—if not to others, then at the very least to ourselves. Its models were Elvis, James Dean, Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The idea was to seem at once murderous, suicidal . . . and sensitive.

(Locally, our hero in those days had been, improbably enough, the president of the Stanford student body government, George Ralph, who’d campaigned in sideburns and Wild One leathers behind the sneering slogan “I Hate Cops.” George’s campaign was a put-on, of course—between those sideburns was a dyed-in-the-wool Stevenson Democrat—but he had the style down cold, and he beat the cashmere socks off the poor Fraternity Row cream puff who opposed him.)

But six years can wreak a lot of changes, and by 1962 the future was already happening again on Perry Lane. “We pioneered”—Vic was to write* years later, with becoming modesty—“what have since become the hallmarks of hippie culture: LSD and other psychedelics too numerous to mention, body painting, light shows and mixed-media presentations, total aestheticism, be-ins, exotic costumes, strobe lights, sexual mayhem, freak-outs and the deification of psychoticism, Eastern mysticism, and the rebirth of hair.” Oh, they wanted to maintain their cool, these pioneers, they wanted to go on being—or seeming—aloof and cynical and hip and antisocial, but they just couldn’t keep a straight face. They were like new lovers, or newly expectant mothers; they had this big, wonderful secret, and their idiot grins kept giving it away. They were the sweetest, smartest, liveliest, craziest bad crowd I’d ever had the good fortune to fall in with. And their great secret was simply this: They knew how to change the world.

“Think of it this way,” my Perry Lane friend Peter, who never drew an unstoned breath, once countered when I mentioned that my TV was on the fritz. “Your TV’s all right. But you’ve been lookin’ at it wrong, man, you’ve been bum-trippin’ your own TV set!”

For a while there, it almost seemed as if it might really be that easy. The way to change the world was just to start looking at it right, to stop bumming it out (ah, we could turn a phrase in those days!) and start grooving on it—to scarf down a little something from the psychedelicatessen and settle back and watch the world do its ineluctable thing. Gratified by the attention, the world would spring to life and cheerfully reveal its deepest mysteries. The commonplace would become marvelous; you could take the pulse of a rock, listen to the heartbeat of a tree, feel the hot breath of a butterfly against your cheek. (“So I took this pill,” said another friend, reporting back after his first visit to the Lane, “and a little later I was lying on the couch, when I noticed that the lampshade had begun to breathe . . . ”) It was a time of what now seems astonishing innocence, before Watergate or Woodstock or Vietnam or Charles Manson or the Summer of Love or Groovy and Linda or the Long, Hot Summer or even, for a while, Lee Harvey Oswald, a time when wonder was the order of the day. One noticed one’s friends (not to mention oneself) saying “Oh wow!” with almost reflexive frequency; and the cry that was to become the “Excelsior!” of the Day-Glo Decade, the ecstatic, ubiquitous “Far out!” rang oft upon the air.

The first time I ever felt entitled to employ that rallying cry was on Thanksgiving of 1962. That evening, after a huge communal Thanksgiving feast at the Keseys’, Ken led me to his medicine cabinet, made a selection, and said matter-of-factly, “Here, take this, we’re going to the movies.” A scant few minutes later, he and I and three or four other lunatics were sitting way down front in a crowded Palo Alto theater, and the opening credits of West Side Story were disintegrating before my eyes. This is . . . CINERAMA! roared the voice-over inside my head as I cringed in my seat. And though I stared almost unblinking at the screen for the next two hours and thirty-five minutes, I never saw a coherent moment of the movie. What I saw was a ceaseless barrage of guns, knives, policemen, and lurid gouts of eyeball-searing color, accompanied by an earsplitting, cacophonous din, throughout which I sat transfixed with terror—perfectly immobile, the others told me afterward; stark, staring immobile, petrified, trepanned, stricken by the certainty, the absolute certainty, that in one more instant the Authorities would be arriving to seize me and drag me up the aisle and off to the nearest madhouse. It was the distillation of all the fear I’d ever known, fear without tangible reason or cause or occasion, pure, unadulterated, abject Fear Itself, and for a hundred and fifty-five awful minutes it invaded me to the very follicles of my mustache.

Then, suddenly and miraculously, like a beacon in the Dark Night of the Soul, the words “The End” shimmered before me on the screen. Relief swept over me, sweet as a zephyr. I was delivered. The curtain closed, the lights came up. I felt grand, exuberant, triumphant—as if I’d just ridden a Brahma bull instead of a little old tab of psilocybin. If they’d turned off the lights again, I’d have glowed in the dark. Beside me, Ken stood up and stretched.

