The Midwest |

The State of American Letters

by Chris Leslie-Hynan

When we arrived at the colony, they sat us on the lawn and told us, don't drink and drive on the major streets. We'll bail you out if you do, they said, but only the first time, and we listened, and took this warning seriously, and that's the way we lived all the rest of the summer. We were artists now, and we had carte blanche to do anything, and in our back pockets we carried the security officer's card to prove it. It said we could get out of jail for free.

We came from all over. We came from Québec and Memphis and privilege. The day we all descended was, for me at least, a day of terrible innocence. I'd bought new used luggage just to arrive with. I carried my laptop like it was a machine capable of killing whatever fascists could be coaxed into reading minor literary journals. This was the day we would come in from all over, the graduates of all the best programs, to meet the best minds of our generation who were free that summer, to live among them in lodging that was beneath us and to eat with them in restaurants that did not have everything we wanted. We were resigning ourselves to a lower quality of life than in the glittering metropoli from which we had come, but we were thrilled, because these deprivations were proof of our hunger and willingness to suffer. We would starve for our art, we said, and by this we meant: we will live for a summer in a town where you can't get a good sandwich. We will burn the fat from our souls with burgers and fries.

Not all of us lived this way, I guess. On the lawn, when the colony people took the drinking for granted, some of us, I guess, were already planning to make fresh and complicated dinners at home every night with greens from the co-op, and spend evenings of quiet dignity listening to the readings on the radio. But to most of us, really, who owned a radio? All the readings were streamed live on the web every night. There was no point in getting a little old radio. Often there was no point in going to the readings at all. The effusive introductions were embarrassing, and often bore no evident relation to the artist, who so often seemed, in their own right, something simply to be borne, in a pleasureless slog, like a coffeehouse musician. There was something meager about a working writer. I kept this thought close, so my new friends wouldn't know I harbored such corrosive ideas about our place in things. I kept it right next to my secret belief in our potential for eventual greatness. Somehow they didn't seem to contradict.

The next Richard Ford, he was the first to get arrested. He'd been out to dinner with the new Leo Tolstoy and the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Jr. We were all the next somebody that summer.  It seemed the right joke. We made loud, ubiquitous lampoons of all the corny pretenses which had only just now become available to us as the chosen, because of the shams and knockoffs we feared to become, and meanwhile, in the mornings, knowing or unknowing, we each made our slow chrysalis of other people's gold. I can't think how else to make one.

Kurt had great, wild hair that sprung from his head in fat coils, and he ate all of the sandwiches of the summer with two-fisted gusto and real appreciation, as if he had never known better. He ate everything with relish of both the figurative and literal kind. He preferred sweet pickle relish where available, and he was to me a figure of great dignity, because while he was sometimes very sad, he was never a bit cynical about anything. His soul didn't seem to accumulate residue. Even Tolstoy liked him.

Tolstoy didn't like anyone—that's why he was Tolstoy. No matter how good he might become, how many majestic words he knew that we didn't, how undeniably he might wield an authority over subjects too terrible to even occur to us, we could still discount Tolstoy. No one reads Tolstoy.  Sometimes Tolstoy's pages are looked at, like you might look at a monolith, but, we said, this is only because society finds the existence of monoliths pleasurable. They want them to be there, but they don't want to study them—they're not any fun. Tolstoy, by extension, was not any fun, was incapable of giving pleasure, was discountable. We were fun as hell. We were so fun you hardly dared look at us. Our mouths stuffed with fries, we pitied Tolstoy, as we pitied everything we ought to have been in awe of. Secretly, we all wanted terribly to make monoliths, and Tolstoy, he was twenty-two years old.

Tolstoy tugged on the bill of his Expos cap and turned to Richard Ford.

“You havin' the pre-party, Rich?”

Ford saw in Tolstoy the face of an angelic frat boy.  “The actual.  I'm having the actual party,” he said, and had a vision of Tolstoy later entering the room he'd prepared with spartan invitation carrying some specious and clever alcohol. He would bring an enormous bottle of beer with a monk on it, or a milk jug of spiked Country Time, and Ford anticipated this moment already with the sour disgust of a Pabst ascetic.

“Ishiguro is having the pre-party,” added Ford.

