Describe your latest book.
If you’re clear about anything by the time you’re in your early 70s, it is what you can and cannot do. I am not going to become an astronaut, win Wimbledon, or convert Donald Trump to decency. And though I so admire good novelists, I know perfectly well that they are for reading and studying and talking about and fooling around with, not for emulating. I could never do what so many novelists do: scrunch their faces up, peer intently, care about off-center noses, rheumy eyes, stray nostril hairs, and crumpled linen clothes, hailstones that aren’t the size of golf balls, and places that you will never see, not so clearly. Novelists who make up a comprehensively visualized world. I love writers who can do this for breakfast — the Updikes
and Nicholson Bakers
— but I can’t do it; it would be exhausting.
Yet this year I published my first novel, Darke
I never decided to write a novel; if anything, it wrote me. You know how sometimes you get a tune in your head that won’t go away? Well, I got a voice in my head: “O Dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark,” it said, quoting from "East Coker
." And then a day or two later it added, “Fucking T. S. Eliot
And those two lines settled in, and repeated themselves for days, for weeks. It wasn’t like being possessed, nothing as fancy as that, but the voice was clearly not my own — too angry, too insistent, too hopeless, too superior — but it was now mine, and I had to deal with it. So I wrote them down, those two phrases, at my computer, and then I waited to see what else it — he
, it was clearly not a woman — had to say.
And the answer was: a lot. He was angry, frightened, obsessed by death and damnation, disgusted by humankind, viscerally coiling and recoiling, slightly deranged. It poured out of him, out of me — out of us — and within a month there were some 50 pages. I didn’t feel I was creating this person (his name was James Darke), rather that I was channeling him, though that sounds too spooky.
He was writing in his journal. I was so grateful when I realized this, for he was teaching me that you can write a novel without all that novelist’s stuff and business in it — all you need is a first-person narrator, and a voice sufficiently compelling to make your reader turn the pages. Within a few months I had to acknowledge that, if James Darke was writing a diary, Rick Gekoski was writing a novel.
Poor James Darke is often regarded as a misanthrope or curmudgeon, but he is better understood as someone with spiritual post-traumatic stress disorder. His beloved wife Suzy has only just died, horribly. He has been eviscerated by love. He locks himself in his house, withdraws from the world, shuts the curtains, closes his heart, and rails against God.
He is tormented by the circumstance of her death. By the unwillingness of her doctor to put her out of her misery. By her agony, his desperation and guilt. He is appalled that we treat our pets so kindly when they whine with pain, drag their legs about, blunder about cataract-blind, lose their appetites, shit and vomit on the floor — when, with heavy hearts, we take them to the vet and put them to sleep. Yet when this happens to our loved ones, we let them suffer right to the ghastly end, when there is no relief save that provided by the death that we deny them. We prescribe anything to alleviate suffering, but nothing to end it. That seems monstrous to James Darke, a monstrous dereliction of the painful, final duties of love.
At the start of the book you are exposed to the effects of a cause that is withheld, so it is only later that you can fully understand what has happened, and why he is so devastated, so enraged and inconsolable. He has nowhere to turn. He is a retired teacher of English, and has always believed that it is literature which interprets life for us and sustains us. But when he repairs to the great writers for consolation, he finds nothing but the dust and ashes with which his spirit is already clogged.
This sounds gloomy, and I had recurring images of my prospective readers throwing poor Dr. Darke out the window after a few pages. But if he is choleric, he is also funny and mordant: James Darke makes you laugh. (Some critics called the book “hilarious.”) And we are all sometimes like him, desolate and hopeless. There is hope for us, and for him, to come out of the dark night into… Into what? I don’t know. Something less contracted by despair. And — nice paradox this — when you do emerge into the half-light, life seems less compelling, less interesting, and less memorable. Misery writes better than happiness; it reads better too, if it is done well.
We don’t read to make friends, or to “identify” with characters. I neither like nor dislike Humbert Humbert and Ignatius J. Reilly, but I adore being in their company. If you give him a chance you may find James Darke rather grows on you.
But can we hope for something a little brighter from you? After Darke, what next?
A new novel titled A Long Island Story
will be published by Canongate next August. It is by Rick Gekoski, not James Darke, if you will allow me that dubious distinction.
When I was 10, under the shadow of McCarthyism, my family was uprooted from Washington, DC. This novel revisits that time, which created intense problems of where to live and how. This is a book I have wanted to write for almost 50 years, but couldn’t until I realized that what was needed to tell these complex truths was a work of fiction, not a memoir.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I like big things. I adore Palladian villas, monumental Mark Rothkos, vases of gladioli, eagles, 16-ounce T-bone steaks. I can grasp the attractiveness of cottages, Indian miniatures, lilies of the valley, guinea pigs, and roast quail. But it seems to me that, with a little more effort, any of these might make more of themselves.