“So how was it?” he inquired, grinning.

“Oh, wow!” I croaked joyfully. “It was fa-a-ar out!”

And in that instant, for me, the sixties began. Characteristically, I was about two years late getting out of the gate, but I was off at last.

Ken Kesey was a singular person, as all who knew him will attest. But these were all singular people, this lunatic fringe on Stanford’s stiff upper lip. I should probably keep this to myself, but to tell the truth, the thing I remember best about the next few years is the parties. We had the swellest parties! Parties as good as your childhood birthday parties were supposed to be but never were; outrageously good parties, parties so good that people would sometimes actually forget to drink!

The best parties were immaculately spontaneous. Typically, they began with some Perry Lane denizen sitting at the breakfast table, staring out the kitchen window into the dappled, mellow perfection of a sunny California Saturday morning, resolving: Today, I’m gonna take a little trip. By early afternoon, two or three friends would have dropped by and signed on for the voyage, and together they’d choke down either some encapsulated chemical with an appetizing title like URP-127 or an equally savory “natural” concoction like peyote-orange-juice upchuck or morning glory seeds with cream and sugar (don’t try it, reader; it ain’t Grape-Nuts, and there’s nothing natural about it), and then for the next half hour or so they’d lie around trying not to throw up while they waited for the lampshades to start respiring. A similar scene was liable to be transpiring in two or three other Perry Lane households at the same time, and it wouldn’t be long till every lampshade in the neighborhood was panting like a pufferbelly. The incipient party would have begun to assert itself.

Under the giant oak by Vic’s front door—the very oak in whose shade Thorstein Veblen was alleged to have written The Theory of the Leisure Class—half a dozen solid citizens with pinwheel eyeballs might be banging out an aboriginal but curiously copacetic sort of hincty bebop on upturned wastebaskets, pots and pans, maybe an old set of bongos left over from the fifties, Vic himself laying down the basic bop lines on his favorite ax, a pocket-comb-and-tissue-paper hum-a-zoo. Next door at the Keseys’, they’d have drawn the blinds and hung blankets over the windows, and Roy Sebern, a wonderfully hairy artist who lived, apparently on air, in a tiny box on the back of his pickup in a succession of backyards, would be demonstrating his newest creation, a rickety contraption that projected amorphous, throbbing blobs of luminous color all over the walls and ceiling like lambent, living wallpaper, to the murmuring chorus of “oh-wows” and “far-outs” that issued from an audience of several puddles of psychedelicized sensibility on the Kesey carpet. Over at my house on Alpine Road, Peter and I would be feverishly juicing peyote buttons in my wife’s brand-new Osterizer.

In the late afternoon, Gurney Norman, another apprentice writer from Kentucky, might turn up, sprung from Fort Ord on a weekend pass. Gurney had made his way to Stanford and Perry Lane a couple of years earlier (it was he, in fact, who’d spotted the original breathing lampshade), and had then gone into the army to complete an ROTC obligation, and promptly bounced back to California in the guise of a first lieutenant, running recruits through basic training down at Ord during the week and expanding his horizons at Perry Lane on the weekends. The military was doing great things for Gurney’s organizational skills; within minutes of his arrival, he’d have a squad of giggling beardy-weirdies and stoned Perry Lane–style Wacs in muumuus hut-hoop-hreep-hoing up and down the street with mops and broomsticks on their shoulders, in an irreverent gloss on the whole idea of close-order drill.

Eventually, the party would assemble itself somewhere, more than likely around the corner at Chloe Scott’s house, to take on victuals and cheap Chianti. Chloe is at all odds the most glamorous woman I’ve ever known. A professional dancer and dance teacher, redheaded and fiery, a real knockout and a woman of the world, Chloe Kiely-Peach of the British gentry by birth, daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy, she’d come to America, to New York, as a girl during the Blitz, and had stayed on to become, in the early
fifties, part of Jackson Pollock’s notoriously high-spirited East Hampton social circle. Along the way she married a dashing young naturalist and spent a year on the Audubon Society’s houseboat in the Everglades, fell briefly under the spell of a Reichian therapist and basted herself in an orgone box, and at last, divorced, made her way west to settle in as one of the reigning free spirits on Perry Lane. At Chloe’s anything could happen.

