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Today I take leave of a writer I love. I am on the porch of the cottage where I read, write, and study. Before me is a verdant garden, tall trees in every direction, and a riot of chattering birds. I sit here in a wood rocker from Poso Park, a century-old cabin on the boundary of Sequoia National Forest. Nearby is another rocker from Poso, both older than my 81 years. I mention this cabin in California because of Wallace Stegner’s last book, a non-fiction work from 1992, and one worth reading about living and writing in the West.


Stegner loved wilderness and national parks and fought the good fight on their behalf.  He died 23 years before Donald Trump’s first reign and his gutting of the EPA, as if the agency were a rotting fish. Given Wallace’s moral code, he would not have been able to stomach anything about the rich boy who inherited Big Rock Candy Mountain. This was the mythical place that Stegner’s father George sought throughout life. And the wreckage from his father’s false dream was strewn everywhere he went, while dragging a fine wife and two sons with him. Stegner describes his father as “a boomer from the age of fourteen…always on the lookout for the big chance, the ground floor, the inside track… And if you believe the world owes you a bonanza, then restrictions and laws are only an irritation and a challenge.” How familiar this sounds.



Wallace Stegner, the famous writer and environmental activist, never reconciled with his father in life or death. Which is to say the violent did not bear it away. His father shot his mistress and then himself on June 15, 1939. News of the murder-suicide “splashed across the front and inside pages of Salt Lake’s three daily newspapers for two days.” (Fradkin bio, p.94) Stegner wrote that his father “did more human and environmental damage than he could have repaired in a second lifetime.” George’s story is one for tawdry rag-sheets like The National Inquirer. But the past week did bring this welcome headline to newspapers throughout the world and in our country. 

Ironically, George Stegner did not die with a felony, since there could be no trial. But his grave in the Salt Lake City Cemetery alongside son Cecil and wife Hilda is unmarked.  In Recapitulation, a brilliant novel about memory and time, Ambassador Bruce Mason does order a gravestone for Bo Mason. Yet in real life, he never took this action, unable to forgive his father for what he had done to both family and to those whose lives he crossed in a relentless search for the ‘deal’ and the summit of Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In early July I return to Literature I Love with Colm Toibin (Column Toe Bean ) as the Irish say!  


 

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna
Whiteout

I am not referring to impaired vision during a whiteout on a ski slope near Salt Lake City.  I’m talking about my latest tennis racquet made by the Sol-Inco Company. I hit with their Blackout but preferred the Whiteout. The word also recalls the many years I used whiteout to correct typing errors!

                                                           

Why do I mention this?  Because of Wallace Stegner’s 1979 novel, Recapitulation, set in Salt Lake City. Years earlier I read the novel, and then read it again in April for my current Stegner class. And before last week’s class on Recapitulation, I read the novel once more. Only in this read did I make a connection, realizing where the idea originated for my recent book, Tennis Talk of a Nobody.

                                                       


On page 87 in Recapitulation is this sentence. “Anything Bruce Mason ever did he owes to the Salt Lake Tennis Club.” These italicized words belong to Ambassador Bruce Mason, speaking to someone on the terrace of the St. Georges Hotel in Beirut. The woman says, “But you had to hitchhike out of your childhood. You could so easily have been lost.”  Bruce says, “If I hadn’t been lucky.” The luck he refers to relates to Bruce’s mother. She bought him a Dreadnaught Driver one summer when he was a lost, lonely, puny kid.  

Dreadnaught Driver

If Elsa Mason (Hilda Stegner) had not given Bruce/Wallace this tennis racquet, he would not have met Joe Mulder (Jack Irvine)) and been embraced by a stable Morman family with a solid father: one unlike the philandering, criminal Bo Mason (George Stegner).  Without best friend Joe and new physical confidence in himself from tennis, would Bruce Mason have become an ambassador, a Middle East expert on oil? Would Wallace Stegner have become the famous writer whose books remain in print?

Davis

Today I researched the 1920s Dreadnaught Driver. For me one of those special moments, when I realized William (Bill) Tilden used this racquet. Why did this get my attention?  Because a full-page photo from the late 1920s in Tennis Talk of a Nobody, shows my father in Los Angeles at USC in tennis attire. He stands, racquet in his right hand, with one-long white sleeve rolled up. This was Tilden’s trademark. I can’t see the type of racquet Robert Theron Wilson holds. But in the 1950s I carried his Davis racquet to my first tennis lesson. And tennis would become the frame for my life.  Recently, I found that same Davis racquet in pristine condition at the local Antique Mall. The internet shows my $10.00 dollar purchase sells on E-Bay for twenty times that amount, as much as I paid for my Whitout!

 



Next week I will discuss Recapitulation as a novel to read for its brilliance on time and memory.

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The mind I speak of belongs to Joe Allston, the narrator of Wallace Stegner’s masterful The Spectator Bird. I met Joe years ago in Stegner’s 1967 novel, All the Little Live Things. 

I appreciated Joe then, a retired New York City literary agent. Yet in Stegner’s 1976 National Book Award winning The Spectator Bird, I appreciated Joe even more. 

And I reject the claim that Stegner won the National Book Award because two old male writers were among the judges! I believe Stegner won because the novel is that good. Why do I say this?

The novel’s time frames are the present: 1974 in the Northern California foothills near Stanford University, and in the past through a 1954 journal from Denmark. This fictional journal is Joe’s, but Stegner had the fellowship to Denmark; and his direct experience of the country gives verisimilitude that internet-based fiction never has. (I will refrain from citing examples!)

Stegner gives the reader a five-part novel, with three chapters in each, until the fourth with two, and the fifth with four. The novel is so finely structured that it is not possible to be confused. And Stegner’s pacing is admirable. In the beginning we meet a brooding, molting, aging Joe. Then we meet a beguiling physician, Dr. Ben.  In that same scene, Joe takes a postcard from his rural mailbox. Ah, that old literary technique! Only this isn’t a letter, just a brief note from a countess from twenty years earlier. We want to know who she is, though Joe is reluctant to tell wife Mary about the card.  

What is this novel? A fictional presentation of Stegner’s belief that to understand the pattern of our lives, we must re-experience the past; and to come to terms with our mortality, we must come to understand that past. Joe says, I cope, therefore I am.  Yet this narrator knows the falsity of a stoic doctrine. He is not Marcus Aurelius but prosy Polonius. Yes, that pompous, sententious old man & father in Hamlet. Why this play? Denmark!  And we get a scene like the storm in King Lear in the 1974 time frame, when a wild & whimsical Italian writer comes for lunch at Joe and Ruth’s house. A wonderfully comic and telling scene. In Denmark we will get a mad scientist who seeks perfection through genetics, plus a tennis match between this man of royalty and Joe.  Only a real tennis player could have written this scene, I might add. And Stegner was one.

If you’re aging, do read this novel.  If you’re not, buy a copy and keep it for when “your mind is as sluggish as an earthworm in adobe,” or you are “a tremble like an overfilled glass,” or a “museum exhibition of deteriorations”, or “ a spiderweb with eyes for a face.” And these are only a few of Joe and Stegner’s metaphors on aging.


Next week: Stegner’s return to Salt Lake City in Recapitulation.

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