“I thought this was the pre-party,” said Kurt, dabbing his last bit of bun with yellow mustard.

“This is the pre-pre.  From here we go to Ishiguro's and listen to the reading streaming.”

“And then we go to your place.”

“Yeah, but I want everyone out by one.  I need to work.”

Kurt looked at Ford with admiration and disappointment. “Then where?” he asked. But the food had begun settling us, and no one answered him.

“Then to the bar,” he said at last, answering himself.

“There's something after that too I think,” said Tolstoy, roused. “A post-party somewhere.”

“That'd be the post-post,” said Kurt, dreamily clarifying. Our evening was set.

At Ishiguro's we sat on dormitory-grade carpeting and white plastic porch furniture and listened to the wry, clipped voice of the real Ishiguro coming from across town. Everyone held their cans with their fingertips and their faces in attitudes of careful attention, though periodically the two John Cheevers would let their eyes stray toward Flannery O'Connor, who was sitting on the windowsill eating ginger snaps and smoking through the screen.

Our Ishiguro was really listening. Occasionally he would think, what a nuisance it is to host a listening party for something you really want to listen to—what with who wanted to know if there were wine glasses and could the bowl of pistachio nuts be refilled—and occasionally, without meaning to, he would listen to the thoughtful noises Jane was making with her lips, but for the most part he was really listening. It was hard not to listen to Jane's noises. There seemed to be valuable knowledge slipping out of her in code, and Jane was one-of-a-kind.

The real Ishiguro, Kazuo Ishiguro born Nagasaki 1954, was reading from a work-in-progress. Our Ishiguro heard in the clipped, elegant voice of the master all of the painful grace, tender irony and mono no aware that he had first wished and then labored for his own mastery over. To listen to the best of Ishiguro was like listening to a soft and loving voice speak cruel truths to an old man to whom they would be inaudible. Ishiguro listened as a shepherd was described as sibilant, and wondered if the reading would soon ascend to some sudden clap of terrible austerity, or if it would just go on in the pleasant-enough interplay of description and dialogue. You could never tell with readings—often even the masters were rather dull. And yet, you could never be sure that there was not going to be some moment of indescribable bliss, a sadness more fulfilling than any happiness, in which the pathos of things was revealed in an innocuous phrase. The butler had gone to the water, Ishiguro remembered. Mrs. Benn had departed. The pier lights have been switched on, he would whisper to himself.

It was hard for the Cheevers to watch the next Ishiguro listen to Ishiguro—they had both come to the perfunctory and not-illogical conclusion that there was no way in hell he would ever get there. He had, they thought, attained a pleasurable style, but he knew no cruel truths, and while only twenty-seven he already preferred an empty imitation of an aging man. We thought this about the Cheevers, too, of course.

After the word plangent, the reading stopped. Ishiguro saw that his laptop was buffering and swore. Some part of him had expected some technological glitch to take place, as punishment for his not actually going, for the egotism of his desire to hold this so-called party, and thus to be some figure of importance himself rather than going to sit at the feet of the master. It was narcissism and simple laziness, and as the buffer percentage hung at zero and the connection failed to re-establish, Jane looked over at the next Ishiguro and saw on his downcast, and, she thought, rather sensitive face that he was now eating the sour fruits of his own vain halfassedness. The reading did not resume.

“Have you got a radio?” someone asked.

As the grumbling in the room ascended, Jane looked at the trembling cuff of Ishiguro's shirt, and thought, But someday he will turn into something new.

Ishiguro saw Flannery O'Connor was putting on her loafers. He wondered if it were right to join her, to go across town to the auditorium to try to get the rest of the reading. He thought he could catch the ending, but he didn't move. To stride out of his own party with the single-mindedness of a man missing something vital was, itself, an act of vanity. He knew he would be looked at with admiration for it, and he knew that it would be, in some sense, expected of him. And knowing this, he remained, and went to fetch more Styrofoam cups for the wine, and Flannery O'Connor hurried out alone into the steaming night.


We celebrated so much that summer, it was a wonder anybody ever said anything at all. We thought of ourselves as living within the cycle of great labor and great release—only the labor was generally done in private, and largely unaccounted for. But you could tell when we hadn't really worked, because our play lost all sense of that, and we got as static as barflies on amber afternoons, our drones lost in the hum of the smoke fans.