And, as they say, it usually did. For starters, Neal Cassady might fall by, the Real Neal, Kerouac’s pal and the prototype for Dean Moriarty of On the Road, trailing adoring fallen women and authentic North Beach beatniks in his wake, looking like Paul Newman and talking as if he’d been shooting speed with a phonograph needle—which, come to think of it, he probably had: “Just passing through, folks, don’t mind us, my shed-yool just happened to coincide with Mr. Kesey’s here, and all that redundancy, you understand, not to mention the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson and the worst of the poems of Schiller, huntin’ and peckin’ away there as they did, except of course insofar as where you draw the line, that is, but in any case I believe it was at, let me see, Sebring, yes, when Fangio, with the exhaust valves wide open and the petcocks, too, that you’ve sometimes seen, starting with Wordsworth, you see, and working backward, in the traditional fashion, straight through Pliny the Elder and beyond, though it’s much the same with the fusion of the existential and the transcendental, or, if you will, the universal and the transmission, as in the case of the 1940 flat-head Cadillac 8, why, you naturally get your velocity mixed up with your veracity, of course, and who knows what that’s cost us? So I’ll just say how-d’ye-do to my friend Mr. Kesey, and then we’ll be on our way, have to get there in plenty of time, you understand . . . ” Neal never stuck around for long, but he was terrific while he lasted.

Then there was Lee Anderson, a roly-poly, merry little apple dumpling of a PhD candidate in some obscure scientific discipline at Stanford, who could sometimes, at very good parties, be prevailed upon to . . . play himself! Bowing to popular demand, blushing bashfully from head to toe, Lee would strip down to his skivvies (an effective attention-getting device at any party), wait for silence, and at last begin rhythmically bobbing up and down to some inner tempo, as though he were about to improvise a solo on an invisible stand-up bass, now lightly slapping himself with his open hands on his plump little thighs and roseate tummy—slappity-slappity-slappity-slap—now cupping one hand in his armpit and flapping the arm to produce a small farting sound like a tiny tuba—slappity-slappity-poot-poot, slappity-poot, slappity-poot—now shaping his mouth into an oval and rapping on his skull with the knuckles of first one hand, then the other, then both, making of his mouth a sort of reverb chamber—pocketa-pock, pocketa-pock, pocketa-pecketa-pucketa-pock—picking up the tempo, working furiously, sweat flying, the whole ensemble tuning in—slappity-pock, slappity-pock, slappity-pocketa-poot, slappity-pocketa-poot, pocketa-poot, pocketa-pecketa-poot, pecketa-pucketa-poot, slappity-pucketa-poot-poot, slappity-pucketa-poot-poot . . . It wasn’t the New York Philharmonic, maybe, but Lee’s was a class act just the same—as Dr. Johnson might have put it, the wonder was not that he did it well, but simply that he could do it at all—and it always brought the house down.

I’m not exactly sure what Vic means by “sexual mayhem,” so I won’t try either to confirm or to deny it. I’ll just say that during one party I opened the door to the darkened bedroom where the coats were piled on the bed and heard a muffled female voice say from the darkness, “Close the door, please, Ed. We’re fucking in here.”

Basically, though, the parties were just good, clean, demented fun. At any moment the front door might burst open and into the celebrants’ midst would fly Anita Wolpman, Jim’s wife, with the collar of her turtleneck sweater pulled up over her head, hotly pursued by Jim, brandishing an ax gory with ketchup. Or Bob Stone, a splendid writer who has also done some Shakespeare on the stage, might suddenly be striding about the room delivering, with Orson Wellesian bombast and fustian, an impromptu soliloquy, a volatile, irreproducibly brilliant admixture of equal parts Bard, King James Bible, Finnegan’s Wake, and (so I always suspected) Bob Stone. Or Lorrie Payne, a madcap Australian jack-of-all-arts, might wander in with a skinned green grape stuffed halfway into one nostril and part the horrified multitudes before him like an exhibitionist at a DAR convention. Or one might find oneself—literally find oneself—engaged in one or another of the goofy conversations that would be ensuing in every corner of the house, as did Gurney and I the night we determined that behind the peg-board on Chloe’s kitchen wall lurked an enormous baby chick, ready to pounce on us, bellowing, in a voice like Bull Moose Jackson’s, “PEEP! PEEP!” Or somebody might cut open an old golf ball and start unwinding the endless rubber band inside, and in moments a roomful of merrymakers would be hopelessly ensnarled in a rubbery web, writhing hilariously—a surreal tableau that, to my peyote-enchanted eyes, was astonishingly beautiful, and was entitled “We’re All in This Thing Together.”

