Friday, January 16, 2015

Writers at the end

Great writers do not necessarily lead great lives, and the end of their lives can be as miserable as anybody's. Wild Nights!, the 2008 book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, examines the last days of five of the greatest American writers. Although she writes fiction, Oates did her homework and bases her tales on biographical information about the writers.

The one possible exception may be "EDickinsonRepliLuxe," a wonderful bit of science fiction in which Oates imagines a future time when anyone with enough money can purchase small robots with the appearance and personalities of famous people from the past. Mr. and Mrs. Krim choose to have a little Emily Dickinson in their home. Is there any other writer whose personality would be less suited to being, in effect, someone's household pet than the reclusive poet? Little Emily, her pockets stuffed with little pieces of paper covered with lines of poetry, tries to keep to herself until Mr. Krim, his wife away, decides to finally get his money's worth. The title of this collection, by the way, comes from a Dickinson poem.

The least successful story, "Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House," takes the form of journal entries written by Poe while living in a lighthouse near the end of his brief life. Oates captures the increasing madness and declining health of the writer, but I didn't find the story very interesting. The three others prove to be gems, however.

"Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906" focuses on Mark Twain's late-in-life fascination with pretty girls between the ages of 10 and 16. He called them his Angelfish. In the story, Maddie is the favorite of his Angelfish, with whom he maintains a secret correspondence and conspires to meet in their secret place until he discovers, to his horror, that she has passed her 16th birthday. Then he shuts her off completely, even after the girl's mother, discovering his letters, begs him to write again because Maddie, in her despair, refuses to eat.

"Papa at Ketchum, 1961" takes us inside Ernest Hemingway's mind as he contemplates suicide. Always vain and selfish, he worries that even with a shotgun he will not do as good a job at it as his father managed with a handgun.

The writer who looks the best at the end of his life, at least in these stories, is Henry James in "The Master at St. Bartholomew's." The pompous and privileged writer, who loves being called the Master, chooses to become a servant to English boys wounded in the trenches during the Great War. He volunteers to help at a hospital in London where many of these soldiers are brought. At first he only talks with them or reads to them, but as the burden of so many wounded becomes too much for the strained hospital staff, he takes on less agreeable tasks, including emptying bedpans. Never in his life has he performed such labor. Now he does so willingly and with pride, wishing there was more he could do for these boys.

Oates has given us some fine stories about some fine writers. They may be fiction, but you will feel like you know the writers better after reading them.

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