This predisposition to the outsized is typically American, but in me it is also caused by early exposure to that admirable pachyderm, Dr. Seuss's Horton the Elephant. At four, I adored Horton Hatches the Egg
, one of the lesser-known Seuss books but my favorite by far. I wonder, all these years later, whether I didn't have, at that time, some obscure recognition that this particular story applied to me? The poem concerns a charming but flighty bird called Mayzie, who, bored by the longueurs of egg-sitting, wishes instead to go on an extended holiday to Palm Beach. She flirtatiously prevails upon the kindly elephant Horton to take her place up in the tiny tree, in spite of his considerable misgivings.
Horton was the perfect embodiment of my father — loving, totally dependable — while my mother was a Mayzie through and through, loved a ciggie and a drink, was the life of any party. I loved both of them, differently. Just as I loved Horton and Mayzie.
Dr. Seuss's characters are wonderfully crazy, embodiments of the lawlessness and egotism of childhood. His world is always in danger of falling apart: he is the children's laureate of entropy.
Like my mom, he didn't much like kids, because both knew you couldn't trust them. That doesn't bother me at all. Many of the greatest writers about children were like that: not only Dr. Seuss, but Beatrix Potter
, Charles M. Schulz
, and Lewis Carroll
(unless they were half-naked little girls). But from such child-phobic writers we get many abiding images that shape our sense of self.
Though I flew to Horton like his newly-hatched chick, it was the estimable elephant whom I adored. His heroism made me swoon: "he sat and he sat!" From which, I believe, I derive both a lifetime preference for sitting rather than doing, and a tendency to present myself as bigger and more important than I actually am.
When did you know you were a writer?
I don’t. I am a person who writes all the time and publishes frequently. But on immigration forms I describe myself as a "rare book dealer.” If I put “writer,” I would feel I was telling some sort of lie, not the sort an immigration official would interrogate — oh yeah, what kinda writer, huh?
— but the sort of complex distorting untruth that mistakes a part for a whole. This may be true of “rare book dealer” as well, but who cares?
What does your writing workspace look like?
It is flat, and it has a computer in it and a chair. If nothing flat is available, it is soft, has cushions, and a pen and notebook.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Nope. I have visited the birthplaces, homes, and graves of many writers, but calling such visits “pilgrimages” seems quite wrong to me. These are not spiritual guides or heroes, nor latter-day saints, just people who have written wonderfully well, and to whom I am profoundly grateful: Kafka
What scares you the most as a writer?
Not the obvious — being unable to write. I can. But not being able to write well, that scares me. I rewrite obsessively — writing is
rewriting, the sentence is the great invention of mankind — thinking that I am closer, getting closer, but not quite close enough. And then sometimes there it is: a sentence, maybe even a paragraph, rarely a full page, that strikes me as spot on, perfect.
Yet I often end up discarding the passages I am proudest of: they stick out too much, preen and fancy themselves, make their companions look pedestrian.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
: “I cannot bear dogs, they disgust me….No matter how cunningly disguised by fluff and fealty, all I see is a shameless slobbering ass-sniffing leg-humping scrotum-toting, asshole-flaunting filth spreader: as profligate a shitslinger as Kahlil Gibran
, only closer to the ground.”
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
People who do not understand the difference between “uninterested” and “disinterested.”
Do you have any phobias?
Heights. If my wife or children peer over the edge of a cliff, I am terrified and beg them to retreat. (Why do they trust rocks? They slide!) I sometimes think there is something metaphoric about this fear, but you can’t fall off a metaphor.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
My father told me that he tried to treat everyone the same: with respect, interest, and kindness, whoever they were. He was too modest to offer this as advice, but through his example that is what he was doing. I try to do the same, with varying degrees of success. If I met Donald Trump, I would abandon the project with pleasure.
Do you have any pets?
I prefer my animals on a plate, with gravy. But I have pet peeves. And one of these concerns the popular belief that literary judgments are “subjective.” You think this book is good, and I think it is bad. The spirit of the times says, Oh well, we are all entitled to our opinions
. Which is true. But one of us may well be wrong.
Claiming that something is right or wrong is generally regarded as more than mere opinion. Murder is wrong, being kind to old ladies is right: such conclusions are the result of first principles, argument, and sustained consideration. If I prefer Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon, football to baseball, blondes to brunettes, spinach to mushrooms, that is a matter of taste, and I am under no obligation to defend my preference. But if I adore murdering, and am gratuitously beastly to old ladies, I am (in many ways) likely be called upon to defend myself.