At one party, Gurney maneuvered ten delirious revelers into the backyard, looped Chloe’s fifty-foot clothesline about them, and endeavored to create the World’s Largest Cat’s Cradle. “Awright now, men,” he kept bawling at his troops, “I want all the thumbs to raise their hands!”

Well, okay, you had to be there. No denying there was plenty of unmitigated adolescent silliness in all those hijinks—just as there’s no denying the unfortunate similarity between my experience at West Side Story and that of the celebrated Little Moron, the one who beats himself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good to stop. But like the man in the aftershave commercial, we needed that, some of us, to wake us from the torpor of the fifties. To be sure, there were casualties—those who couldn’t put the hammer down till they’d pounded their poor heads to jelly, those who blissed out or blasted off, those for whom dope was a purgative and every trip a bad trip, an exorcism. And I’m also perfectly willing to concede, if I must, that there were just as many others who successfully expanded their consciousnesses to wonderful dimensions through the miracle of chemistry.

But for weekenders and day-trippers like me, psychedelics were mostly just for laughs; they made things more funny-ha-ha than funny-peculiar. And for me at least, the laughter was a value in itself. I hadn’t laughed so unrestrainedly since childhood, and the effect was refreshing, bracing, invigorating—aftershave for the psyche. Nor had I ever in my life allowed myself to fall so utterly in love with all my friends at once. And there were several occasions, in the highest, clearest moments of those high old times, when I caught a glimpse of something at the periphery of my vision that shook the throne of the tyrannical little atheist who sat in my head and ruled my Kentucky Methodist heart.

It was all too good to last, of course. Quick as the wink of a strobe light, Kennedy had fallen to Lee Harvey Oswald, the Vietnam issue was as hot as a two-dollar pistol, the country was aboil with racial unrest . . . and Perry Lane had gone under to the developers. The times, they were a-changin’, and not for the better either. The first day of the rest of our lives was over.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Ed McClanahan from I Just Hitched In from the Coast. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.

 

I interviewed myself for TNB a few years ago, when my book O the Clear Moment (Counterpoint, 2008) was published, and found myself irascible, disputatious, and cranky. Nonetheless, now that I have a new book out, I figured I owe it to myself to give me another chance. As before, we got together in our so-called office, where, over many a beaker of boxed wine, I sat on my own lap while we had the following exchange:

 

Well, Mr. Clammerham, you’re not looking any younger, I must say.

Must you indeed?

 

No need to get snippy about it, old timer. Now tell me about this new book of yours.

Hey, try and stop me!

I Just Hitched In from the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader wasn’t even a gleam in my eye until a couple of years ago, when I discovered, to my chagrin and dismay, that my book A Congress of Wonders—comprised of three long, inter-connected stories including the novella “Finch’s Song,” which I’m persuaded is the very best thing I ever wrote—had gone completely and permanently out of print. Horrors! So when Jack Shoemaker, the editor-in-chief of Counterpoint, stepped in and offered me the opportunity to put together an Ed McClanahan reader, I grabbed him by the shorthairs and wouldn’t let loose till he produced a contract.

The late William Maxwell says, in the epigraph to the book, “I would be content to stick to the facts, if there were any.” Just so. I suppose there really is a difference between fact and fiction, but insofar as it concerns my personal experience, I’ve usually long since forgotten what the difference was (if there was one). My non-fiction has been characterized (by myself, among others) as “a pack of lies”—because, as my friend Chuck Kinder says, “sometimes you just have to go where the story takes you”—, whereas my fiction is largely a re-imagined version of things that really happened in my life.

 

C’mon! How many two-nosed guys did you know?

Just one, but one was enough.

But I Just Hitched In is the very book I’ve dreamed of for many years, a hefty, generous helping of my favorite stories, an indissoluble admixture of fiction and non-fiction—or, if you will, of memoir and imagination.

 

You chose the story “The Day the Lampshades Breathed” to represent your book in TNB. Why that one in particular?

Because it celebrates a time and a place and a community of kindred spirits (Perry Lane, c. 1962-63)  the likes of which I’d never known before, and haven’t encountered since.

In many ways, though, “Lampshades” isn’t at all representative of the book, because it’s just about one hundred percent straight reportage, whereas most of the rest of the stories are somewhat, um, embellished. One wants—always—to write artfully, of course, but the stuff that was actually happening during that Perry Lane time was so good that there was no need to “re-imagine” any of it. On the other hand, the portion of my life just prior to Perry Lane—i.e., the four years (1958-62) I spent teaching freshman comp in Oregon—got transformed through the magic of fiction (in “The Essentials of Western Civilization”) into an imagined thirty-year career in academe.

