Discussed in this essay:
• In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & Other Stories, William H. Gass. Godine. 206pp, $13.95.
• The Art of Fiction, John Gardner. Vintage. 240pp, $13.95.
• On Moral Fiction, John Gardner. Vintage. 234pp, $18.50.
The Beginning of William H. Gass
“The Pedersen Kid” is the genesis of William H. Gass’s canon. Composed in 1951, the novella was not published until 1961, and then only “generously” by John Gardner “in his magazine, MSS.” In the interim, Gass was first published in Accent in 1958, and crafted several other stories that would comprise his seminal collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. “The Pedersen Kid” predates his doctoral thesis, his multiple novels, his myriad philosophical and critical writings. It also condenses—and reflects—his nearly thirty-year critical and creative dialogue with Gardner, a literary discourse central to the friction between meta- and traditional fictions within the second half of the twentieth century. The novella is a microcosm of Gass’s aesthetic: his fiction is recursive and wound, taut along lines both linear and achronological, and any examination of his contribution to American letters must consider seeds sown in this odd tale about Swedish-Americans, death, and, most importantly, snow.
Within “The Pedersen Kid,” snow brings life, confusion, death. It suffocates and inebriates; it makes all new. And snow is a consistent convention for Gass, a point of fascination: his 1976 treatise, “Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses,” first published in The Journal of Philosophy, but presented at the American Philosophical Association symposium later that year, is the apex of his dance with language, his affair with snow. While the essay postdates the composition of “The Pedersen Kid” by twenty-five years, it is essential for appreciating the narrative and language of the novella.
Gass begins the essay: “Let me make a snowman and see what comes of it.” He starts “by gathering snow” and avoids “leaves, bare earth, or bumpy ground.” The snow is packed, the rolls are stacked, and the snowman has begun to take form, though the narrator has already begun to “curse the cold.” Chance and fate are soon also cursed, but the narrator continues his creation, forming this “freshly Adam’d face.” Arms and more follow, and while “it’s been rather messy, making this metaphysical miracle,” it has also been “great fun, and certainly simple enough if you don’t mind chapped hands.”
Gass did not make “this snowman to amuse my children,” and he was not able to make it “because I know how to reproduce the shape of a man in snow.” Rather, he knows “how to reproduce the traditional form: three heaps, five coals, one carrot, and assorted props: . . . muffler, broom, shoes, pipe, and hat.” This traditional form is not a representation of a man; it is a snowman, another being entirely, an “ontological transformation,” a result of “crossed contexts.” While the snowman is not a man, it is certainly still snow, and yet the carrot “does not simply stand for or resemble a nose, it literally is a nose now—the nose of a specific snowman.”
Gass is playing, but with a purpose. His conclusion: “the snowman is a poet after all.” And, “as language moves toward poetry, it becomes increasingly concrete, denying the distinction between type and token, the sign and its significance, name and thing.” The locus of this, with a wink, is snow: “what a shame it will be when the monster melts,” when language becomes no longer language but mere communication. It is an ironic lament, but it is pure Gass, the sentiment the same as when “props are sometimes returned from the stage to those less real rooms in our homes.”
This is also true in “The Pedersen Kid.” For Gass, language is not the means toward the emotional end of fictional dramatization; language is both artificer and art, structure and content, snow and man. In his breakneck, twice-revised preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Gass reveals that “The Pedersen Kid” was written “to entertain a toothache.” Such a story, he knew, had to contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” Despite the corporeal impetus, Gass “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of a sonnet.” So the novella, from the start, was a crafted work, yet one both mysterious and malleable.
Gass continues with “some of the instructions I drew up” for the story; their quoted inclusion in the preface warrants some skepticism, some questions of hindsight, yet they are quite telling. He notes a desire to “present evil as a visitation—sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” To do so is to begin with theme, especially when “all should be subordinated to that end.” Such planning is prescriptive, yet necessary, when the presentation of the content “must be spare and staccato,” with a desired “ritual effect.” Ritual—in literature and religion—is bound by repetition and structure, by innate rhythms; Gass chose “three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” The final version of the work remains ornately structured and crafted, yet with a certain obtuse pulse; the feel that, within such staid requirements, a palpable world exists.
Gardner and Gass
Structure is likely one of the reasons John Gardner published “The Pedersen Kid” in MSS; he certainly lauds that element of the work within The Art of Fiction. Although Gardner was one of Gass’s early publishers, their differences were more visible than their similarities. Gardner and Gass were frequent debaters during the 1970s, both in public and during “long lubricated arguments around kitchen tables.” Their classic dialogue at the 1978 University of Cincinnati Fiction Festival could be taken either as an afternoon of polemics or banter. Thomas LeClair organized the event, and noted that “this was the first fiction festival, and we wanted some sparks.”
