"White Plains: Pieces & Witherlings" by Gordon Lish
(another creative book review previously published November 18, 2022)
White Plains: Pieces & Witherlings by Gordon Lish; Hardcover, 288 pages; Published August 1st 2017 by Little Island Press; ISBN: 0993505694 (ISBN13: 9780993505690)
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Not sure exactly when my obsession began with my wanting to be a famous writer or at least to have written something that garnered the attention of those official readers of note who might determine that my genius was afforded the status of having authored a novel or a memoir or something the popular culture deemed a bestseller. All I do know positively is that when I happened upon a literary magazine in the Hawley-Cooke bookstore that featured new and experimental writing edited by a man named Gordon Lish that an epiphany of sorts occurred. The words on the page struck me as similar to a lightning bolt and I felt it in my best interests to investigate further this editor instead of the writing inside. My guess is this sort of electrocution happened to me sometime around 1987 when the magazine first hit the shelves.
The Hawley-Cooke bookstore was a Louisville institution and everybody who considered their self a serious reader shopped there in that store. Hawley-Cooke sold out their interest just before the collapse of the retail hard-model market, selling their popular store to a huge conglomerate such as B. Dalton Books, which also sold out to Barnes and Noble who subsequently closed all their B. Dalton bookstores. For years I frequented the Hawley-Cooke establishment at least weekly, if not more often than either my pocketbook or available time could actually afford. I not only purchased but I read every book written by Gordon Lish, and I still do. As a matter of fact I am currently reading his latest White Plains: Pieces and Witherlings published by Little Island Press in 2017. I avoided this title for over two years, first because of the exorbitant purchase price, and second, the fact that I doubted the man had much more to say that would be worth reading. He was admittedly aging, he no longer communicated with me the traditional way via telephone or letters, and me harboring no reasonable idea as to why or why not I was feeling a bit disenfranchised based on our prior warm and abiding friendship. There was never any reason given for his not speaking to me anymore except for the occasional one-line postcard note that his eyes were failing him or that he no longer worked at editing.
Gordon Lish was my teacher and editor for over twenty years and since 1995 we spoke often. There were many times our conversations had nothing to do with my writing but instead focused on the latest book one of us had read, a film he had viewed with his best friend Don DeLillo, or his most recent female conquest. He often made a request for a certain porn title or porn star he needed me to research and purchase from my computer as he did not own a machine nor wanted to have anything to do with the technology. He never owned a cell phone either (but he might today). I even went so far as to discover new writers for him, one being the most ungrateful and bully-types by the name of Eugene Marten. And after vehemently praising Marten’s first novel Waste I saw nothing of note coming from his pen since then. A threatening email from Marten ended any future occurrence of my ever reading his work again or forwarding a possible positive review. To me, at least, he acted out the perfect prick. But fuck Eugene Marten, and let’s talk about the latest writing from Gordon Lish.
My copy of White Plains: Pieces and Witherlings came in a hardcover purchased from either Ebay or Amazon at a drastically reduced price which enabled me to acquire it. The book is a white beauty, cloth boards, simple, no dust jacket, and easily soiled by the occasional drop of coffee which I unfortunately had happen. A little tip for the collector who wishes to keep their books in tip top shape is that a dab of Clorox bleach on a clean cotton rag will generally take care of unsightly stains such as coffee. Caution must be used when applying this corrective solution. Obviously, it begs also to be noted, bleach only works on white material. But the book, stains or no stains, is still a beauty, and by my lights the prettiest of all the published books in the Lish oeuvre. Why he went to Great Britain for publishing is the question. My guess is it has a lot to do with a young man named David Winters who I also helped to gain access to Lish. It is my understanding that Winters is Lish’s “official” biographer now, which means Lish has gotten rid of whoever was his “official” biographer before Winters entered the picture. So, it goes to reason that Lish would use the connections of Winters over in England to get him a better publisher than the loyal, and long-suffering, John Oakes person he has used for the last twenty or thirty years. And let me tell you the first half of this book is painful to read. Only a dedicated friend such as myself would read any further than a few pages. But I have to say the used-to-be pristine and sheer white beauty of the book, not to mention the heavy weight of the paper, are, or were, in their simplicity, exquisite.
However, that does not forgive Lish’s slow start. He himself would have quit reading and instead encouraged whomever the writer was to bring his best foot forward rather than begin slowly and expect the reader to stay engaged. The opening entrees are mostly a bore and often make reading the book a disagreeable chore. I was expecting as much, but nonetheless wished for a different result. But by midpoint the pages had reached that lofty goal I had fantasized them achieving. It began with the remarkable Levitation, or, My Career As a Pensioner which focused on the history of Lish’s employ beginning at Esquire and ending with his firing at Knopf. The entire piece is a dandy and exhibits Mr. Lish in the best light considering the consequences. On the heels of that fantastic short is another wholly interesting segment regarding his apartment building with the title Begging the Question. Anytime Gordon Lish gets personal and forthcoming, my interest is piqued and the pages begin to burn. In Begging the Question Gordon has issues with his two neighbors, one being a doctor Mal and the other a psychologist, if memory serves. Mrs. D. is a problem as is Dr. Mal due to their recycling rules on their floor of the building, and as is typical of Gordon Lish he goes to great lengths to get his reader to see what it is that he sees, or feel what it is he feels. And that for me is always a good thing.
