Main Streets Whitewashed Windows
Journeys back to the hometown, from Richard Hell to William Kennedy
Richard Hell doesn’t seem to have had a whole lot happen to him, at least not as a child. The selection he read recently at the Brooklyn Library from his autobiography, untitled and a work in progress, covered happy remembrances such as drive-in movies with his parents and sister, followed by the angst characteristic of a self-aware youth ready to be out from under authority. But it is memory, as he writes, that puts a filter of sadness on the past and the normalcy contained in a hometown.
As I listened, having just finished reading Light in August, I heard Hell’s Kentucky drawl unearth itself through the yellow teeth and lisp of an old New York punk (the very first punk rocker in the world, as some accounts have it), and I thought of the chapter in that book that begins with the line “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” Not to say that Hell’s writing deserves a comparison to Faulkner, but his voice and character evoke that lyrical spirit of the south.
His easy transitions to metaphors in paintings—“sadness like a de Chirico”—are just as unpretentious as the details that follow on his literary growth. Many people can relate to what he writes about William Carlos Williams, of deciding to become a writer because he knew he could write better than the good country doctor. This is one of the main American experiences: find someone who does something with success; decide to do it better. Further, he was enraptured, as a youth, by the poems of Dylan Thomas, favoring their earnestness over the clever detachment of the New York School. This of course gave way to suspicion of that very earnestness, and a realization that the poems were no more than fleeting ideas dressed up with gilded flourishes, and he later came to love the New York School poets for their pared-down conclusiveness.
Identifying with all of this (my own sourness toward that Welsh bard ripened when, having failed to get through the Collected Poems as a late teen, a poetry professor tore town Thomas for his wasted talent), I was nonetheless touched when Hell confessed to be reading him again, for the comfort he finds, and the spiritual mysteries they continue to hold.
The poetry professor who cleared me up on Dylan Thomas incited, perhaps inversely, a deep passion for Rimbaud. That poet renounced poetry by the time he was twenty-one, but he was better than Dylan Thomas, and possessed by a ferocious nerve to leave the world of art for a worker’s life: more noble, indeed, than slumping from a barstool in middle age before a captive audience.
But it was the professor's recommendation to read William Kennedy that really stuck. It’s been a slow process. It’s not always easy to read a writer who is so close to home. He went to the high school I went to, and his books are peopled with so many familiar names. Moreover, he writes of streets which, walking them myself, I didn’t really want to know more about. In Albany, I was already prepared in my mind to leave. Anywhere, but mostly cities: Montreal, Boston, San Francisco, and finally New York. Beyond the North American continent lay many dreams of travel, but these didn’t materialize. I did go to San Juan, if only for a week and to visit an aunt—it wasn’t the romantic adventure I’d read about in books. Later I learned that Kennedy had gone to San Juan when he was young, leaving Albany for inspiration. There he met Saul Bellow, who would show him the importance of place, and of course it would be Albany, in the end, where he would live, work, and find his muse.
The platitude of “write what you know” reflects a very American tradition, as some critics have noted on Kennedy, placing him on a relatively short line that extends from Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper to Melville and Henry James, among others, down to Saul Bellow, who embodies Chicago as Kennedy does Albany. What rustic, solid arbor! And all from finding at home what couldn’t be grasped on further shores. The profits from a candid analysis of self, heritage, and place of birth. It’s no wonder to strain from looking closely at those books, as though averting from the eye of an old man on the street, until one day he engages you in conversation and suddenly there you are, ready to pack it up and find a little room in a colonial house off Lark St., to spend your days roaming the old streets of Albany, penetrated by winds from an icier, less diluted Hudson River.
I loved Albany, in a certain way. I never lived there; I grew up first in a suburb 15 miles northwest of the capital, on the Mohawk River, and later even further away, in the Helderberg Mountains. But it was the only real place around. I was sent to high school there, jogged endlessly through the streets with the cross-country team, then walked them at night with friends, or alone after school hours. The place held many mysteries—mysteries I didn’t even know existed as a child.
There was the park that I was afraid to enter at night, when it seemed so much bigger, which in the day was easily circumvented. The green pastures always led to a bordering street, though it held what folks called a lake, hung with willows and footbridges. William Kennedy describes it better, in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game: “…past the statues of Robert Burns and Moses, and up to the gingerbread yellow-brick lake house...a maple tree shedding its yellow leaves in a steady, floating rain.” The lake house I know of course, and the leaves the author has his characters staring at. But I never looked at the statues, nor did I pay much attention to the people walking past them. I was thinking only of what it would be like to get lost in a park somewhere I’d never been.
I take my time with Kennedy’s books because of all that, and also because they are so brilliant. More from the above novel, which follows the point of view of an Oedipally wrecked character to this conclusion: “All fathers are Abrahams, all sons are Issacs, and all Issacs become Abrahams if they work at it long enough.” The son in this case, Martin Dougherty, is a hack newspaper writer and failed novelist, and the father, Edward, is an award-winning playwright who suffers from senility.
I prefer the paradox of the quote that directly follows: “We are only as possible as what happened to us yesterday. We all change as we move.”
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.