Yet the writers’ respect for each other—and their shared history—complicates the printed criticisms. Gardner “heard about The Pedersen Kid from Stanley Elkin who read it while he was on the editorial staff of Accent magazine at the U. of Illinois.” Because Elkin first published Gass’s work at Accent, it may be assumed that “The Pedersen Kid” was part of Gass’s original submission to the magazine. Gardner solicited the work; Gass notes that Gardner “wrote to me and asked to see it.” According to Raymond Carver, then a student of Gardner’s at Chico State College, Gardner mentioned Gass during the course; in fact, Carver “began reading the story ["The Pedersen Kid"] in manuscript, but I didn’t understand it and again I complained to Gardner . . . he simply took the story away from me.”
Gardner wrote several letters to Gass, dated June 26 and August 28, 1961, and April 3, 1962, but Gass relates that the two did not meet “until he [Gardner] took a job at SIU [Southern Illinois University, Carbondale].” Gardner joined the SIU faculty in 1965, and some time later, Gass “drove down to Carbondale for a weekend at his [Gardner's] farm.” At this point, Gardner had finished his critical manifesto, On Moral Fiction, but, according to Stephen Singular, “no one would publish it; it was too heretical;” the book was finally released in 1978, and only after numerous revisions.
Along with his shelved manifesto, Gardner’s creative work had remained largely unpublished until 1966, when his friendship with Gass reaped dividends. Gardner related that Gass “mentioned me to David Segal, his editor at New American Library, and Segal eventually took The Resurrection, and then, shortly after that, Agathon, Grendel, and The Sunlight Dialogues.” Both Gass and Stanley Elkin, whom Gardner would later criticize in On Moral Fiction, “had written favorable reviews of Gardner’s early books.”
Gass on How Fiction Should Be Written
While Gardner and Gass both profited from their professional relationship, the years leading to their 1978 debate revealed a friendship and alliance contradicted by opposing theories on the purpose of fiction and art. Beginning with the 1970 publication of Gass’s first collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life, the two engaged in a very public debate on fiction. Fiction and the Figures of Life does not directly mention or implicate Gardner, but it ignited an implicit debate between alleged traditionalists and metafictionists: “Part theory, part polemic, part evaluation: the essays define a movement, speaking to a major shift in the writing of fiction and literary criticism in North America.”
In the collection’s first essay, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass posits that “creative thought and creative imagination are not so much stirred on by truth in any synthetic sense as by sublimity—a vision of absolute organization.” Rather than insisting on moral affirmations, writers should embrace the ability of language to create signs and images. For Gass, “fiction held no moral lessons, no relevancy outside itself.”
Gass also revises the traditional view of character:
Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. . . . the language of the novel will eddy about a certain incident or name. . . . In a perfectly organized novel, every word would ultimately qualify one thing, like the God of the metaphysician, at once the subject and the body of the whole.
Gass’s definition of character has two implications: it is not the primary function of a novelist to create dramatized, lifelike characters, and the perfect novel would contain one character engaging in a pure internal discourse. Characters, for Gass, are not mimetic, because the language of the novel stymies any pure communication between a novelist’s conception of a character and the reader’s perception of that character. Character is still important to Gass because “anything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point . . . functions as a character.” Character must always exist, Gass would argue, because the absence of character is a character itself.
After the publication of Fiction and the Figures of Life, Gardner began laying out his own public stance on fiction. His interviews and essays contained a gradual release of positions compiled in the manuscript of On Moral Fiction; he often noted Gass as an influence, yet as an epistemological opposite. In 1971, Gardner said that his novel, Grendel, was not philosophy or rhetoric, but an act of style:
I have nothing to say, except that I think words are beautiful. I’m a stylist; for me, everything is rhythm and rhyme. There are a handful of other stylists like Gass, Elkin, Barthelme, Barth, and Ralph Ellison, who have nothing to say either. We just write.
Gardner again places himself alongside Gass in 1973, where he cites Gass not just as a contemporary, but as an influence: “Gass reinforced some points of style I had learned independently; I don’t know if he is a model, but he’s someone of whom I’m conscious.” Conversely, later in the interview, when asked if he thought “there is any sense of real coherence among those writers who emerged in the midsixties,” Gardner answered that “there are a lot of differences between us, of course . . . there are very deep differences from a philosophical point of view between Bill Gass and me, for instance.”
Gardner on How Fiction Should Be Written
The first cohesive release of sections of Gardner’s own theories of fiction appeared in his essay “The Way We Write Now,” in 1972. Gardner’s general thesis documents a process of change: first, he claims that “American self-doubts about Vietnam, race relations, and ecology lead instantly to a conviction that life is unendurable, God is horror, and our wives and children all hate us,” which then lead to “black humor . . . nihilism . . . and smart-mouth satire” in contemporary novels. According to Gardner, this response, although it includes the end of “cynicism and despair” in novels, has only avoided these past sentiments “not by true affirmation but by psychological survival tactics.” Although Gardner applauds the change from cynicism, he abhors the new direction of the American novel in the early ’70s, lamenting the “cult of style” that leads to “no real drama—how people come to be damned or saved—and no ‘lesson.’”
