My original plan was finally to read Mason & Dixon. It was all prepared. I had some twenty hours on a plane over the course of three weeks; long afternoons in Belgian cafes, those littering the sides of countryside canals mostly, but a few in small Limburg towns. A perfect time for Pynchon, I told myself. When time came to pack, however, I discovered that my copy of the massive novel simply did not fit comfortably into my lone carry-on bag. Thus it came to pass that I instead brought along William Gass’ difficult (but, I was soon to discover, not too difficult) first novel, Omensetter’s Luck.
The relationship started off a little rocky. I struggled with and against it so badly on the plane that I gave up, opting for something more immediately palatable on the in-flight entertainment screen in front of me. I will never get back those hours watching Date Night, Sherlock Holmes, 500 Greatest Goals, and a special about the football rivalry between Argentina & Brazil. Even upon settling into the pace of life in Belgium I found the damn thing, except for the end of section two,* sluggish. But then it happened. And by “it,” I mean page 125. it was here that one of the novel’s main characters, the Reverend Jethro Furber, described his parishioners thusly:
Wit and pedantry were out of place among these dreary villagers. Trees, hills, river . . . yet life was monotonously flat, straight . . . plankish . . . with a dreadful sameness everywhere like dust . . . a climate without any real extremes, deprived of virtue even in its mean . . . though there were trees, the sloping fields, the river, still life was hard, level . . . wooden . . . inevitable . . . and moments ran on mindlessly like driven cattle, and young men struggled in the nets of their friends, relatives, and other connections for a while like dripping fish before wearing out their wills and settling down to live with the rest of the gently poor, their pets, and their obsequious diseases . . . where bitterness grew up on everything like ivy. Yet the fact was he wanted their good opinion. Lord, lord, he was a dreadful creature.
Oh, did I love those lines. So much so that I raced upstairs and IM’d them to a half-dozen people who happened to be online at the time. They effectively sealed the deal, as it were. So much so, in fact, that I’m now convinced Omensetter’s Luck is a criminally neglected American masterpiece, and believe it to be on par with some of the best contemporary works of fiction I’ve ever read.
Students of religion & literature, of whom I am one, will be especially interested. Here we have a newly minted telling of the Fall; the bleak reality that knowledge, of what lies behind and beyond good and evil, isn’t really all that it’s cracked up to be; and a delightfully vulgar, satanic preacher of the Lord. Yes, much of the story is delivered in fragments that must be retrieved from and pieced together amidst the unfortunate torrent of words and and thought that distinguish stream-of-conscious prose. And, as such, it will not be for everyone or for every occasion. But, if you are patient, if you give yourself over to the language, you will, like Rev. Furber, find yourself rewarded, if that is the right word for gorgeous melancholy: “Why have You [God] made us the saddest animal? He pushed himself off and felt the jar in his bones. He cannot do it, Henry, that is why. He can’t continue us. All he can do is try to make us happy that we die. Really, He’s a pretty good fellow” (273).
* Here you have one of the great justifications for hanging yourself high on a mountain, should you require one: “I ought to be exposed upon a mountain where the birds can pick my body, for no one could put himself on purpose in this clay. Besides, anyone who’s lived so slow and stupidly as I have ought to spend his death up high” (p. 70).