But when it went well, I guess we came alive. In the cool of the morning someone placed an old cloth workman's cap onto the head of a minor character—it was the missing piece. Someone, after three days of failure, saw an unwieldy group of characters successfully out of the dining room and onto the veranda. Someone assembled the final sentence of a chapter out of the rubble of their failed first book, and another rough stone went onto the new, better pyramid.  That night the air had cooled as with one last gust of a long-expired spring, and the cicadas in the trees had sharpened their rhythms. At Ford's, the party soon fell into swing, and even if ours was just the rhythm of people with but infinitesimal progress to celebrate, well, we could dance to that.

“Who ever said 'yr' was a word!” Jane was saying, tugging excitedly on Kurt's sleeve.  “Did it come up from the underground? Did Sonic Youth make it up?”

Kurt wished to reply, but he also wished to fit a potato chip the size of a toy pony's saddle into his mouth by finding precisely the correct angle. Jane kept the floor by default.

“Here's the thing,” she went on. “It's an abbreviation, but it doesn't save time.”

Kurt let a stream of air out his nose to signal he was settling for a middling result and cracked the chip in half. “Maybe it came from zines. Lonely people throwing poorly-printed labors of love into the void found each other by agreeing to drop 'ou.'”

A portion of the light of grammatical fury left Jane's eyes and was replaced by something simple and warm. The sleeve was left to hang and Kurt's shoulder was given a squeeze. We all liked to touch Kurt. Among our cohort of oft-hostile bodies prone to thinking of themselves in more sexual terms than aesthetically warranted, Kurt was one of the few really touchable people.  “Oh Kurt,” Jane said. “It's empty individualism, but you're sweet.”

Kurt smiled back with his eyes, and, holding the look, let his hand drift toward the chips. When he tried to bring one back, he found the other half was being held by Leo Tolstoy.

“'Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy,'” quoted Tolstoy, slowly relinquishing the chip. “Kerouac's 'Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.'”

“Why do you have to always know everything,” said Jane. Her voice was arch, but she warmed the edges of her sentences—she liked to put a little melt into the last word.

Tolstoy shrugged.  “It might go back further than that.”

“Jane thinks 'yr' is a tic of empty individualism,” Kurt said, crunching.

“Yeah?”  Tolstoy blinked the filament-fine lashes of his impossibly young eyes in a struggle for mental focus that probably looked like a mannerism to people looking for mannerisms. “Having a tic isn't death, though. Somewhere on some message board in some obnoxious, tic-ridden private language, people we are too short-sighted to fear are firing the language to new alien intensity.” He lifted his growler of barley wine to his lips, which were pursed in a peculiar pathos. We could never tell if this face meant Tolstoy was obscurely flagellating himself or just mocking us. “Somewhere, always,” he said, “people are putting us to shame.”

“That's great, buddy,” said Ford, who had overheard. “What is that, Lambic?”

Ford pulled from his can with a forceful sucking noise, as if the rim were crested with foam, and Tolstoy knew there was nothing that could be said to this. To not drink beer from a generic can was to raise Ford's country pride against him, as he'd raised it the first week of summer, when they'd toured one another's housing in a bout of early friendship. As part of our summer package, we'd all been given lodging in emptied-out college apartments. There was room to get a decent place if you had the inclination to pore through the poorly-designed listing site, but Ford hadn't. Tolstoy had a comparatively palatial three-bedroom townhouse all to himself, and Ford had something like a fraternity castoff's shotgun shack across from the gas station. Walking from Tolstoy's down to Ford's was like passing through a defunct train crossing, a fact that seemed to Tolstoy to fill Ford with a certain flush of vanity. On entering Ford's front room and seeing the empty corkboards and the stains the keg rims had left on the floor, Tolstoy said, with a flash of that early intuition that makes strangers more knowable than friends: “I like it—it suits your vision of yourself.”

This remark had been both preternatural and correct, an awful combination which instantly made Tolstoy into everything that Ford had ever defended himself against. By all appearances Tolstoy was more singular and more eloquent than himself, and seemed to be living freely on family money. He was cute as a button, his youth was outrageous, and he was from urban Canada, which made it difficult to dismiss him with a simple set of regional stereotypes. Ford decided that Tolstoy had not lived in the real, and before they left his apartment Ford had invented for his friend a debilitating lack of worldly experience that he would now have to carry around with him always.