Gardner criticizes the fiction of Jerzy Kosinski, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, and Joyce Carol Oates, along with Gass, claiming that his contemporaries value style and “dazzling technical performances” over character development and the “novelistic form.” But, as he often would, Gardner softens his criticism when discussing Gass, claiming that “Gass’s own writing doesn’t illustrate his theory,” and is bothered by Gass’s comment that “The Pedersen Kid” was “an exercise in short sentences.” Gardner feels that Gass’s comment has “nothing to do with the moral and poetic power of the stor[y].” To Gardner, Gass’s present stance on fiction is a product of his literary age, and “by the luck of good character, he [Gass] surpasses and contradicts his age and, to a large extent, his theory” within his novels.
Gardner and Gass continued their private debates. Domenic Stansberry relates that in 1974, “Gardner went to Washington University to visit Stanley Elkin and William Gass.” During this meeting, the three engaged in an impromptu debate on fiction, with each novelist sticking to his respective theories. Gardner reflected that “Bill Gass and Stanley Elkin and I represent three main positions in modern fiction. And I think both of them are wrong and I’m right.” Claiming that he represented traditional Jamesian ideas on character, Gardner believed that fiction “is profoundly relevant to the world,” while Gass found fiction to be “apposite to real life,” and Elkin viewed fiction as “entertainment, a performance.”
Throughout the ’70s, Gardner continued to criticize Gass’s theories and novels, especially distancing himself from Gass’s style and views on character and the importance of morality in fiction. Yet Gardner also claimed that Gass was a “genius,” and that Gass’s work and theories were a continual influence: “Gass has a funny theory. But I have borrowed a great many elements from it—I’m sure I owe more to him than to any other living writer.” Even the acknowledgments page of On Moral Fiction contains a disclaimer: “some of the ideas here I’ve borrowed . . . from friends, not only from those with whom I usually agree . . . but also from those with whom I usually disagree, like William Gass.” Gardner then proceeds to attack the amoral, stylistic performances of Gass and other contemporaries—John Updike, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Barthelme, Barth, and Elkin—arguing for “the traditional view that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.”
By “moral,” Gardner does not call for a fiction that preaches, instead, “moral fiction communicates meanings discovered by the process of fiction’s creation.” Gardner believes that a writer discovers morals within their fiction through constant and intense revision and rumination. He claims that his view of “what art is and does” is backed by The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Commedia, Shakespeare’s plays, and Tolstoy’s novels.
Gardner devotes four entire pages within On Moral Fiction to discussing and rebuking Gass’s theories and criticizing him as one of the contemporary writers who concentrates “on language for its own sake . . . [rather] than with creating fictional worlds.” He attacks Gass’s theories of the conceptual nature of words, and claims that despite Gass’s consideration of characters as “verbal structures,” Gass’s own early fiction contains “magnificently vivid characters and scenes.” Only when Gass shifts from creating the fictional dream to writing “fiction designed to prove a theory” does he regress to “mere language—puns, rhymes, tortuously constructed barrages of verbiage with the words so crushed together that they do indeed become opaque as stones.” Gardner’s problem with Gass’s style is that it echoes a larger motif in contemporary fiction, “texture over structure,” and this again reveals Gardner’s major thesis; “the mistake is a matter of morality, at least in the sense that it shows, on the writer’s part, a lack of concern.”
The critical and literary response to On Moral Fiction included stinging reviews from critics such as Larry McCaffery, who found the book “irritating” and abhorred its “preachy qualities, its condescending tone, its easy, unsupported assumptions.” Many critics “shared his [Gardner's] misgivings about contemporary fiction [but] thought he had overstated his case,” as Domenic Stansberry argued in Ploughshares 10. In addition to these criticisms, Gardner received strong rebuttals from many of the major writers that he specifically criticized, including Gass, who questioned whether Gardner’s later work held up to the ideas on art described in his treatise: “John should revise more . . . his greatest weaknesses are his glibness and his preachiness.”
Gass and Gardner’s public debate at the University of Cincinnati was a synthesis of their jabs and dives, streamlined and spruced for a live audience. No new theories were posited. The debate whittles into particulars and wanes as most literary arguments do: into minutia, false notes even for a discipline that lives and dies by the letter. Debates are ephemeral gestures. Gass and Gardner were forever linked by the “The Pedersen Kid,” an actual text, not the dressing of a theory.
Gass’s Near-Perfect Presentation of Gardner’s Poetics
For all the polemics of On Moral Fiction, Gardner’s narrative poetics were best revealed within The Art of Fiction. Billed with the subtitle of “Notes on Craft for Young Writers,” the handbook wobbles between practical advice and blithe judgments. Gardner’s aesthetic hinges on several salient points, less critical than craft-oriented. Profluence, or forward progression of plot, is connected to causality, the expectation that succeeding events are born from narrative precedents. Nothing, it seems, can occur by chance: all must be rehearsed. This “built-in need to return and repeat” is as endemic to fiction as the vivid and continuous dream. Gardner is concerned with the emotion and symbolism of a plot accumulating toward a resonant conclusion. As we near the “inevitable and surprising” resolution of a successful work, “unexpected connections [will] begin to surface; hidden causes become plain; life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized.”