Where does this leave us? With a clear distinction between matters of taste and matters of judgment. You like Mateus Rosé better than Chateau Petrus? No worries, slurp away. But if you think that it is a better wine, you are wrong. You're clearly without the experience, palate, or discrimination to make such a judgment — as unfit as I would be to decide which sort of catalytic convertor to fit to my car. I simply don't know enough.
This seems obvious, but increasingly such a position offends against the spirit of the times. Nobody is wrong these days. We are all "entitled to our opinion," and the notion that there is some gap between opinion and truth, assertion and argument, is getting lost.
My Top Five favorite books on sport.
I hate going to the theater, but I love my sport (as long as it doesn't involve a horse or water). If I'm going to be exposed to all that declaiming, spitting, and posturing, I prefer it at Old Trafford rather than the Old Vic. Sport can be genuinely dramatic, which the theater is not. We sit there calmly while Hamlet stabs Polonius, confident that there is no cause for alarm. Nobody in the audience rises with a shout of warning as the dagger is drawn, no one calls an ambulance or the police after the stabbing takes place. Coleridge
got it backwards: what we suspend is not disbelief, but belief. Theater only works because we know it is artifice. And this, for me at least, rather undermines its dramatic quality.
But give me a sporting spectacle — a great match at Wimbledon or in the World Series — and I am riveted by the simple and primitive desire to know what will happen. And, occasionally, the dramatic tension of such sporting events is almost too much to bear, and I resent the entrapment, its intensity and depth, and yearn for a spot of cool relief at a performance of King Lear
I love much of the literature that sport has prompted, because it is, after all, the job of the writer to trace human passion and delusion, and to reveal the human frailty beneath the vanity of hope. It is mildly surprising that there aren't more terrific books about sport. Soccer? Basketball? Neither has been the basis of a first-rate novel, only of high-class journalism. And of the other sports, it is only baseball that has produced compelling contributions by great writers like Roth
, and Malamud
So what are the greatest sporting books? Good question, but too big for this space. So let me list, instead, five of my favorites:
The Clicking of Cuthbert by P. G. Wodehouse (1922)
A story concerning both golf and literature, so hilarious that on first reading it, seated on Eurostar on the way to Paris, I laughed so uncontrollably that I had to remove myself and stand between the carriages. Then I got a cramp in my stomach muscles, and ended up on the floor clasping myself in agony, still laughing. The staff inquired solicitously if I was alright and perhaps needed a doctor. I thrust the book at them: "You must read this!" I said. I can't imagine they did, but they should have. Everybody should.
The Southpaw by Mark Harris (1953)
The homespun, ungrammatical wisdom of Henry Wiggen informs this terrific novel, and the account of a baseball season, told from a faux-naïf point of view, is delightful and totally convincing. This is the first of a trilogy, the second of which (Bang the Drum Slowly
) is almost as good, and even more poignant. The third volume (A Ticket for a Seamstitch
) is no good at all.
This Sporting Life by David Storey (1960)
One of the first novels, indeed first books, to look behind the heavily mythologized veneer of sport — the appealing surfaces that fans witness and pay allegiance to — to describe its impact on the lives of the actual players. Set in the industrial north, it is a grim reminder of how fragile life can be, especially sporting life.
Beyond a Boundary by C. L. R. James (1963)
It has been claimed that this book, by the eminent West Indian Marxist historian, is the best book ever written about sport. I wonder about that — parts of it are sludgy-going — but it may well be the most important. It tries to place cricket in West Indian culture, and to ask what role it has played in the colonial, social, and personal lives of its peoples. It is challenging, sometimes maddening, but a terrific example of a keen intelligence at work on a topic usually reserved for dullards.
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss (1999)
In 1998 I published Staying Up
, a behind-the-scenes account of a year with a Premiership football team (Coventry City). When Joe McGinniss came out with a similar book, I was intrigued, and envious at how much he had enjoyed his experience. Admittedly his was with a minor Italian team, newly promoted to Serie B (and controlled by the local mob), but he was welcomed warmly by the management, coaching staff, and players, and incorporated into the day-to-day life of the team. Lucky him. For most of my behind-the-scenes experience, I was treated like a foreign intruder in a hostile culture, and the result was a sort of travel book, with balls. I'd rather have been in Italy, eating pasta with Joe and his team, discussing tactics for our next match.
÷ ÷ ÷
was brought up in Alexandria, Virginia, and Huntington, Long Island. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, and did graduate degrees in English at Oxford before becoming a member of the English Department at the University of Warwick in England. He left that position in 1984 to set up a business dealing in rare literary books and manuscripts, though these days he prefers to think of himself as a writer. He is a dual US-UK citizen, and feels equally ill at ease in both countries. Trump! Brexit! Fortunately, his wife is a New Zealander, and they own a house there to retreat to. Darke
is his most recent book.