Luckily for Ford, nearly all of us were intimidated by Tolstoy, and we decided quite independently that he was a magniloquent, and, for all we knew, probably definitely an asshole.

“I don't know why you've got to come to all these parties if you don't like anybody,” Ford said, pulling out his illuminated phone and turning away.

“I like everybody,” Tolstoy said quietly.


What got Ford into the car was that the phone call said that Ishiguro, the real Ishiguro, had paid us the highest complement—he wanted to hang out with us. Many of the readings that summer had a reception, whether public or private, but until now Ishiguro had demurred. Why he should not want to undergo this ritual, in which people who were, by profession, trained to give their best thoughts soundlessly in empty rooms, were given the honor of being turned inside out and peppered from all sides by questions and forced jokes from the honored community, meanwhile drinking some ritual beverage that would simultaneously make the act of public appearance gradually less painful, and the act of talking gradually harder, no one could say. He'd agreed to come at the last minute, we decided.  But now, as our Ishiguro said to Ford over the phone, he'd got talking to Flannery O'Connor, who smelled of smoke and ginger, and signed her copy of The Unconsoled, the most daunting of all his books, and revealed that he had nothing in particular to do with the rest of the night. Perhaps there was a party?

“So we're going to the auditorium to get him?” asked Kurt.

“Or to Ishiguro's to get him?” asked Jane.

“To the Kum & Go,” Ford said. “On the corner by Ishiguro's.  He said it was easier.  He's housed, though. I don't know.”

“Housed?” asked Kurt.

“Housed,” clarified Ford, signaling a lane change with a single click.

But no one came to the Kum & Go. They waited five minutes, and Ford imagined that as the time passed Tolstoy was gradually working his way toward a speech that would capture the attention of the room, his room, with many gestures that would cause his bottle of Lambic to foam over in triumph. Although Tolstoy liked no one, and no one liked Tolstoy, each minute that they sat idle made it likelier that he would return to his own party to find that Tolstoy held sway.  He would be a stranger there, in his own rented house, in his favorite season, lost and without function in what had been, just this spring, a reasonable approximation of everything he had wanted for himself. He reached for something he'd been trapping between his insteps and pulled the tab. A sucking sound was heard.

“Ford!” said Jane. “Jesus, you're driving.”

Meanwhile, Ishiguro walked along the drainage ditch, towards the Kum & Go on the corner by the auditorium. With nothing to listen to, his party had ended, and everyone had soon left him alone with his plastic chairs and wine-stained Styrofoam. Did he need help cleaning up, Jane had asked?  He had not.  He had collected the Cheevers' bottle-caps, and taken up Flannery's snap-crumbs. When the corners were squared on every surface, he sat down at the empty table, like a bachelor, to a liquid dinner.

And now he sat down again, in the ditch.  Just for a second, he thought. This was really one of the long-standing pleasures of coming to this place, this dusty place where the end of all rituals was that an empty box of Keystone Light should be found sitting at dawn in a scrubgrass median. In San Francisco one was not able to drink oneself to stupor and sit in a fetid ditch on a pleasant summer night, looking out towards the cow-fields of ordinary America. Long, dark nights of the soul came too naturally here, Ishiguro thought, but when they did you felt connected to a tradition, as though the shades of prestigious alcoholism past were loafing there with you in the damp grass.

Presently, Ishiguro's pocket buzzed, interrupting his communion with the muck and the American dead.

“D'you remember,” he told the phone, “when I said that if I didn't wake up face-down in a dry creek bed this summer, I wouldn't have really lived?”

“Yes,” Jane said quietly. “Where are you, Kaz?”

He turned over onto his stomach and crawled up the ditchslope towards the shoulder of loose gravel. “Hey, I'm right across the street from Ford's place,” he said wistfully. “Look at that.”

“Look at that,” Jane repeated. Then she made a noise in her throat that reminded Ishiguro of the intimate, gummy sound of a sleeper, and he wished that she too could wake up face-down in a creek bed, that he could wake to find his hand immobilized, and then, his consciousness rising, know that this was because she was holding it, as the thinnest rivulet of pure water ran beneath them.