Gardner devotes nearly three pages to “The Pedersen Kid,” a work he considers “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” His analysis is brief, yet prescient. The novella’s action “is a continuous stream moving through a series of climaxes, focused throughout on a single character, young Jorge.” These climaxes are “increasingly powerful,” complimented with “suggestions of mystic ritual.” Gardner notes “how thoroughly realistic all this is, for all its symbolic freighting . . . nearly every detail works symbolically as well as literally.” This spare analysis begs expansion: “The Pedersen Kid,” though authored by Gass, is a near-perfect presentation of Gardner’s poetics.
The word snow—and its variations—appears 181 times within the 79 pages of “The Pedersen Kid.” The repetition transfers snow from word to thing: snow is overwhelming and smothering, equal parts plot, character, and theme. The word appears in the second sentence, and it completes the initial thought of the story. It is a Faulknerian convention, a trope in the tradition of adventure novels. Snow is omniscient but transient, gone come spring.
“The Pedersen Kid” begins with Big Hans, the Segren family farm-hand. He yells, and Jorge, the young first-person narrator, follows. Immediately “the sun burn[s] on the snow.” Hans has found the Pedersen kid, and tells Jorge to “get some snow”: the element is already characterized as a harbinger of birth and salvation. Snow is rubbed on the Pedersen kid as a means of resuscitation—cold warming cold—while the kid’s back is on a dough-covered table, a kitchen altar. This initial scene, per Bruce Bassoff in Critique, “is described in terms that evoke communion.”
But perhaps even more important than this early appearance of snow is the conflagration of Hans and Jorge, who are not bound by blood. Hans is a pseudo-father but not a surrogate father, as Pa is never far away, even if he “don’t like to get waked.” Hans is not even an uncle, but more like a mentor, a much older brother, one worthy of being “hated.” This hatred is first offered in correlation with the initial image of sun burning on snow: “I hated Big Hans just then because I was thinking how Pa’s eyes would blink at me—as if I were the sun off the snow and burning to blind him.” Snow, sun, Hans, Pa, Jorge: these words lose signification and become apparitions. While Gardner posited a certain “increasing connectedness of things” as the narrative of novel moves forward, the novella as a form requires compression of longitude. In a pure Hartleian manner, the beginning of Gass’s novella sutures the beings of snow, sun, Hans, Pa, and Jorge, so that when the third element—the color-coded killer—enters the narrative, the reader’s leverage is ruptured.
Ma physically enters the story before Pa, yet her initial concern is not the Pedersen kid. First she is “fumbling with the kid’s clothes,” the same clothes that “were going to make a puddle” on the floor. She asks: “what are we going to do with these?” on several occasions. The accumulated snow on the clothes later melts, becoming a pool on the floor, in much the same way the kid needs to be melted and thawed. The clothes have a more definite form than the kid: the boy is naked, he does not have the facial scars of Ma and Pa, and he is nearly amoebic. Facial features are absent; only the mark of the kid’s bottom in the dough reveals any shape. Jorge does not even see him as a boy, rather, a “sick shoat” ready to be cooked.
Big Hans suggests Pa’s whiskey. The liquor is metonymic, an extension of Pa’s person. The only reason Pa needs to be awakened is for his whiskey, and his sleep is deep and animalistic, “close to the wall so you had to lean to reach him.” Ma dares not wake him, and Jorge catches a strike against his neck: is the hit a reaction of sleep, or did Pa’s “winking” eyes reveal otherwise? Pa is characterized through dialogue and flashback as mischievous and perverted. Mr. Pedersen is “that cock,” and Pa offers a “fat turd to Big Hans,” who previously had been the recipient of a pot full of vomit. Jorge leaves the room without asking for the whiskey, although he claims to have done so to Hans upon his return to the kitchen. For all of Hans’s orders, Jorge is his father’s son. He steals his language—”that cock”—to describe the Pedersen kid.
In the background of this male action, Ma discovers Pa’s whiskey bottle. Hans, of course, “was holding it angrily by the throat,” but Ma had found the hiding spot. The bottle “had three white feathers on its label:” either a reference to a generic bottle or to the Three Feathers brand of whiskey. With the bottle found, Pa has become irrelevant, and Hans and Jorge focus on the still body before them. A vaudevillian back-and-forth ensues as Big Hans asks Jorge to lift the kid’s head but Jorge is repulsed by the boy’s form, already convinced he is “dead.” He leaves the house, goes to where the kid was found, and imagines stumbling upon him come spring, “running a foot right into him, right into the Pedersen kid curled up, getting soft.” Such spring discovery is essential to the text: the novella’s original title was “And Slowly Comes the Spring,” and spring is the replacement of snow with sun. Jorge’s fantasy hinges on texture: the thawed kid in mud, “Missus Pedersen in soggy season-old clothes,” the collusion between the kid in dough and Jorge’s own eating. The sun continues to burn on the snow, and although the snow reaches his thighs, Jorge trudges along, on his way back inside. Snow enables an implicit structure for the novella: come spring, the land will lay bare, the horses will become thawed, the grass damp but free, the story finished, nothing left to hide.
