We first became aware of Daniel Fuchs via last year's collection The Golden West from Black Sparrow Books, which was urged on us by none other than Sam Tanenhaus himself, who felt we'd respond to the Los Angeles subject matter of this fine collection. He was right, and thus we were excited to receive a copy of Black Sparrow's Brobdingnagian one-volume paperback reissue of Fuch's three novels - The Brooklyn Novels, as they're now known, written before he decamped for the sunnier climes of La-La land. The book sports a fine introduction by the talented Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude), so we thought we'd drop him a line and see if he wanted to chat about Fuchs for this latest installment of 3MI. Remember the rules - three questions custom-designed, the last two the same for all comers. And we're off.
TEV: The shelves of Yaddo seem to be a spawning ground for rediscovering authors, especially the practitioners of realism. (Fuchs for you, Fox for Franzen.) Given that Fuchs' work is so steeped in a tradition of 1930s realism, what do you think his relevance and value to contemporary audiences is (especially for those Beyond Brooklyn), and what case would you make for giving his work a second look? (And this is from someone who is more generously disposed to the realist tradition than a lot of readers and writers seem to be these days.)
JL: Well, not to begin grousing at your questions right out of the gate, but I feel obliged to try to undermine the categorical imperative infesting your question about my stumbling across Fuchs in the Yaddo library all those years ago. I'd never describe my response as being: "Hey, wow, this example of 1930's realism is a promising one, possibly of interest despite/because of its relation to that tradition..." (Nor was I thinking "Franzen found Fox in here... gotta get something of my own... maybe it's in the "F's" too..." -- though I mention it because this self-generated image made me laugh...I'd forgotten until you reminded me that J-Franz located P-Fox on those same shelves.) What happened instead is I fell, swooningly, in love with Fuchs voice. A simple thing, that, though it needless to say can't and doesn't happen enough. His screwy, intimate, fresh and utterly persuasive evocation of a Williamsburg tenement sang to me, beckoned across the dusty years. The Yaddo library is a good test of such things, since they've removed all the dust jackets from the books, so you're not triangulating your reader's response to an unknown name like Fuchs against flap copy, blurbs and the like. No claim of importance or relevance to any tradition, either from Fuchs' peers and contemporary reviewers or any retrospective critical authority, was there to nudge me and my encounter into this or that intellectual continuum -- I was merely reading. And if, say, his sweet and seamy New York characters had begun donning alligator suits and descending into the sewers, or been harangued by a prophetic talking bird, or (ahem) found a magic ring and begun attempting to use it to fly, I'd have gone to those places with them, however surprising those turns might have been. And his glorious language, and the way he uses it to express the dreaminess in his ghetto-bound characters, contains its own element of fantasy, hinting everywhere at life's possibilities of rapturous strangeness and escape. I wasn't, then -- or, actually, now -- so clearly aware of what the '30's realist tradition' was, so I couldn't be holding him against it. Hemingway? Not close. I don't mean I wasn't, inevitably, making comparisons, but they were my own eccentric and anachronistic ones. He seemed like a precursor to Jerome Charyn, a non-graphic Will Eisner, a less-neurotic Henry Roth. His portrayal of inner-city childhood reminded me of certain of my favorite Lenny Bruce routines (do you know the one about the kid who goes into the toy store for airplane glue to sniff?).
Forgive my curmudgeonliness. This morning I also feel like an enemy of the word *relevance*. (In fact, it may have been at least partly the fear that he was insufficiently 'relevant' -- a value "proletarian" writers were supposed to exhibit, back in Fuchs' day -- that drove him from continuing to write fiction.) Save us from relevance. Read Fuchs for Fuchs, he's like no one else, that being the only relevance literature requires.
TEV: Fuchs headed to Hollywood but unlike Fitzgerald and Faulkner (with whom he collaborated), he neither imploded nor became embittered. Rather, he seemed to thrive in the vanilla sunshine and wrote without disdain about being a writer for the studios. (I love his "A Hollywood Diary" from last year's collection The Golden West; it's a wonderful bit of freeze-frame of a bygone era when screenwriters were contract workers.) Do you think his unwillingness to at least bite the hand that fed him contributed in any way to his marginalization by East Coast Literary Types?
