- The Writer's Writer Writes
328 Pages; Paper; $16.95
240 Pages; Cloth; $24.99
Last month I was surprised to see a student behind the front desk at the university's fitness center absorbed in No Relief, Stephen Dixon's first collection of short stories, published in 1976. The collection is not well-known and long out of print, written decades before she was born. I asked her about it. She said that she'd picked the book up randomly when things at the gym were slow—someone had apparently left it behind—and that it was "awesome." She couldn't put it down. "It's funny," she said, "because the book's called No Relief, but reading it is giving me a lot of relief." When I explained why I was interested, I was only repeating the clichés appearing in every review of Dixon's work over the last few decades: most prolific and innovative writer you've never heard of, thirty-five books, over 650 published stories, two-time National Book Award nominee, Pen-Faulkner nominee, Best American Short Story prizes, O. Henry Prize Story awards, Pushcarts, etc.
Today, at eighty-three, Dixon is still providing his unique brand of no-relief relief with two new collections of stories, Dear Abigail and Other Stories and Writing, Written. We are indeed lucky to have an American Master at the height of his powers chronicling, apparently from firsthand experience, the particular sorrows and longings that attach themselves to loss, old age, and declining health. The twenty-four stories comprising Dear Abigail (a companion collection to 2016's Late Stories) portray the day-to-day world of Philip Seidel, a writer who is still in mourning many years after his wife Abigail's death, and who now must deal with the complicating factors of his newly diagnosed Parkinson's disease.
Dixon's first lines are short and pointed, diving straight into the heart of Seidel's misery: "It's night." "They used to take showers together." "This is a dream." "Loses a pen." "It's around 5 a.m." "I sit." The writing that follows, like Seidel's suffering, is relentless. Dixon's writing has always moved at the pace of a fever dream—whole stories proceed without paragraph breaks, even for dialogue—and Seidel's every waking thought eventually returns to his beloved, lost Abby. Brave attempts to move past grief alternate with equally brave surrenders to memory. But, for Seidel, memories of his lost wife are not simple recollections. Instead, remembered incidents are created as if anew, with linkages twisted by longing and possibility. In "Go to Sleep Again," he clings onto a hallucinated impression of his wife sleeping next to him. In "All About Love," he wonders if Abby ever truly loved him. In "The Lost Story," one of Seidel's manuscripts is stolen, and Philip worries he won't be able to recreate what he's written: he has lost a story about a dream he's lost about the wife he's lost.
In one particularly affecting story, "The Note," Philip comes across a note in a hand he recognizes as his own, signed "Abby" and using her pet phrases, presumably written to him from the hereafter. In the note, she asks after him, wishes him well, and gives him permission to move on and find someone new to love. But who wrote this note? Has he written it himself during a bout of sleepwalking or as an idea for a story and just forgotten? Or does he actually remember writing it and still wants to make believe Abby wrote it? The note inevitably leads Philip to memories of their marriage, of their becoming parents together, of Abby's eventual sickness:
So. When's he going to get over it? What, her? Never. No, that's not a smart answer. Think things like that and he really will think he's going crazy. Like what? Pretending he doesn't remember writing a note to...