The second section of the first part begins with colors and cloths. The Pedersen kid’s claims are embedded in quotation marks, the only such notation in the novella. The kid claims that a mysterious “he”—with a green jacket, black hat, yellow gloves, and a gun—stuffed his family in the cellar. Only the gun and the man’s back are absent of modifiers: once again, physical form is tenuous for Jorge. The whiskey bottle remains, a constant beat threaded through the dialogue between Hans and Jorge. The two conjecture how the kid reached their home, and what happened to “yellow gloves.” Their conversation is atypical of their characters, especially Hans, who is nearly sermonic in his hypotheses of the kid’s claimed experience: “It’s like something you see once and it hits you so hard you never forget it even if you want to; lies, dreams, pass—this has you; it’s like something that sticks to you like burrs.” The fictional dream is paused, but Gardner has forgiven Gass for worse metafictional gestures, and “The Pedersen Kid’s” threadbare prose enables character shifts better than a realistic narrative. Hans quickly reverts back to type when he “waved the bottle violently in ma’s face.” Ma stands her ground, and returns to her own type with more concern for the kid’s clothes. Hans tells her to hang up the clothes with the rest of the family’s, but she says “I wouldn’t feel right doing that,” since such an action would truly invite the Pedersen kid into the Segren’s world. Later, Ma collects the kid’s clothes “one at a time, delicately, by their ends and corners, lifting a sleeve like you would the flat, burned, crooked leg of a frog dead of summer to toss it from the road.” Jorge’s distillation of Ma’s actions is unforgiving: she is nearly catatonic in her removal of the items, which “didn’t seem [to be] human things,” as if she desires to erase the kid’s entry into their home. Ma’s concern for the kid is more grounded in social convention than an intrinsic caring, and it is ironic that Hans is the “savior” here.
Jorge rips into Hans: if Hans is such a savior, then why did he do “all that rubbing and saving” but not the important step: go find “yellow gloves,” the origin of all the family’s troubles? Jorge’s final comment—”that ain’t a burr so easy picked off”—arrives with such wit that the language belies Jorge’s age. Jorge’s status as the elder Segren ends the moment Pa awakens, his “nose and eyes . . . red, his feet in red slippers.” The ensuing conversation that begins the third section of part one arrives without tags: if Jorge takes a part of this conversation, it is that of an observer, now that Pa has arrived. Jorge regains his nerve, but for now he is merely a boy, listening to Pa wonder if “anybody [is] ever ready for real snow.” Jorge’s previous focus on Pa’s bottle continues during this conversation, with the description shifting back to the bottle’s location. Gass has rehearsed the bottle as a symbol of Pa’s authority, and yet his initial reference sounds quite harmless: “you plan to drink some of my whiskey, Hans?” Pa’s anger soon increases, and the argument over the bottle subsumes the narrative, with Hans deflecting Pa’s claims through laughter, and implicating Jorge in the discovery. Jorge breaks his silence, and the words are directed toward Pa: “I ain’t like you. I don’t spend every day drinking just to sleep the night.” Pa’s response is no surprise: “You—you got a small dick.” Jorge’s thoughts explain that “Pa’s words didn’t come out clear,” although this is difficult to believe, as he is obviously hanging on Pa’s words. Perhaps Jorge has added this phrase to Pa’s response: after all, one of his first thoughts upon seeing the naked Pedersen kid was “I was satisfied mine was bigger.”
The bottle is not used as a practical beat within “The Pedersen Kid”: instead, it is a producer of profluence. The bottle characterizes Pa’s need to hoard, to lose himself in drink, Ma’s ingenuity, Jorge’s genesis for hatred of his father, and Hans’s desire to wrest some familial influence from Pa. The bottle, besides leaning in an earlier scene, is now “tilted” by Hans; in fact, Hans gropes the bottle with as much interest as Jorge maneuvers the gun in his pants during later scenes. Gardner’s claim that nearly all details within the narrative had symbolic and literal existence is established through the bottle’s existence as crux. It intensifies the on-stage dislike between Pa and Hans, and it leads to the work’s first moment of true violence: “Big Hans poured himself a drink. Then Pa kicked the glass out of Hans’s hand. Pa’s slipper flew off and sailed by Hans’s head and bounced off the wall. The glass didn’t break. It fell by the sink and rolled slow, by ma’s feet, leaving a thin line.” Attention has already been drawn to the red slippers. The glass, by not breaking, confuses the reader. Jorge notes that whiskey is splattered about: on Hans’s shirt, the wall, cupboards, and the floor. The thin line foreshadows when Horse Simon later smashes the bottle: “A brown stain spread over the sleigh track.” It also reflects toward the novella’s final third, when, within the Pedersen barn, “only [a] line of sun . . . [that] came up white and dangerous to the pail seemed a living thing.”
