Review: “The Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass

"I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river." Gass "in the heart of the heart of the country." P.179

“I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river.” William H. Gass “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Because of some administrative hic-cough, I was sent two copies this weekend of the same book: William H. Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I had not heard of it, although I recognized the name of the author (and immediately confused him with the novelist, William Gaddis). Having two copies, I gave one to my friend Tim Dougherty, who very well may be the best-read person I know.

Here was the text he sent me later that day:

John,

Thanks so much for the book. Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is a seminal postmodern short story. The collection is one of my favorites, and the new edition blows my flea market paperback out of the water. And now I can throw that one away!

Who’d have thunk it.

So, on my train-ride to work the next morning, I read “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”  The story is the final piece in a collection of the same name that includes two novellas and three short stories, but I went to the last story right away.
And it is everything that Tim’s message had intimated.

First it is broken into short chunks with headings such as “People” or “Weather” or “Places” or “My House.” It is a sort of stream of consciousness, movie-like postcard of a town in Indiana and the people who live there, and at the same time it is a self-portrait of the narrator who has lately lost love (through death or separation I am unsure) and who is both crushed and buoyed by the vastness of the Midwest.

But it is the language that is so remarkable, that stands out yet does not make a show of it. There are exquisite lists. This is the narrator describing a neighbor’s basement:

...stacks of newspapers reaching to the ceiling, boxes of leaflets and letters and programs, racks of photo albums, scrapbooks, bundles of rolled-up posters and maps, flags and pennants and slanting piles of dusty magazines devoted mostly to motoring and the Christian ethic. I saw a bird cage, a tray of butterflies, a bugle, a stiff straw boater, and all kinds of tassels tied to a coat tree.

And here he is describing the town itself in a section called “Vital Data”:

There are two restaurants here and a tearoom. two bars. one bank, three barbers, one with a green shade with which he blinds his window. two groceries, a dealer in Fords. one drug, one hardware, and one appliance store. several that sell feed, grain, and farm equipment. an antique shop. a poolroom. a laundromat. three doctors. a dentist. a plumber. a vet. a funeral home in elegant repair the color of a buttercup. numerous beauty parlors which open and shut like night-blooming plants. …

But it is his memories of the lost love and of lost childhood, the feelings of being trapped in a dying world, and his description of the decadent monotony of small town life that resonates the most, in which the fiction writer becomes one with the poet, and where the language becomes as integral to the story as the story itself, where inside and outside, the public and the private, that which is thought and  that which is felt, all merge into one.

It is majestic and memorable.

And I can’t wait to finish the rest of the collection.

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