Table of Contents
Morris and Smitty,
Dennis and Rich,
Julian and Ollie
The author wishes to thank Temple University, for its aid and support, and Lou Thibeault, PGA professional, for his golf tips.
Portions of this book first appeared in somewhat different form in
Sun and Moon
Epigraph quotation by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from
One Hundred Years of Solitude
, translated by Gregory Rabassa (Translation Â©1970 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), is reprinted by permission of Harper & Row.
The extract quotation from
Cape Cod: Its People and Their History
, by Henry C. Kittredge, 2nd edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968 (Copyright 1930 by Henry C. Kittredge; Copyright renewed, 1958), is reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin.
ALSO BY TOBY OLSON:
The Life of Jesus
Worms into Nails
The Wrestlers & Other Poems
Changing Appearances: Poems 1965 â 1970
The Florence Poems
The search for lost things is hindered by routine habits and that is why it is so difficult to find them.
âGabriel Garcia Marquez
I am determined not to live until I have no country!
âKing Philip (
TO ENTER A TOBY OLSON FICTION IS TO ENTER AN UN â guarded borderland. Sometimes one finds oneself at an actual borderâthe Mexican-American one, for example, in such books as
The Woman Who Escaped from Shame
The Blond Box
âbut even there, the encounter is felt to be emblematic of stranger, more enigmatic borders: that between the natural and the uncanny, for example, between notions of gender and between cultures, between the real and the surreal or the real and our perception of the real, between the mundane and the extraordinary, the probable and the improbable, between dreams and the waking life. In the opening “ Tea Dream” chapter of
, the golfer Allen, dreaming of a great white horse on a golf course galloping down at him from green to tee, is awakened by his mortally ill wife, Melinda, blowing the steam off a cup of jasmine tea in his face, so gently bringing him to consciousness that the border between dream and waking life is dissolved: “And the dream and what he might have chosen to call reality had come together like a kind of smoke net to lift him up.” Allen later uses this border-less emergence from sleep to try to describe, while meditating upon Melinda's looming death (which seems almost beyond the real, yet utterly of it), another kind of awakening, this time from everyday practical thought into an augmented “clarity that rendered most of the rest dreamlike.” Something like an epiphany.
This rise to clarity, with its “flavor of the dream transition,” he decides, “had to do with immediacy.” Except occasionally, when
addressing a golf ball or surrendering to sex (of which, herein, some deliciously original passages), Allen rarely privileged to experience this immediacy, this uncomplicated immersion in the “here and now.” Even Allen's reflection on his “ Tea Dream” opposes the immediacy he is trying to capture and define. Like the author, Allen is engaged with practical matters, organizing the journey that will take them from Tucson to Melinda's childhood home on Cape Cod and the climaxesâto their stories, to their livesâthat await them there. This is a creative task, but one that requires planning and reflection, the use of memory and judgment, and as much rethinking as thinking. If he were living purely in the here and now, they would probably never reach the Cape, and the author would never finish his tale.
This is the fate of most writers, the finding of words (and then the revising of words) always following upon that which they seek to describe, its original immediacy long lost, and it helps account for the writerly fascination with those enigmatic creatures who do live wholly in what Olson sometimes calls “the luminous present”âand who could therefore, of course, never write about it, nor would wish to. These almost magical beings can only be watched and listened to as they pass through the present, insouciantly yet often wisely, as vivid and as inscrutable as nature itself. Here, that role belongs to the compellingly appealing Bob White, a member of the Indian tribe known on the Cape, somewhat jocularly, as the Quahog People, who travels east with Allen and Melinda, sharing car and even bed with them, yet seeming somehow to exist on another plane. Not that writers don't have their own epiphanic moments of course, happening most often when, as though from nowhere, the precisely right phrase arrives with all the power of a revelation, a phrase that, for all the author's skillful preparations (Olson speaks of “the struggle to position a self ” in life and in writing, not a struggle creatures living wholly in the here and now are even likely to understand: the self?
), is often remarkably simpleâas when Bob White answers Melinda's question about the bird they have
rescued from the snake's jaw on a very peculiar miniature golf course the night before. One merely sighs and says, oh yes, and wishes all one's writing were like that.