“We're coming,” Jane said. “We're coming.”


Truman Capote had been re-shelving his library when he saw the flickering in the ditch. Great gaps had sprung up in his 19th Century French collection from all the books he'd lent to his peers with the hope of quick return. He couldn't understand it. They had nothing to do here but read and write, yet even Boule de Suif had been out for a month, forcing him to compress two shelves to one.

Truman put a hand to his lips and considered what George Sand might do about the man crawling inefficiently up the embankment. He reflected that she had been willing to smoke a pipe in public despite considerable scrutiny, and that he had not stepped outside all evening. He had gone directly from sitting in his favorite armchair, listening to the reading on the radio, to the perusal of Never Let Me Go, trying, not for the first time, to find what had merited its inclusion into TIME's list of the hundred best English novels from 1923 to 2005. Something in this venture kept his adventurous-if-domestic spirit alive, and he fetched a million-candle-power spotlight and an old pair of boat shoes and composed himself to walk into the night.

“Hullo,” said Ishiguro presently, to the casually-shod feet.

“Hello to you,” said Truman. “Can you get up?”

“Of course,” Ishiguro said, failing to produce evidence. After a moment, Truman lent him an arm and Ishiguro was hauled up into an intricately-patterned stagger. Truman brushed a little crab-grass from Ishiguro's back and pointed the flashlight into his chest, illuminating him to the shins.

“Oh, it's you,” Truman said. “I believe you have my Balzac.”

“Do I?” asked Ishiguro. There was a moment's lull and then he fell into such a fit of laughing he was soon at the bottom of the ditch again.

“Old Father Goriot,” Truman called down.

“I'm almost done,” Ishiguro said solemnly. “The battle of Waterloo is really, really close.” He sat up. “Do you want to go to a party?”


“It's just across the street,” Ishiguro said, pointing at the Midwestern heavens.

Truman looked courteously over from his side of the street—which was lined with old Victorian sororities and verdant ditches and prestigious-looking trees he had been meaning to catalog—to the other side. It seemed to have been zoned more commercially, though here and there a small pulpwood house sat among the insurance offices and businesses familiar only through their direct mailings.

“I don't go over to that side of the street,” Truman said.

When he turned back, he discovered Ishiguro at his elbow. Ishiguro patted his shoulder in encouragement. Truman shook his head solemnly.

“Perhaps you'd like to come in?” Truman said. “I could make you some tea. Peppermint? Oolong?  I'd enjoy talking to someone about tonight's reading. The ending, in particular, was quite interesting.”

“I—” Ishiguro began, and then he saw the car. Although it was on the far side of the street, he could see Ford's Tennessee license plate, and then, out the near rear window, Jane's street-lit, incomparable arm. She was waving at him.

Without thinking, he stepped into the street.


I like to think that if we had only been a little better, if our language of sonic description had been a little more rigorous, Ishiguro would have known how to respond to the noises that slung keening out of the night. Maybe he was only drunk. Still, there are certain sounds too rare to be learned by everyone from experience alone, yet important to know the first time they are heard. It must be the duty, then, of the communicative members of the species, to make the sounds of imminent danger known to everyone. Once I read that the sound a flat tire makes at high speed is like that of a helicopter hovering overhead, and, knowing this, I steered to the shoulder, and my axle was saved. But I got this from a cartoonist, and, even now, with time and an empty room to work in, I cannot think of the words to describe the sound of the brakes, or the pathetic horn of Flannery O'Connor's Toyota Corolla. There was a sort of a high, hard sound, as if the air were full of angry metal birds, crying out for the consummation of inevitable human error. Then there was a little honk. Perhaps if car accidents were more lyrical, I could have done Ishiguro some good, but I'd been in three without once picking up anything useful from this world of banal and predictably-plotted vehicular events that leave so many of us dead. All my little words, none of them stopped it. Ishiguro had read them all, and he only stood there, watching Jane's face freeze behind the glass.

Oh shit, said the little horn. You're fucked, cried the rapt air, thick with glittering wings.

Swerving to avoid Ishiguro, the Corolla struck the Ford only a glancing blow. His left rear wheel well took a gouge from her front left fender, but there was nothing fatal about it. There was only Jane waving, and her arm out the window at the moment of collision, cleanly broken in just one place.

