I’m a big fan of paragraphs. They break up prose into a manageable flow and look nice on the page while at work.
Stephen Dixon gives the paragraph the bum’s rush. Page after page of ink and more ink. When you can pump out words like Dixon can, a paragraph may seem like putting training wheels on a freight train.
Alas, the words may be great in quantity but the quality is suspect. The story, if it could be called that, charts the friendship of two nebbish geezers who call themselves writers. Each one has had middling success with magazines and journals and perhaps because of this, they are able to form a bond of the mediocre when their respective girlfriends conspire to get the boys out of their hair.
Leonard and Irv prattle on about writing, about the bullshit of the academy, about old loves lost and then lost again. Eventually they drift apart. Leonard is laid low with a poorly diagnosed case of Lyme disease shortly after he marries an undergraduate protege while Irv cares for an invalid wife. The bulk of the book becomes an interminable exchange of interminable letters between the undergrad, Tessie, and Irv chronicling travels and travails. The book draws to a close on a note of pungent sadness when Irv visits Leonard in a dreary nursing home. Tessie offers him some pointers.
Don’t be put off or unnerved by the twitchers and gibberers or crotch scratchers hanging out by the elevator…I’ve seen some of them masturbating in front of everyone or sticking their fingers in their anuses and tossing their feces around or intentionally upchucking meals minutes after they gorged themselves on them. Sometimes it’s a cross between Marat/Sade and Bedlam without the paid audience or the sadistic orderlies.
Material like this cries out, loudly, for an editor. If you’re going to dispense with paragraphs, plot and identifiable dialogue, you best say your piece quickly and get out. Even if the thing were kept at its full and tortuous length, better formatting would have been welcome.
But then perhaps that’s the whole point of the exercise, the phantom theme. Two old schmucks with verbal and written diarrhea, going down swinging with everything they’ve got. Enjoy.
Saul Bellow has learned this lesson well. In recent years he has embraced the novella, all to the good. His last book, Ravelstein, co-incidentally, was about two nebbish geezers who did a lot of talking and not much else. But at least they did it with style. And with paragraphs and properly formatted dialogue that give the reader incentive to read on. Old Friends reads like Saul Bellow on speed – the same Jewish tough guy slang, the same obsessions, the same resistance to plot. If only he had gotten with Saul’s slimming regimen.
Dixon has published a lot of material in a lot of different places. Old Friendsproves the maxim: less is more.
About the author:
Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University of Michigan-Dearborn. he is also the founder of Atomic Quill Media.