Whiskey splattered is better than blood. Whiskey has revived the Pedersen kid, and it now is the impetus for tangible action: Pa decides they will go. Where, and to do what, is unclear: it may be to trace the kid’s steps, to go to the Pedersen’s home, or to find the alleged attacker. Hans, in response, “[rubs] the spots on his shirt” in the same way he rubbed the kid back to life. And it is Jorge who first goes outside, either from frustration or gall. He is joined, at the start of part two, by Hans, Pa, and Horse Simon. Although Gass satirized Gardner’s theory of the continuous fictional reading process during their 1978 debate—claiming that the last time he had read fiction according to Gardner’s model was “when I was 12 or so reading Boy Scout Boys on the Columbia River“—the language at the beginning of the second part parodies adventure novels. Peter S. Prescott adds another genre to the parody: the Western. The parody evolves into an authentic journey, so the play on convention becomes the profluence of the work. Simon is a ready-made symbol as the one to carry the trio across the snow. Place names, such as North Corn Road, are purely pastoral. And Jorge is the young explorer who “was setting out to do something special and big—like a knight setting out—worth remembering.” Yet the fantasy turns violent, as Jorge imagines startling “yellow gloves” in the kitchen, “wrestling with him and pulling him down and beating the stocking cap off his head with the barrel of the gun.” But such drama would only be one option, followed by attacking the man with a shovel, and then, in an odd twist, dreaming that the man was in the Segren home “with his gun going slowly up and down in ma’s face;” Hans had given “the forty-five he’d stolen from the Navy” to Jorge, who stuffs it in his pants, so the collusion of gun and crotch adds disturbing weight to a phallic reading of the imagined home invasion.
All three have guns, as well as sandwiches and coffee, given by Ma. While the Pedersen kid is alive, and relatively safe upstairs, the preparations for the trip are more suited toward an afternoon of sledding than a trek toward a potential massacre. The conventions of the adventure tale overwhelm the narrative: troubles with the horse ensue, as well as a consistent description of the debilitating cold. The journey stops, though, when Pa drops his bottle. Pa tells Jorge to find the bottle in the snow. Jorge, at first, tells Pa to “get off [his] ass and find it,” but after a threat he begins the haphazard search. Sprinkling the scene with dialogue, Gass devotes several pages to the search, and settles into Jorge’s thoughts: “It was frightening—the endless white space.” He wants to stop looking, and return “in the spring one day” to find the bottle “sticking out of the rotting snow and stuck in the mud like dough.”
Meanwhile, the horse is cold. Pa takes the blanket from Hans and drapes it over Simon; he also pets the animal’s legs. The horse is the one, though, who shatters the bottle. Pa’s reaction is in triplicate: “Oh-oh-oh . . . You-you-you. . . Found-found-found.” The scene is absolute caricature: Hans cannot stop laughing, nearly losing his breath from the gasps. The whiskey, as its transference inspired the actual trip, is now a living object, the snow reacting to its spread. When the laughter ends, Pa is left squinting at the snow. Hans’s brief apology is reported without modification. The section ends: “But Pa drove.”
For the second time, the bottle has brought the sedentary Pa to action. He is, like Faulkner’s Anse, nearly an artifact of selfishness. But now, shotguns in tow, Pa and Hans lead Jorge toward the Pedersen barn. No smoke is rising from the Pedersen chimney, and Hans concludes that they “are all dead.” Jorge, wound up from the cold, suggests they leave a note “saying Big Hans saved their kid.” Hans, seemingly frustrated, drops his shotgun shells in the snow. Pa complains about the elder Pedersen, and repeats his earlier lament: “Nobody’s ever ready for snow.” Jorge’s mind and feet wander: he contemplates their collected image as “three men in the snow” and drifts toward calendars and Christmas paintings. While Ma discovered the bottle, Jorge makes a climactic discovery in the text: “I looked at the hoof and the shoe which didn’t belong in the picture.” Hans and Pa argue about the color of Pedersen’s horse, and while that “went on like singing,” Jorge imagines shooting his parents and Hans. Temporality is lost, and the narrative swirls, from Hans, hands outstretched, shotgun in the snow, to Jorge masturbating to Hans’s magazines, to “shit[ting] with the door open [in the spring], watching the blackbirds.” When Jorge rambles that “I ain’t the yellow one but you you made me made me come but you’re the yellow yellow ones, you were all along the yellow ones,” yellow equally refers to cowardice and the identity of the Pedersen attacker.