 

So what’s the organizing principle (if there is one) of I Just Hitched In from the Coast?

The three stories of A Congress of Wonders, inter-connected as they are by the presence in all three of my alter ego and favorite character, Philander Cosmo Rexroat, BS, MS, and Piled Higher and Deeper (“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 … ”), constitute the backbone or spine of the book. The other stories, all of which are autobiographical to some degree, and are therefore inter-connected chronologically, biologically, and emotionally, make up its fleshly corpus.

I had quite a lot to say about old Rexroat and the Congress stories, by the way, in my previous (March 2010) self-interview, which you can access in the TNB archives.

My late friend and ally Ken Kesey also looms large in I Just Hitched In; after his short turn on the stage in “Lampshades,” he reappears as Jean Genet’s foil in “Ken Kesey, Jean Genet, the Revolution, et Moi,” and finally as “the redoubtable Sage of Oregon” in “Furthurmore,” perhaps the most deeply personal of the non-fiction pieces in the book.

And there are other organizing links between and among the stories as well: For instance, in the aforementioned fictional story “The Essentials of Western Civilization,” there’s a cameo appearance by “young Dr. Toddler,” an American Studies scholar with an enthusiasm for the music of the Grateful Dead.  Then, later in the book in the story called “Exegesis: A Fiction,” Dr. Toddler reappears as the author of an academic essay in which he explicates the lyrics of the Grateful Dead song “New Speedway Boogie.”

 

Well, the last time we spoke I called you “a windy old party,” and I see that, at least in that one respect, the passing years haven’t laid a glove on you.

You got that right, junior.  Now get off my lap, you parasite.  

 

0 the clear moment, when from the mouth
A word flies, current immediately
Among friends; or when a loving gift astounds
As the identical wish nearest the heart;
Or when a stone, volleyed in sudden danger,
Strikes the rabid beast full on the snout
!

-Robert Graves, “Fragment of a Lost Poem”



Like everybody else, I’ve told my favorite sports stories so many times I almost believe them myself.  For instance:

When I was twelve years old (stop me if you’ve heard this), Happy Chandler gave me an autographed baseball.  I once rode on an elevator with Jim Thorpe.  I know a guy who knows a guy whose father once stood next to Lou Gehrig at a urinal in Yankee Stadium.  I saw Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell pitch a no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds in 1947, and Tom Seaver duplicate the feat in the next Reds game I attended—thirty-one years later. Gay Brewer., Jr., the golfer, once bird-dogged my girlfriend.  My friend Gurney Norman claims to have tossed a ping-pong ball into a Dixie Cup from twenty feet away.  (I believe him, of course—but hey, what are friends for?)  Waite Hoyt once let my uncle buy him a drink.  In college, I was employed as a “tutor” by my university’s athletic department, in which capacity I took, by correspondence, an entire sophomore English literature survey course for a first-string All-American tackle.

(“Now don’t get me no A,” my protege cautioned, the night before I was to take the final for him.  “Get me about a C+, that’d be about right.”  It was a line I would put to use twenty-five years later in my one and only novel, The Natural Man, still available at fine booksellers everywhere.)

Well, I could go on, but modesty forefends; my record in Vicarious Athletics speaks for itself.

Yet there were a few times when I actually got into the fray in person, in the quest after that elusive Perfect Moment.  Like the time I ran fourteen balls in a game of straight pool (and had a straight-in shot at the fifteen—and scratched). Or the time I won a dollar and thirty-five cents in half an hour pitching pennies on the courthouse steps (and lost it all back in the next twenty minutes).

Or the time twelve guys on our high school basketball team came down with the flu, and I was abruptly—not to say precipitously—elevated from second-string JayVee to the furthermost end of the varsity bench, and suddenly found myself, deep in the third quarter, not only in the game but endeavoring to guard the great Cliff Hagan, then of Owensboro High, later of the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the St. Louis Hawks. On the first play he broke for the basket and went twinkle-toeing up my chest like he was Fred Astaire and I was the Stairway to the Stars.

Hagan—Mr. Hagan—accumulated eleven points during my two-minute tenure, mostly on shots launched from some vantage point afforded him by my reclining anatomy.  If there were a statistic called “percentage of defensive assists,” I’d have set some kind of record.

Still, every mutt has his Moment, and mine was coming up.

By the spring of 1950, when I was a junior at Maysville High and my glory days on the hardwood were but a distant memory (“Mac,” our estimable Coach Jones had said, drawing me aside one day after practice, “Mac, you’re a good, hard-working boy, but son, your hands are small, and I just don’t believe you’ve got the equipment to make this team”), I had long since limited my athletic exertions to the rigorous pursuit of female companionship.

