Monday, July 18, 2016

To Skin a--What?

Over the course of your friendship with the late John Sanford (1904-2003), you fell into the habit, when meeting him by accident, of quoting the opening phrase of the first sentence of a book, which was more than a book, written by a medical doctor who was more than a medical doctor.


The opening phrase was "Rather the ice than their way..." You both knew how the sentence ended: "to take what is mine by single strength, theirs by the crookedness of their law." More often than not, Sanford responded to you opening volley with the completion of the sentence, which he knew well enough given his history with it and the man who wrote it.

You were curious to know why, having read that opening line, Sanford was so vehement in his determination not to read beyond it, so far as you know, a position he held to the end of his days. You, on the other hand, had read through the book that remains more than a book, a direct result of having read as much by its author as you could get your hands on.

Another of his books, Patterson, dog-eared and marked, was in your bedside bookshelf.Patterson is a book length poem to and about the city in New Jersey where its author, William Carlos Williams, practiced medicine for much of his adult life.

Your mentor at UCLA, a man whose essays appeared from time to time in The New Yorker, had known Williams and made him seem necessary to you. John Sanford knew Williams, even thought of him as a mentor. Williams had offered to publish Sanford's first story in a magazine he edited.

Here you were, come around again on Williams, loving the book Sanford could not let himself read, In the American Grain. He could not allow himself to read any farther in this book for fear that it would evoke the powerful feelings so much of Williams writings already had on him, wrestle to the ground the narrative voice Sanford was beginning to hear that told him this is you speaking here; you are no longer being influenced. 

Sanford wished that inner voice to add a line or two to the effect that You will now be able to listen to other voices without losing your own in the din. You are free now to come and go as you will, moving beyond the shoreline, away from beacons and landmarks.

I time, Sanford did find that personal navigation system readers and writers associate with the astronomical equivalent of the North Star, the inner voice by which the writer learns to navigate, moving, degree by degree, farther from the shoreline, into the open sea of the individual writer's curiosity.

The book that became for you what In the American Grain became to John Sanford, was--still is--Thomas McGuane's collection of short stories, To Skin a Cat.  

When you told him this, he laughed nervously, intimating--but not saying in any direct way--that sooner or later, most writers come upon this awareness. "I don't know if I'm doing you a favor or not," he said, ,when he asked you if you'd yet come across the writings of Malie Melloy, then retreated into the protective covering of his deep, infectious chuckle.

One afternoon, while you were sitting at the now defunct Xanadu Coffee Shop, mulling over one universe or another while sipping at a latte, you saw John Sanford, working his way out of the Von's Market pharmacy.  Before you could say, "Rather the ice than their way," he said to you, "Kid, about this blog of yours. Have you ever considered writing it in the second person?"

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