For all Jorge’s bravado with the forty-five, Pa swipes the gun from his hands, but appears to feel for his son’s confusion. Hans and Pa begin digging a tunnel toward the barn. Tunnels are an obvious symbol for Gass, but within this world, the tunnel is nearly a house of snow. Jorge walks the tunnel: “Everything seemed blue. The air was dead and wet. It could have been fun, snow over me . . . It would have been wonderful to burrow down, disappear under the snow.” Meanwhile, Hans is unearthing the horse, and “went to his knees” to continue the dig. His form is one of prayer. Hans has given up; he wants to go home. Pa, in of his more direct moments, refuses: “I can’t go home.” His words leave Jorge feeling dead.
* * *
The final part of “The Pedersen Kid” is twenty pages long. The successive parts of the novella decrease in length. Gardner’s episodic reading of the text is warranted by the structural cues; the accumulation of symbol and detail through order. This third section is climax and resolution, the realization of all that has been rehearsed and repeated. The journey must end here.
Hans, Pa, and Jorge are in the Pedersen barn, considering the final step: a rush across the snowy field. But the snowman arrives. He must be the Pedersen’s attacker. He must be the black and the yellow and the green. Yet we must believe Gass’s later treatise: he is the snowman, and that is all he needs to be. Jorge sees him; Pa’s grunt reveals the snowman exists.
Jorge runs out. Pa follows, but, in a flash, he “sat hugging his knees as I heard the gun, and Hans screamed.” The syntax here is misleading, but only if we desire direct mimesis. The fictional dream is never ruptured. Rather, the traditional means through which that dream is transmitted have been upended and shuffled, and in doing so, Gass best replicates the emotion of the action. Jorge sees Pa shot twice. Between shots he thinks “Shut up and die”: a perverse thought, but consistent with his character. Jorge is terrified, praying the snowman will not notice him. The section ends with consonance and ambiguity, and restarts with Jorge’s entrance into the Pedersen’s house.
Jorge’s quip about he and the Pedersen kid being like “prisoners exchanged” is true on several levels: both, at least according to Jorge’s narrative, abandoned adults in order to survive. Pa is dead. Ma is dead to Jorge, at least emotionally. The Pedersen kid was never alive in a human sense. And Hans, worst of all, is dead while still being alive, since he fled the area. None of them are in the house with Jorge as Gass’s prose becomes its most lyric. Jorge’s sense of his body is heightened, and there is further focus on knees: “I felt them but I felt them differently . . . like the pressure of a bolt through steel or the cinch of leather harness or the squeeze of wood by wood in floors.” The language is not Jorge’s: he has appropriated the gravitas of Pa and Hans. The section becomes an implicit elegy for them; even the furnace is dead. Light begins streaking through the house in imperfect refractions: “the broken window held a rainbow and put a colored pattern on the floor”; “If a crack of light came down the steps, I guessed I had to shoot”; “the chip was orange in the pattern of light”; “The light in the window paled”; “little rows of lights lay on the glasses and the jars . . . the glass glinting in unexpected places. The dead tops of roofing nails in an open keg glowed white”; “There was light in the kitchen. It came through the crack I’d left in the closet door to comfort me. But the light was fading . . . The light was going. The snow was coming;” “The room was full of orange light and blackened shadows, moving.” The snow’s light is too bright, burning and blinding. Jorge knows the Pedersens are in the cellar, where light must be absent. He thinks: “If the old lady was dead I’d peek at her crotch . . . She wasn’t much. Fat. Gray. But a crotch is a crotch.” He remains nervous, worried the man is watching and waiting, and he knows that, if caught, he will end-up like Pa, “sit[ting] slowly in the snow,” which would be a shame, since Jorge “was on the edge of something wonderful.” The tone of his first such comment was adventurous, now it is pathetic; is his escape the wonderful act, or is it vengeance?
Jorge hears a door slam upstairs: “He was finished with waiting.” The next sentence—”The kid for killing his family must freeze”—could either refer to the Pedersen Kid or Jorge. Bruce Bassoff reads the sentence as alliterative compression, which contributes to the confusion. But, looking outside, Jorge sees “the wind hurrying snow off toward the snowman.” The man’s bilocation means either Jorge’s eyes or ears are playing tricks, or the snowman is a snowman, not a man. This is the “crossed context” Gass posited in his later essay, the malleability of language as symbol. Jorge notices footprints on the porch, “deep and precise,” and the closeness of death brings more memories: Jorge had a picture book with “a line of sheep . . . There were no people in it.” The book was hidden by Pa and never found, except for a few torn pictures. The picture book has been replaced by Hans’s pornography.
Jorge sees “something black” in the snow, perhaps the black stocking cap. Then, “I saw his back upon a horse. . . . Great sheets flapped. He was gone.” The man is here and there, inside and outside, in Jorge’s reality and dreams. Jorge moves from the window and goes by the fire, where he rubs his hands and eats a “stale biscuit” and an apple, whose “skin was shriveled but the meat was sweet.” The biscuit reflects the dough within his own home, the Pedersen kid being prepared for basting, and the apple a muted temptation. Jorge’s fantasies continue, and they enhance rather than interrupt the fictional dream. His reminiscence is troubling: “Pa was on the tractor in a broad-brimmed hat. With a fist like a pistol butt and trigger, going fast, I shot him down.”