JL: Yes, he's refreshingly clear-eyed and good-humored about the advantages and disadvantages of writing for the movies in the great era of the studio system, and provides a much less hysterical window into the fate of a studio writer than the pervasive Barton Fink images suggests. And I don't doubt (as a writer who's flitted from West Coast to East in my own subject matter, and is now about to flit back again) that there can be a self-reinforcing fascination in New York intellectual circles with local topics -- a leaning that may sometimes overrate certain dullish books that happen to be P.C.
"Read Fuchs for Fuchs, he's like no one else, that being the only relevance literature requires."
(provincially consonant) and either overlooks or patronizes books from elsewhere -- and which, even more specifically, might fail to disguise disappointment when one of its 'own' violates Eastcentricity (I remember some memoirist of NY in the '50's, though I can't remember whom, saying that a certain segment of the New York scene had never forgiven Bellow for fleeing to Chicago). But then again, how can we blame the marginalization of Fuchs-as-novelist on anyone but himself? I mean, given that he A: basically quit, and B: persistently, for decades, whenever anyone asked, downgraded his own accomplishment, claimed he'd used up what little he had to say and hence was no particular loss to the reader?
TEV: One of the attractions of the Fuchs story seems to be speculating about what might have been, the novels he might have written had he not "gone Hollywood." In his review of The Golden West, Sam Tanenhaus suggested that Fuchs had "run out of things to say," working on yet more variations of the Brooklyn novels. What's your take on all this?
JL: Well, as I mentioned above (before I'd read this next question), Tanenhaus was only quoting Fuchs. My guess is that selling in the three figures could blunt anyone's sense that they had more to say. I don't know that my wish is for more Brooklyn novels, per se -- but it would have been lovely to see where Fuchs could have grown next, if something or someone had really insisted to him that his voice was remarkable and that he ought to exercise it on any subject that came to hand. Since he ended up in Hollywood, it's hard not to fantasize about a really encompassing and ambitious Hollywood novel from him -- but who knows what else was possible? Many writers are greatest *after* they use up the first thing they have to say, and take a second draught of inspiration.
TEV: Who's the best author we've never heard of?
JL: This is a perfect time to mention my favorite dark horse -- in my mind, the best postwar U.S. novelist still untouched by the present revival boom (is it because he's Left Coastish?): Don Carpenter. Berkeley born and raised, lived most of his life in Mill Valley -- except, yes, for stints in Hollywood, where he wrote in the fading days of the studio system, squeezed out one great proto-indie movie (PAYDAY, with Rip Torn), and stuck better than Fuchs to writing fiction. Hence produced, after first two great novels HARD RAIN FALLING (a terrific prison novel which helped inspire THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE) and BLADE OF LIGHT (which, incidentally, looks to have been an uncredited source for the movie SLINGBLADE), a string of lean and effective novels of '70's show business: THE TRUE LIFE STORY OF JODY McKEEGAN, A COUPLE OF COMEDIANS, and TURNAROUND. Carpenter was among other things, a great writer on the subject of gambling -- pool and poker, specifically -- and that made him particularly apt in his depiction of the fate of art, including his own, in a money town.
TEV: And, finally, ask yourself any question you like - but be sure to answer it.
JL: Any other introductions or afterwards coming out? Well, I've just written a new introduction for Penguin to a book that so far as I know has never been out of print, but doesn't have the stature I think it rates: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, by Shirley Jackson. In the new edition I compare the book to Charles Portis, Henry James, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and Beckett, which suggests pretty well what I think of it. I also just wrote an introduction for a small-press limited edition of a great surrealist noir novel called THE DEADLY PERCHERON, by John Franklin Bardin. Finally, I'm helping preside over the utter and irreversible canonization of one of my (formerly outsider) heroes, Philip K. Dick: I'm writing endnotes for The Library of America, which is doing a volume of four of his novels from the sixties, which I also helped select. After that, I'm out of the scholarship game, for a while: time to start a new novel (unless someone rescues Don Carpenter...)