When the cars came to halt, Ishiguro was still in the road. The passenger door of the Corolla opened with a weight of slow and voluptuous doom, and then Ishiguro was looking, inopportunely and at last, into gravely elegant eyes, which the situation made graver, but which seemed yet to show a certain glint of quenchless irony—the eyes of the master.

“Poo-tee-weet, poo-tee-weet,” Kurt muttered to himself, looking out through Ford's front window at the road.  The crash had not been severe enough to warrant a cleanup crew, and the road still sparkled with particles of plastic and glass. He'd not been hurt, but the crash had left him thoughtful. He'd heard Jane's cry, and he had not wanted to leave her at the hospital. But in the waiting room he saw that it might have been our Ishiguro who was hurt most of all, and that he must be left there, alone upon his vigil, to wait tirelessly and give of himself every possible tiny gesture, magnified in solitude, until his self-torment could be assuaged. So he had left them, and gone back to the party, which, as Ford was now being booked for his first D.U.I. of the summer, was now allowed to go on past one o'clock.

“Wreck!” said one of the Cheevers, joining Kurt for a moment at the window. “That's good. Wilson'll have a little business at last.”

“He ran out ina road,” said the other. “Son-of-a-bitch didn't even stopus car.”

They chuckled and went past.

The party was all but over. Ishiguro was waiting for Jane at the hospital, and Tolstoy was waiting at the station for the security officer to come with the bail. All of us who hadn't really needed something from the night had gone home, and the six or eight of us who were left were privy to that after-hours tension, formed of urgency and dread, that comes when everyone knows that everyone left has a definite need, and wonders if they will fill it.

I was there.  I was on a happy and a harmless and a very minor drunk, and I told myself that what I needed was material. An artist, I reminded myself, never looks away. For many years in my former life as a punk I had been an artist who never looked at all, and now I was trying to catch up. I was also trying to talk to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Jr., because I wanted to be near dignity, and to look like the lesser of two slumming angels.

Together we watched Flannery O'Connor go by into the back. She looked solitary, inchoate and furious. No one had asked her about the real Ishiguro, who had gone into Truman Capote's to telephone for a cab. One of the Cheevers had muttered “starfucker” when she'd come in, and she looked up at them as if she might start sharpening her teeth with a metal file.

“They should've taken side streets,” I speculated.

“This corn Babylon,” Kurt muttered, and in his voice was a mixture of disgust and the nostalgia for something not yet departed.

Then he yawned.  “You want to get some breakfast or something, V?”

“Just a second,” I said.

I went back toward the bathroom and I saw the Cheevers peeping at something. They had that furtive, fascinated look, and when they saw me coming toward them they turned away and went into the kitchen. They were peeping, as always, at Flannery. They did it so much they should've had a subscription. I don't know that they ever talked to her seriously; perhaps they didn't want to face the idea that, even if both were scorned and denied, one would still have to be the even-less-favorite. Or perhaps one or both of them even cared for her, with an exultant passion worthy of his namesake, and every morning after he drank underwent that self-eviscerating examination of his own desires, without which we are all just so many horny drunks living fleetingly upon borrowed prestige. Perhaps he woke late, after yet another night as long and dark as a walk across the floor of the Atlantic, and clutched a damp sheet in the morning's first convulsions of guilt and love, and then slowly stood, until he was tall as a man again, above sea-level at last and facing that long slope of atonement—preparing, at last, to write.

In the morning, I would try to do the same. I would wake at dawn with the lights on and my contacts in, filled with wild shame, and I would shower as though my body were covered in black muck. I would pray I could make a pot of coffee so deep and dense it would transfigure me, until all my sins were lessons that could be told as jokes, and all I had to do was laugh at myself and I would be clean again. This was our life as we wished it to be: to lie on the floor in the morning after the night, next to our computers in a square of sunlight, with our mouths full of coffee and white flowers.

When I got to the bathroom, I saw what they'd been looking at. Flannery O'Connor was peeing with the door open. We had come from everywhere to see this, and her face was regal and wild, and her legs were shaking and white and covered everywhere with freckles that looked like tiny spots of blood. I did not look away.

And somewhere, out in the humid night, our Ishiguro was making tiny gestures of love, for all of us who someday will turn into something new.