Tales From Two Cities

I have two books on the desk, one from each of the nation’s most important literary centers—I mean, of course. New York and Iowa City.

The Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa is the best known (and probably the best) of scores of graduate programs for young writers, and it symbolizes a way of life in which most American writers today participate-the studying and teaching of creative writing.

Vance Bourjaily has taught for many years in the Iowa program. He has just published his seventh novel, Now PLAYING AT CANTERBURY (Dial, $10.00), which is set in “State City” (a midwestern university town). In a way, it’s a comic meditation on what happens when art marries into the academic family.

The novel revolves about the production of an opera, composed and written by university people, with a cast of students and faculty members, enacted at the university’s opulent theater. The opera is awful—at least judging by its libretto—but no matter, the singers all have other things on their minds. Much of the book consists of long digressions, memories told in the voice of one or another of the troupe. The design belongs to the Canterbury Tales, hence the title.

“To call this book an American Canterbury Tales is to do it a disservice. . . ,” says the exuberant jacket copy. (Well, yes, much as it would do a disservice to this review to call it the Works of Matthew Arnold.) I don’t believe in hanging a man for his jacket copy, but the book itself is not free from pretensions. You feel their weight when you are asked to sit still for some long excursions into the past, such as a tall tale about a man-killing cat, which wouldn’t find room in a novel that made more stringent rules for itself.

Still, Bourjaily has always been a lifeembracing novelist, and he successfully populates this novel with a set of characters meant to remind you of the world’s variety. Beth, a fetching bisexual soprano who lives in the territory somewhere between randiness and nymphomania, and has a gift for nonsensical similes (“as vague as cucumbers”) . . . Marcel, an epicene fellow from the South whose pappy, an opera buff, tried to turn him into a castrato . . . a tough-talking Australian professor (“blallocky,” “absobloodylutely.” “fuckamacious”) . . . and a decent, dreamy writer who keeps imagining that Fitzgerald is sitting in the back of his Fitzgerald seminar. When they’re not rehearsing or reminiscing, the cast and sundry hangers-on are interacting, and for some of them this culminates in the show-before-the-show. an inventive orgy at a hideaway in the Wisconsin woods. (It isn’t easy to be inventive about an orgy in fiction these days. Bourjaily manages partly through the character of an unliberated doctor who keeps an anatomical eye on the odd couplings he enjoys.)

Its cleverness and high spirits carried me much of the way through this overlong (518 pages) book, but before the close another emotion seemed to be creeping into the text, a furtive sadness. The feeling can be located not so much in the book’s characters as in the institution that subsumes them, the university with its big-as-all-outdoors generosity toward its artists. Strange places, these institutional patrons. In a sensein their democratic communalism— they’re as traditional, as native as a husking bee. But they run contrary to American notions of the artist as a loner, an outsider, and so they cause a certain unease in their beneficiaries: all the young-men-on-grants moving about in fringed jackets, their eyes on the horizon—renegades manqué, scouts, trappers. Not that the living is bad: the living is good, as this novel testifies. Money and time, fellowships and fellowship, farms on the edge of town, dinner parties featuring home-raised baron of lamb. The living is good, but it causes a bit of free-floating malaise, a feeling of unnaturalness. What all Bourjaily’s characters seem to share is a hunger for authenticity, and a sense that real life, however rocky or sordid, lies behind them, or perhaps ahead of them; lies somewhere where they are not.

Bourjaily gazes on this plight with amusement, tolerance, and affection. One truth he wants to remind us of is that mediocrity and genius spring from similar impulses, and that those impulses live in all people: “There’s a story you could tell. ... So could we all, every man his own Homer, blind, caught in the endless wonder of the words, of the cries, of the shouts, of the laughter, of the tears of the things of the stories of our lives.” But there’s a wistfulness to this book, a muted longing for grandness, the emotion of one who wonders what Fitzgerald would think if he came to one’s seminar on Fitzgerald.