By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
A good book, encountered at the right place and time, can foist a new sense of vocation on an unsuspecting reader, jarring him or her from a more conventional life towards something urgent and mysterious. When I asked Ron Carlson, author of Return to Oakpine, to choose a favorite passage from literature, he remembered how the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald captivated him utterly as a young man; the would-be geology major fell so thoroughly under Fitzgerald’s spell that he began mooning around the campus at night, pondering words like “ectoplasm,” and trying his hand at short stories.
Today, Carlson’s publishing career is in its fourth decade. “I don’t live in books, but, boy, have books amplified my life,” he told me. “The light and shadow I’ve seen, all the places I’ve been, because of song and story.”
Return to Oakpine features four friends, former bandmates, who rocked their high school prom in the 1960s. Thirty years later—aging and scarred by illness and disappointment—they come home to Wyoming for one last show. Carlson’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and Esquire; his short-short stories, like “Bigfoot Stole My Wife,” are widely anthologized models of the genre. He’s the chair of the MFA writing program at the University of California, Irvine. He spoke to me by phone.
Ron Carlson: When I was an undergraduate at the University of Utah, I wrote in a library book for the first and only time. I was reading a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald called “The Sensible Thing.” When I got to the last paragraph, a classic Fitzgerald line about lost love almost regained and lost again. It goes like this:
Well, let it pass, he thought; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.
Now, I’m not a vandal. But I couldn’t help myself. I think I wrote: Look at this! As if I were some kind of guide or imprimatur. There was an ache in it, an astonishing ache even in the context of the abundant rue and sorrow of Fitzgerald’s stories, and it felt so much bigger than me. It stirred me so deeply I had to leave some kind of mark. I bet that copy is still in the University of Utah library somewhere.
I was a sophomore, and deep in the throes of a Fitzgerald obsession. I had this remarkable professor, Ken Eble, who wrote a book on Fitzgerald for the Twayne authors series, who’d been my guide. I was a good college kid, all-American and baseball-playing, living in the dorms with a million barbarians. I did not expect to be claimed by Fitzgerald hook, line, and sinker. This Side of Paradise—that sweet, sophomoric pastiche of notes, scenes, poetry, and plays—I felt like he’d written the book just for me. And this ineffable lyric poetry about loss—it stung. It was different from everything else in my life, but it claimed me. Like I didn't know I was magnetic, and then something magnetized.
It felt like an incursion. Something came off the page and stung me, and I thought—that’s not fair. I’d had the experience once before, reading Huck Finn when I was 13, when Buck Grangerford is killed. This feeling—that’s not right, this is just a book, how dare it make me feel so much?
I was just at the very edge of developing an inner life, alone for the first time, just starting to date. As you assume the first dimensions of a private life, you are lucky if you come across something in literature that speaks anywhere near you—you are drawn to it, moth to the flame. For me, I was drawn to a sense of mystery, because I was a total innocent, and so much was mysterious to me. And I loved Fitzgerald because he came so close to naming the ineffable. I didn’t understand this romantic reaching he pulls off, but it had a reaction in me that was spiritual, emotional, and mystical. I’d found some corner of literature that had my initials on it. Something that felt intended for me. It was personal. It’s not about those moments when everyone marches lockstep and announces, “This is great, this is a masterpiece” But where does a book get you? Where does it come and take you by the sleeve and say, Hey you, Ron: Look at this.