In other words, I was spending a disproportionate amount of time mooning about the house and grounds of a certain Mr. and Mrs. T.C. Stonebreaker, who had four beautiful daughters still at home.  Alas, I was but one of many, a restive, milling herd of rampant teen-aged billygoats strutting our dubious stuff before the less-than-awestruck Miss Stonebreakers.  On Saturday afternoons (when Mr. Stonebreaker usually beat a strategic withdrawal to his euchre game at the Moose Lodge, while Mrs. Stonebreaker did her grocery shopping), the testosterone level in Stonebreaker Hall could have peeled the wallpaper.

For these occasions, we trotted out all our highly developed social skills—which is to say we maligned and demeaned and bullied and belittled one another mercilessly, in the hope of raising our own stature in the eyes of the four (largely indifferent) fascinators; we cut up and showed off like drunken sailors, and talked as indelicately as we dared, for the edification of that beguiling audience.

Such was the scenario on that memorable Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1950, the day of my Personal Best Great Moment:

Mr. S. is at his euchre, Mrs. S. is out shopping, and the house fairly teems with post-pubescent boys of every size and description, from eighth-graders vying for the attentions of Gracie, the youngest Stonebreaker, to a couple of pipe-puffing college freshmen home for the weekend expressly to pay court to Mary Margaret, the eldest, who graduated from high school last year and now has an office job at the cotton mill.  Once again, the objects of our affection have reduced us all—even the college guys—to the developmental level of the eighth-graders, who themselves are behaving like fifth-graders.  Naturally, there have already transpired numerous episodes of pantsing, not to mention various hotfoots, noogies, and wedgies; and the atmosphere is redolent of bathroom humor so sophisticated that it has left the sisters Stonebreaker fairly gasping with (let us hope) admiration.

I’m there too, of course, but for once I’ve held myself aloof from these adolescent proceedings, having somehow cornered Bernice, who is to my mind the fairest Stonebreaker of them all, over by the piano, where I and my Lucky Strike are demonstrating my prowess at French-inhaling, blowing smoke rings, and—like Tony Curtis on the cover of the paperback of The Amboy Dukes (“A Novel of Wayward Youth in Brooklyn!  Now a Thrilling Motion Picture!”)—making suave conversation while the Lucky is parked roguishly in the corner of my mouth.  I have also lately cultivated, in the wake of my departure from the uniformly crew-cut Bulldog squad, a prodigious Wildroot-lubricated pompadour, complete with a lank Tony Curtis forelock that dangles ornamentally over my right eye; and I’m sporting my brand-new oh-so-cool two-tone jacket with the collar turned up—just like Tony’s!

(“How come you’ve got your collar turned up that way, Eddie?” Bernice has just interrupted my suave conversation to inquire.  “It’s not a bit cold in here!”)

And now into this tranquil domestic circle swagger the last two guys in all of Christendom whom the rest of us—the males, I mean—want to see, namely the dread Speedy Little Guards (so-called in the local press), a brace of Bobbys—let’s call them Bobby One and Bobby Two—, indispensable Bulldog mainstays, One a razzle-dazzle ball-handler, Two a nonpareil set-shot artist, both of them brash, bandy-legged, and, in the unanimous opinion of the Stonebreaker girls, devastatingly cute.

Bernice quickly escapes the narrow confines of our tete-a-tete and joins her sisters, who are gathered ’round the Bobbys to admire their new Bulldog letter-sweaters, acquired just last night at the annual awards banquet.  (How come they’re wearing sweaters? I hear myself grumbling inwardly.  It’s not a bit cold in here!)  Then we all troop dutifully outside to see Bobby Two’s new short—actually his mother’s new short, a dumpy, frumpy 1950 Nash Rambler whose contours, come to think of it, are not unlike those of Mrs. Two herself.

Still, the Nash is profoundly snazzier than the scuffed penny-loafers which at present constitute my own principle means of locomotion, and I am positively viridescent with envy.  And this condition is further aggravated by my growing certainty that if Bobby Two has his way, he and Bernice will be snuggling up in that goddamn Rambler at the RiverView Drive-in Theater tonight.