Pa’s head is hanging down now, dead in the snow. He was first described as having a head “fuzzed like a dandelion gone to seed.” He has “a dry crack in his face.” Bassoff argues for seasonal reversal here, with Pa and the environment trading traits with the change of summer and winter. Also, Jorge does not kill Pa, but he imagines doing so, and he could be construed as indirectly contributing to the death. He remembers Hans’s arrival—with the sun as a consistent backdrop—and his bonding with Hans is based purely in sex. He shows Jorge his pornography, noting that “Only teats like that round here is on a cow.” He would only give Jorge a “glimpse,” or he would “spank me on the rump.” They work together, tearing down the privy, and Hans’s war stories are about Japanese women who “had their slice sideways and no hair,” but when he actually talked about the military element he spoke “in whispers.” Jorge relates that Hans “showed me this and that” and even “measured his pecker once when he had a hard one.” Jorge stops short of claiming physical abuse, but the actions are grossly inappropriate, perhaps the reason why “pa took a dislike to Hans.” Hans had responded by talking to Ma about Pa’s drinking, and Pa, “burning inside himself,” comes near Jorge. Such a feeling reflects the final sentence of the novella, when Jorge is “warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.” Jorge has also inherited Pa’s capacity for melodrama; his concluding, in Stanley Fogel’s words in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, “triumphalism is at odds with what happens in the rest of the story . . . [including] the whining and carping he indulges in throughout the tale.”
The man, previously heard upstairs, is now outside again, a snow-man in the sense that “he belonged in the snow.” His movements are indiscriminate, and bleed into another fantasy, of the man arriving at the Segren home, making them “disappear like the Pedersens had.” Then, either back in the present or in the fantasy, Jorge wonders “why did he stand there so pale I could see through,” his transparent figure a ghost. The figure fades, and Jorge’s guilt rises: “I’m not going to grieve,” not in a linear fashion, but in a collusion of time and feeling. His thoughts culminate in a section replete with the novella’s trademark spacing between sentences of images composed of wagon, Papa, Mama, horse, paper sack, and hiding. Jorge is alone in this world: now he knows it, and all is still when he exits the waking dream. He returns to the fire, the only light he can truly control. Outside, “Snow had risen to the shoulders of the snowman.” He is not the only thing to be overtaken by the fall: “The road was gone. Fences, bushes, old machinery: what there might be in any yard was all gone under snow.” The only thing that remains is “the barrel of pa’s gun.” A glint of sun lights the barrel but “There was nothing to do about that till spring. Another snowman, he’d melt.”
Now, with the fire burning and the kettle “speaking softly,” Jorge has no reason to grieve: “The snow would keep me.” He is either experiencing madness or transcendence. He is inextricably linked to the Pedersen Kid, as they had done “brave things well worth remembering.” Both survived. But Jorge succumbs to the dream of snow, now that the “winter time had finally got them all.” Such is the resonant close Gardner so desired. Here, Gardner says, the reader “understands everything and everything is symbolic.” The structure and language of “The Pedersen Kid” are also the content. The rhythm and ritual of the work deepens its connections. Hans, Pa, the killer, Jorge: all of them become the stuff of snow. In becoming snow, in being suffocated and overwhelmed by the snow, they become snowmen. The monster has not melted yet.
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff writer at Luna Park and an MFA student at Rutgers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Basking in Hell: Returning to William H. Gass’s The Tunnel William H. Gass's 650-page novel The Tunnel is one of the most complex, challenging books published in English in the 1990s. Stephen Schenkenberg investigates two valuable offerings from the Dalkey Archive Press helping us understand this disagreeable and stunning novel....
- William Gaddis, the Last Protestant William Gaddis’s career could have started with the question, “Work?” John Lingan argues that no single word better encapsulates the concerns and organizing metaphor for Gaddis’s artistic project....
- How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland I. Despite the popular tolling of the novel’s death knell, former Booker prize chair John Sutherland has decided to put together a populist user’s guide to reading a novel in the 21st century. What he has created in How to Read a Novel is a clever book, assuredly for someone...
- A Day at William T. Vollmann’s Studio Although Vollmann is best known for his writing, I am here to see his visual artwork. I'm prepared to talk art all day long, but with Vollmann the divide between the arts is always fluid: our conversation ranges from Noh theater to contemporary music to his novels and everything in...
- From A to X by John Berger From A to X, John Berger. Verso. 224pp, $22.95. What is the use of hope in a hopeless situation? This is the question John Berger seems to answer with his tenth novel, From A to X. The titular letters stand for the main characters, A’ida and Xavier. He is in...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Nick Ripatrazone