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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

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?


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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To: George Saunders

From: Gail Wilson Kenna

A student, one of those who took my course on your book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (of Chekhov short stories) is taking my latest course on Wallace Stegner.

She was one of those who wrote you a note after the “Swim” class met in an extra session to discuss your novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. You read the notes that students wrote to you about the Chekhov book, and then gave us helpful advice for reading Lincoln in the Bardo. I know enough about Wallace Stegner to say that he, like you, made time for students and readers until his death at age 84 in 1993.


In my current class, we are reading three Stegner novels with aging narrators: Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird, Lyman Ward in Angle of Repose, and Bruce Mason in Recapitulation. In the first class I discussed how Stegner’s fictional realism can be traced to his life and his historical interests, and that he was often at odds in the 1960s with those who distained his realism. One student, during a break, asked if I thought Stegner would appreciate the wildly experimental Lincoln in the Bardo.


I believe this first novel of yours would have amazed Stegner, and that by book’s end, it would have deeply moved him, as it did me.  At some point in your years of teaching, you might have used the 1982 Stegner essay, “Fiction: A Lens on Life.” At the beginning he asserts, “It is fiction as truth that I am concerned with...fiction that reflects experience instead of escaping it, that stimulates instead of deadening.” He goes on to say the writer tries with every piece of fiction to “create a world.” Which is what you did in Lincoln in the Bardo.

The essay concludes with words that Stegner might have written to you, George.  “The work of art is not a gem… but truly a lens. We look through it for the purified and honestly offered spirit of the artist. The ghosts of meaning that flit past the windows of his fictional house wear his face. And the reward of a lifetime of reading is a rich acquaintance with those gentle or powerful or rebellious or acceptant, those greatly mixed and humanly various but always greatly human ghosts.” 


What Stegner accomplished between 70 (Joe Allston’s age) and 1993 when he died, included two brilliant novels, Recapitulation and Crossing to Safety, plus non-fiction. Lucky you (and us) that you are only 66, and keeping alive the genre of the short story, and inspiring so many of us to write.


 Next week I’ll have some thoughts on why Stegner deserved the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird.




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