Once we’re all back inside the house, the two Bobbys, along with Marcella, the second-eldest sister, and (sigh) Bernice, promptly disappear into the kitchen, from whence soon begin to issue various muffled giggles, sniggers, chortles, titters, and similar sounds of suppressed merriment.  Meanwhile, the eighth graders are entertaining Gracie with a tiny-tuba ensemble of rude armpit noises as the pipe-puffers regale Mary Margaret with BMOC tales (featuring, of course, themselves), leaving the rest of us Lotharios to loll about the living room shooting pocket-pool while we feign indifference to the jolly goings-on behind the kitchen door.

After ten or fifteen minutes the merrymakers emerge, the girls still all a-giggle behind their hands, the Bobbys all a-smirk.  Each Bobby is carrying, inexplicably, an egg.

“Okay,” Bobby One announces, stepping to the center of the room, “now let’s see which one can bust his egg on the othern’s head!”  With that, he and Bobby Two begin comically bouncing around the room on their toes like sparring spermweights until, after a brief and thoroughly unpersuasive flurry of psuedo-fisticuffs, Bobby One, egg in hand, smacks Bobby Two on the noggin and—how could I have been so surprised by this?—mirabile dictu, the egg’s not loaded, there’s nothing in it.  The empty shell shatters harmlessly on Bobby Two’s crew-cut pate.

Of course the Bobbys—being Bobbys—act like this is the greatest joke since the chicken crossed the road.  There wasn’t nothing to it, they aver, clapping each other on the back in the throes of their hilarity; we just punched little pinholes in them eggs and blowed the insides out.

And right there is where I make the dumbest move of my young life.

“Let’s see that one,” I hear myself saying, unaccountably, to Bobby Two, whose egg—whose eggshell—is still intact. “Lemme take a look at it.”  To this day, I don’t know what in the world I was thinking of.

“You wanna see the egg?” says Bobby One.  “Hey Bob-o, Clammerham wants to see the egg!”

Bobby Two is grinning, and there is a gleam in his eye that should have given me pause.  Could that be a corresponding gleam in the eye of Bernice, who is standing just behind him?  Why do I feel like I’m in a play, and everybody knows the script but me?

“Sure, Hammerclam,” says Bobby Two, putting his hands behind his back.  “Which hand?”

Christ, I’m thinking, it’s only an eggshell. But hey, I got my forelock, got my Lucky hangin’ on my lip, I’m cool.  So I play along.

“Uh, the left?”

“Nope,” he says, showing me his left hand, in which there is, of course, nothing at all.  Meanwhile his right hand—in which there is, of course, not an eggshell but an egg, in all its fullness—is describing a high, sweeping arc from behind his back to the top of my head, where it arrives with a disgusting splat, much to the disadvantage of my pompadour.

“Sorry,” says Bobby Two, wiping his palm on my Tony Curtis lapel, “wrong hand.”

So there I stand in the Stonebreaker living room with a coiffeur nicely dressed out in egg yolk, a viscous thread of egg-white trailing, like a sneeze gone terribly wrong, from my forelock to my Lucky Strike, and all about me a tumult of eighth-graders rolling on the floor, college boys roaring, Stonebreaker girls hugging themselves in their mirth, Bobbys pounding each other on the back to the point of bodily injury.  My dignity, I fear, has been seriously compromised.  Time to regroup.

To which purpose I slink off to the kitchen, where I stick my sodden head under the faucet in the sink and shampoo my hair as best I can with dishwashing liquid, dry it with Mrs. Stonebreaker’s dishtowel, and sponge off my jacket with her dishrag.  Then I comb my hair; the egg-yolk residue is beginning to set up, which actually helps a little in the reconstruction of my pompadour.  Finally, I go to the refrigerator and help myself to two more of Mrs. Stonebreaker’s eggs.  Thus armed, I return to the scene of Clamhammer’s Humiliation.

In the living room, things have sorted themselves out predictably, in accordance with the New Social Order:  The armpit ensemble has resumed serenading Gracie, and the college stuffed-shirts, solemn as owls, are once again puffing industriously away on their calabashes, throwing up a smoke screen around Mary Margaret as dense—and certainly as aromatic—as an enchantment.  But now Bobby One is cozying up to Marcella on the sofa, and Bernice, that Jezebel, has joined Bobby Two over by the piano—in our corner!

Such is the sordid scene that Clamhammer the Redeemer bursts upon, with blood in his eye and vengeance on his mind.

“Awright, you sorry bastids,” I thunder—yes! I actually thundered!—, brandishing an egg at first one Bobby, then the other, “now I would hate to have to throw this right here in Mrs. Stonebreaker’s living room, but I’ve got one of these apiece for you two sonsabitches, and if you’re not outta here by the time I count to three, you’re definitely gonna get egged!  One!”