...Like when Mrs. Dalsimer was taken off to rehab on account of a fall, what did I do but right away go to the little chest of drawers in the front hall and take out a little card with my name (on) it and a little envelope to fit the card into, or in to, and write on the card ‘Get well, Mrs D. Hurry home. I already miss you,’ signed, ‘Your sincere and affectionate neighbor for god knows how many years,’ and then, making sure it was all ship-shape, I go and slip it under this lady’s doormat so that it will be seen by somebody when they bring her back home and it wouldn’t be hidden from sight for good and underneath the lady’s doormat and no one would ever know that the lady’s neighbor for almost forever did not put into practice the consultantship he’d been the beneficiary of at the behest of various and sundry human beings who are not going out of their mind(s) sitting in the wings waiting to be named...
The two parentheses in bold above are mine. They are errors in the text I corrected that the publisher, or Gordon, if truth be told, happened to miss. And Mr. Gordon Lish is a stickler for absolute correctness in proofreading. It bothers him to no end to find mistakes in his published work. He revises entire pages when autographing a copy that a person such as myself offers up for his signature. And to think he went all the way over to England to get the same publishing results in the mistake-making business. Must make him crazy when he sees these things. But how would I know? We do not speak.
Manifesto is another good one. A Lish diatribe à la Thomas Bernhard. I love it when Gordo goes all out and cries foul. I can hear his voice speaking as if he is in the room with me. Those bastardos stealing made-up words from him, not giving him due credit for expanding the language, perpetrators not willing to exhibit the first fig of shame...the first nectarine of restraint, his word distraughtness being the object of his ire due to this purloining of his genius for creating vocabularial zingers. But the book remains a disappointment to me even with these few good pieces in it. I can see why some readers get frustrated with Lish’s writing, his incessant going on and on about nothing even though if you knew Lish he is anything but about nothing. Every little thing is paramount to Gordon Lish. Even lint. Especially lint.
...Or maybe I’ve got that wrong too—as I bet I’ve done with so much in this book. I’ve reached the age of guessing, and then abandoning the excruciation of guesswork and settling for what seems, in the exertion, a hint more reminiscent than that does. The mind, the tumult in it, the ceaseless concessions to shame and to dread and to unignorable ignorance and self-congratulation — delusional at best, all inexcusably, so humanly, an irrevocable lunacy, yet a friend to you in grief of your ultimate friendlessness...
But then again, on page 216, all hell breaks loose with the magnificent, What’s Wrong With This Book? In this piece Gordon admits to the book’s failing, but what he does in a remarkable way is also bring honor and respect to his deceased wife, Barbara, as well as Atticus, their son together, with the most heartfelt words ever heard uttered by Gordon Lish.
...What would this flowering of genius and the acts of genius to follow it have meant to Barbara? Is it thus with everyone who’s gone on to live when his reason for living has died — that the one living is seeing what the one not living cannot and the one living ceaselessly hears himself sighing oh oh oh, the wonder of the wonderment of being and of not being, the want of wanting time to be ceded back to the one person most cheated of the delectation of the prized...
Interesting that the story Investigations should pop up unannounced and prove to the world that I am not the only one having issues with this book. The title’s main antagonist is a woman offering a false name to the private detectives in her attempt to get restitution for a fraud perpetrated in her mind by the publisher, or perhaps the writer himself, involved in getting her to buy the book White Plains and how disappointed in it she is what with all the repetitions and obscure words. But what really takes the cake isn’t this mediocre story but the one that follows with the printer toner obviously needing a shake or two as the pages early on in The Deed are faded and blurred as if I should have my eyes examined. And these faded or blurred or toner-less pages continue on even into the first page of the next story titled Untitled, which was also forgettable except for the many corrections made to the grammar amongst the two participants conversing and seemingly getting nowhere enough to settle onto anything of note. And the blurring of the pages, the un-toner-ness of them all continued often unabated and with nothing suggesting any mercy to come but to finish my reading as in get myself to the end. But then Postcards entered the picture offering up more of the same blurriness I had come to detest on the pages before me. Except that Postcards was a splendid story. Made me remember the good times we had writing back and forth to each other, talking on the phone, being pals in the most genuine of ways guys can be pals.
Postcards again offered up more personal story, Lish dropping names of people I heard Gordon speaking of in the past. Most of them not so fondly, but then a couple reliably good friends he could always count on to be there when he needed them. But there are not so many Don DeLillos out there that Gordon couldn’t use a couple more. And I thought I might be one of them. I believed that I was being measured among his best of outside relationships. I knew Gordon’s history of eventually turning his back on almost everyone. I knew that my time was coming even in light of my not believing my own rationale for getting myself prepared to accept my fate like a good boy scout. Regardless, I still love the man and always will. And I still believe in my heart that when Gordon is on top of his writing game there are few better. But he isn’t always top notch as he wishes it were. No sir. A lot of crap printed as fill in there, but you take what you need and leave the rest like they say in Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics. We all need a little Lish in our lives. White Plains provides for us another bit of a Lish fix. And as life or death might have it, there will be so fractionally more of Lish that any verbose notion suggesting complaint might be viewed as repugnant.
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