March 1, 2016

First Time Around: "Omensetter's Luck," by William H. Gass

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

Omensetter's Luck, by William H. Gass

Omensetter's Luck
By William H. Gass, 1966
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

While he has both won the admiration of many fellow writers and raked in a healthy share of literary prizes, it's hard to tell if William H. Gass has the same cultural presence as other Postmodernist authors. Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo have both had books filmed, received tributes from the indie rock world (the Airborne Toxic Event takes their name from DeLillo's White Noise, while Yo La Tengo named their song "The Crying of Lot G" after a certain Pynchon novel we all know) and are both well-represented at even your local Barnes & Noble. John Barth and Donald Barthelme's short stories are still widely taught, while William Gaddis is, in Cynthia Ozick's words, "famous for not being famous enough," but it seems like Gass has spent his whole career right on the verge of being a big deal, the kind of writer who you might learn about through an English literature textbook (his short "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" was in one of mine) or a David Foster Wallace-authored essay about underappreciated novels and not, say, a book that has passed into pop culture.

To be fair, some of this is because of Gass' own stylistic strategies and preferences. The fact that he's commonly grouped with the literary Postmodernists means that his work isn't a walk in the park, but Gass identifies more with the Modernists than the Postmodernists, especially the extra-difficult Modernists like Gertrude Stein and Henry James. Like those two, Gass traffics in super-long sentences with all sorts of clauses and events and sometimes even multiple tenses, the kind of sentences you can get lost in; whether that's a good thing depends on your view of the long sentence and, more generally, how you feel about the writer-reader relationship. Basically, if you appreciate lyricism and don't mind working a little to understand what Gass is going for, pick him up, because as a prose stylist he's peerless. If that doesn't sound like your thing, I wouldn't recommend him. Plus, like fellow Postmodernist Robert Coover, Gass flaunts his scatological side, to the point where he's accused of misanthropy or at least grossness for grossness' sake.

Density, grossness and lyricism are all prominent Omensetter's Luck. This might be the best known of Gass' fictional works, mostly because of the aforementioned essay where David Foster Wallace declared it one of the five most "direly underappreciated" novels of the 20th century (curiously, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, one of the 20th century's most appreciated novels, also made the list). Despite this, the book almost didn't come out. While he was teaching at Purdue, one of his colleagues stole the near-completed manuscript off his desk and tried to pass it off as a play of their own invention, inspiring Gass to rewrite the whole novel from the beginning. I wonder if this inspired Gass' habit of meticulous rewriting; his second novel, The Tunnel, was under construction for thirty years before its 1995 release. Gass always has said that "writing is rewriting." Maybe he learned it the hard way.

The plot of this one is pretty simple. It's ostensibly about one Brackett Omensetter, a charismatic black man who moves to a fictional Ohio town in the mid-1890s, and his extraordinary luck in navigating difficult and dangerous situations. Omensetter's presence and his luck infuriates the real central character, the Reverend Jethro Furber. While Furber maintains an image of outward piety, he's a violent horndog with some serious anger problems on the inside. I suppose you can say the real story is the process of his inside coming out. Hints of a more conventional plot emerge when Omensetter's landlord dies under mysterious circumstances, but the novel's entire second half is given over to a bizarre monologue by Furber. I imagine the monologue is the primary reason for this novel's reputation as being somewhat hard to read, so allow me to offer a few tips as to how to read it.

The big thing, of course, is to give it time. While the first seventy-five pages of it might seem incomprehensible, they're more a strange exposition than anything else, laying out Furber's fractured mental state and motives. As it goes on, it coalesces into what you might call the rest of the story, or at least into something that operates according to the laws of cause and effect, but you have to let it get there. Despite that, I don't recommend speed-reading through the first seventy-five pages of the monologue, or for that matter, any of it. Instead, it's something to savor in. So take breaks, go out for a walk, set it aside for a day or two and let those words and their associations swirl around in your head until you're ready to come back. See, Gass is more interested in the sounds and associations and general uses of words than he is in logical flow, so it helps to accept that not everything makes logical sense and treat it like a work of free-flowing poetry, or maybe even the closest thus far literature has come to music. Finally, have fun with it! Gass' wordplay is up there with Joyce's and Nabokov's, whom I'd argue he rivals as a prose stylist, and if you've got a ribald sense of humor you'll find plenty to laugh at among the Reverend's bizarre scatological fixations.

Of course, you could easily argue that Gass only uses the monologue as a device to cover for the novel's lack of a plot. Indeed, Gass has never been much of a plot-oriented writer, which is bound to frustrate some writers. The plot of the aforementioned Tunnel can be summarized thusly: "guy who wrote a book about Nazis digs a tunnel and thinks about how much he hates the people in his life," while his great short story "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" is more a survey of a fictional Midwest everytown than a plot in motion per se. But hey, what's a guy gonna do except turn a weakness into a strength? Even if all he's doing is compensating for the fact that he can't put a traditional story together, he's at least compensating in fine lyrical and comedic style. Besides, it's not like he's the first novelist who ever put together a story about nothing much happening. Look at Kafka, look at Beckett, look at Melville. Or look at his contemporaries; for instance, Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" consists mostly of a kid wandering around a boardwalk. He's got a lot of tradition behind him and I have to assume he knows it.

So I gotta hand it to the guy, even though this novel has its flaws. I wasn't a big fan of the opening chapter, where Gass introduces Furber, the townsfolk, and the main conflict. His ear for late nineteenth-century Midwestern dialect was certainly attuned, but there's something a little too sub-Faulkner about the whole affair to hold my attention. It's also almost excessively exposition-y. I have to confess I almost set the book down during this first chapter, but things get a lot better once Omensetter himself shows up and Furber starts to unspool. By the time Gass reached the monologue, I was sold. I guess now's as good a time as any to say I've never fully loved a Gass book, although I have a ton of respect for him as a writer and enjoy everything I've read by him. I don't know if that's because of the guy's plotless approach or for other reasons I haven't figured out yet, but there's something about his books that keeps me from committing all the way. However, the monologue extracted is one of Gass' best ever works, up there with his novella "The Pedersen Kid."

Going forward, Gass would double down on a lot of this novel's most distinctive aspects. Not only can The Tunnel be described as a six hundred-page monologue, it also contains plenty of the X-rated humor, the overriding misanthropy, the cruelty lurking beneath prominent people, the bumpkinish townsfolk. Even the songs Furber sometimes breaks into come back in the form of poems rooted in Rilke but given a Gassian twist of the ol' subversive. It's also a much bleaker book than this, whose ending can either be read as hopeful or a plunge into further intrigue, depending on how you interpret certain events. That makes Gass' first novel a seminal moment for his fiction; he sure didn't start off making uncharacteristic work, which I guess we should expect from an author this meticulous. It also makes it a great introduction to his style. If you don't mind or even enjoy both the book's relative plotlessness and its rather dim view of people, if you appreciate his masterful use of language, if his sense of humor agrees with you, I would recommend continuing onward. If you have any hesitancies, maybe don't go forward, as more recent work like last year's Eyes reveal Gass as a dirty old man. Wherever you end up landing on Omensetter's Luck, it's a unique work of art, one that eschews traditional approaches to plot and character development and rockets off fearlessly - for Gass is nothing if not fearless - toward its own ideas of how a novel should work. That's always worth reading, wouldn't you say?

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, March 1, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |