When I finished Peter Anderson’s endearing first novel Wheatyard (2013), Marge Piercy’s poem “For the young who want to” (1981) immediately came to mind. It’s a poem I happened upon randomly at Borders one day, many years ago. And I’m glad I did discover this poem, because Piercy etched a magnificent truism into my young developing writer’s brain that day: “The real writer is one who really writes…. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.”
Anderson’s novel about a struggling writer embodies the very spirit of Piercy’s poem. The novel opens in June 1993; the anonymous narrator has just graduated with his M.B.A. and is languishing in an uninspiring internship with a finance professor while the summer temperature continues to rise, and the town of Champaign, Illinois, turns into a ghost town. One day, while browsing Sinclair Lewis titles at a used bookstore, the narrator bumps into an odd, unkempt man, just a few years older than him, who joshes him about his affection for Lewis, but then reveals his true intentions when he hands over a heavy manuscript.
“Here, you like reading, you should read this,” he said, rolling the bundle and shoving it under my arm. “An extra copy, yours to keep,” he added, nodding and flicking his index finger from his temple toward me in some sort of salute, then brushed past me toward the exit.
The narrator gathers the strange man’s name from the bookstore owner, and from the title page of his manuscript: Longing Dissolute Midnight by Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard.
Soon after they cross paths at the Student Union, exchange phone numbers and Wheatyard mails an invitation to meet for a beer. The narrator accepts, and drives out to Tillsburg, Illinois, a small town twenty miles away. Interestingly, Anderson doesn’t provide his narrator an interest in Wheatyard’s work, which he admits to only reading a small portion of the manuscript.
I had only made it through a few hundred pages of the book before finally giving up after a week, my mind overwhelmed by the densely-packed narrative. The little I read was a riotous, glorious mess. Great Crusaders mingled with Hollywood starlets and little green men from Mars and fatally small-minded bureaucrats from dying New England mill towns as Wheatyard explored a bewildering number of barely overlapping themes, from evolutionary theory to immigration to the ethics of the death penalty to socialist economic systems…. Where it went after that, for the next six or seven hundred pages, I couldn’t imagine. Wheatyard’s imagination in conjuring up this human—and alien—menagerie was nothing less than dizzying.
Initially, I wondered if Anderson was poking the bear, satirizing bloated academic fiction, the kind that drowns itself with obsessively overweight sentences and “ambitious” intentions, i.e., juggling weighty themes and ideas. Such a reading isn’t so clear when we come to understand, from the narrator’s perspective, that Wheatyard is a sympathetic figure, and a person the narrator describes a “genius.” What’s unique about this assessment is that Anderson suggests that this kind of “densely-packed narrative” has an audience, a small one, which the narrator later qualifies as being around five thousand people, and that he is not a part of this audience. In the end, Wheatyard ends up publishing the very manuscript that the narrator found unreadable, and he’s happy for Wheatyard’s success.
What makes Anderson’s straightforward novel so refreshing is the way he portrays the student-mentor relationship; we’d expect the student (the narrator) to fill his role enthusiastically, a pleasing
kind of subservience, but rather, the narrator is intrigued by Wheatyard’s nudges to write, and introduction to storytelling, but it isn’t until the end that the narrator unearths, on his own and at the right moment for him, this urge to write. Up until this point, the narrator is curious about how a person like Wheatyard can keep his seat in the world...