This feeling of immediacy, or the illusion of it, is often achieved in Olson's writing by the depiction of a character engaged to the exclusion of all else with a particular and often original skillâthe giving of massages, let's say, or the building and inaugurating of an outhouse, the art of the prostitute, or Jesus' careful washing of the disciples' feet in Jesus/Olson's earthy yet fanciful “autobiography.” People, as Olson has said in praise (of golfers, in this case), “enthusiastically attentive to mastery.” Here, in
, we have suchlike as Allen's amazing golf strokes (his skill, once he has made his mystical connection, not only allows him to place his shots with uncanny accuracy and use his golf bag as an arsenal but also to read the minds of others, predict their behaviors, and influence them; otherwise he's just an ordinary sort of fellow, give or take a crime or two); Bob White's memorable snake hunting; Chip's loving care of a golf green; or the curmudgeonly Chair's ritualized act of donning his golf togsâwhich include a pair of white golf pants with sailing boats, whales, and dolphins printed or embroidered on themâall meticulously examined, reminding one of another of Olson's writing characteristics: the surreal multilayered examination of an image in which something as simple as, say, a tattoo or a shirt logo can become as complex as a wall-sized epic painting, scale being another strange Olson borderland, easily transgressed. (Wait 'til you see what happens when duffer Eddie Costa starts poking around in his golf bag.)
These momentary captures of immediacy when time almost seems to stand still are sometimes referred to by Olson as “interludes,” as they are in life itself, or in music. If borderlands are by their nature somewhat amorphous and unmappable, structure can be imposed upon them by other means, and Olson's means are often musical. There are these interludes and set pieces: solo riffs, like those of Chip or Bob White or Melinda's “Integrity
Sphere” story; staged duets; harsh dissonances contrasted with sweet old-fashioned melodies, as in the astonishingly gratifying “Mood Music” chapter; recurrent motifs like emblematic drone tones; and a climactic, intricately orchestrated big-band finale.
Music draws one's attentionâwriterly, readerlyâto surface, to sensual beauty. I know of no other writer who so unabashedly loves the world as, right on its amazing surface, it sensuously is and yet with such a mischievous sense of humor toys so freely with it.
's Melinda, who as a child went to sea with her Portuguese fisherman father and grew up to be a painter and also, for a time, a successful writer, is seen in her flowering to exhibit “the joining of tenderness, sensitivity, and strength” with “intelligence and skill,” which describes as well as anything this masterful book and its tender, sensitive, and powerful author.
IT 'S BEEN TWENTY-FIVE YEARS SINCE
FIRST saw the light of day, published in 1982 by New Directions. It must have been a cloudy day, for the book received little attention in that year, though things did pick up a little in the next. I was younger then, but old enough to have written an earlier book called
The Life of Jesus
, something that pulled together a few short stories, a couple of poems, and a number of fragments, and seemed to become itself before I knew what was happening.
At least it felt that way. I'd been writing only poetry, and now I had this book with the word novel on its cover. I was curious about this other way of writing, and I thought I'd give it a conscious attempt next time. That's how
began, but that was just the beginning.
I'd been playing a lot of golf in the summers on Cape Cod since the mid-seventies, and I was feeling a little guilty about this. Summer was writing time, and I was wasting my time on the links. Golf is a sport that requires a number of skills, none of which I had mastered, but even more than with most sports these skills seem untranslatable, of no use at all in the “real” world.
If they could have translated, let's say into yardwork, house repair, or even writing, the time wasted playing the sport might have been of some significant use, and I wouldn't have felt guilty. Of course I could write about golf, about the possible translation of those skills, and about guilt, and that's what I did.
is a real place (though with another name), a golf
course near my house, and many of the characters in parts two and three of this novel are real people, though with names traded and changed. The book becomes in part a
roman Ã¡ clef
on that golf course, a sweet one I hope. I'm heartened by the fact that even 25 years later fellow players come up to me insisting that they cannot be so-and-so in that book. They're much better players than that!
And the guilt? It seemed enough to be writing about time wasted, to somehow redeem that time by turning it into something of value, a novel, any story, something to be shared with others for their pleasure.
There isn't much pleasure in cancer, of course, though there is plenty of waste, and at the center of this book is the relationship between Melinda and Allen, she close to an ending, he trying to find ways to come to terms with her imminent death. It wasn't the psychological difficulties that I was interested in here so much as the ways these difficulties were displayed in thought, behavior and communication. What did the relationship between these two look like, not what did it mean. From the beginning, I've felt that I don't want to know my characters any better than I know people in my own life, which isn't very well at all. I haven't wanted to look too deeply into characters' minds, have imagined thought as just below the surface of talk, not something of deeper significance, just another surface. For me this leads to the kind of realism I'm after. The way people behave and the way they think is endlessly fascinating, and I don't want to intrude on that, to presume to understand it. I just want to describe and present it as best I can.