The Bobbys exchange stricken glances, and I know that I am terrible in my wrath.

“Two!”

Now Bobby One half-rises from the sofa, while the craven Bobby Two endeavors to shield himself behind Bernice.

“Three!” I cry, and with that the Bobbys break simultaneously for the doorway into the front hall, and I am in hot pursuit, my throwing arm cocked at the ready.  But not for nothing do their admirers call them the Speedy Little Guards, for by the time I make the hall, they are scrambling out the front door.  And the truth is that, despite my threat, I am not quite willing to throw an egg within these sacred premises, owing to the certainty that Mrs. Stonebreaker would forthwith banish me from the temple forever and ever, world without end.

So I hold my fire, and in another instant I’m on the front stoop and the Bobbys are already legging it across the street toward where the Rambler awaits them.  I reach the curb just as Bobby Two arrives at the Rambler’s driver’s-side door, and I have a clear shot at him, a perfect target inasmuch as, even if I miss, I’ll still hit his mommy’s car.  Then, just as I’m going into my windup, what suddenly looms up between us but a city bus, lumbering along as huge and pokey as a steamship. And when the bus is out of the way at last, I see that Bobby Two is at the Rambler’s wheel, revving up, and his door is closed.  Bobby One is just opening the passenger-side door; I can see his head above the roof of the car, so I uncork a desperation throw at it, not a bad throw, actually, except that he sees it coming and ducks into the car as the egg sails over his head and splatters abortively against a telephone pole. Then Bobby Two pops the clutch, and the Rambler scratches off more spiritedly than I would’ve dreamed it could, while I stand there on the curb shaking my fist after them, a masterful study in futility.

But wait, what’s this I see!  Down at the far end of the block, the Rambler is hanging a U-ey!  Can it be that they’re actually going to come back past me?  Yes they are; the Rambler has wallowed through its turn, and is headed back in my direction.  Maybe they’ve forgotten that I still have an egg in my arsenal—and this time, I am vowing grimly as I palm my egg, I won’t miss.

As the Rambler rolls slowly past, Bobby One has his thumbs in his ears, and is making donkey faces at me behind the passenger-side window.  I draw a bead on his ugly mug and cut loose a vicious Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell sidearm bullet that I know even as it leaves my hand is a wild pitch, and that it will miss the strike zone by half a yard.

Now there are those who will maintain that an egg is, after all, only an egg, a stupid, insensate, ovoid article of no cognitive power whatsoever unless and until it somehow gets a chicken in it—itself a species not conspicuous for its intellect.  But that does not describe this egg.  For this is my egg, friends, as surely as if I’d laid it myself, and this egg is smarter, even, than its proud parent, it has a mind of its own and knows exactly where it wants to go.  And this egg of mine has eyes, dear hearts, and as it spins off my fingertips it sees what I have not seen, which is that although Bobby One has his window snugly closed, his wind-wing—that little triangular vent that all cars used to have, back in the days when car-makers were smarter than, say, chickens—his wind-wing is … wide open!

And this little egg of mine finds that tiny opening with all its eyes, and it flies as true as Cupid’s arrow straight through the vent and explodes in a bright golden sunburst all over the interior of Bobby Two’s mommy’s brand new short, all over those accursed Bobbys and their goddamn letter-sweaters!  Thus have I struck the rabid beast full on the snout!

Luck?  You dare call it luck?  Was it luck that directed Gurney’s ping-pong ball into that Dixie Cup?  No indeed.  Luck, I think, is synonymous with money; it’s strictly a business proposition, wherein good luck produces a payoff, bad luck a pay-out.  Nor, of course, was it skill; neither I nor Gurney could duplicate our feats in a thousand thousand years.  No, this was destiny, pure and simple; we had, each of us, a blind date with Immortality.  Did Cliff Hagan ever toss a ping-pong ball into a Dixie Cup at twenty feet?  Did Ewell the Whip ever fling an egg through the wind-wing of a moving car?

And while I’m asking questions, I’ll ask these:  Were the Stonebreaker girls all watching from the stoop when my egg burst like a de Kooning masterpiece inside the Rambler?  Did they scream and squeal like bobby-soxers when this miracle of art and magic and athletic prowess transpired right before their very eyes?  Did Bernice and I go to the movies that night—the sit-down movies, not the drive-in—, and did I, when I took her home afterwards, kiss her on the lips on that very stoop?

No, sports fans, I’m afraid not, I’m afraid not.  But … 0 the clear moment!



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.”

Wotta guy!


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!