Final Grade Report: Andy Duncan
(Afterword to Beluthahatchie and Other Stories)
by John Kessel
On cold winter nights, I warm myself with the memory that Andy Duncan was once a student of mine.
My first acquaintance with Andy came when he, as reporter for the Greensboro News and Record, reviewed my story collection Meeting In Infinity (available at fine bookstores almost nowhere). He liked it. In particular, he liked a story about Dr. Faustus as Groucho Marx that I had been unable to sell to any magazine--the only unsalable story in the book. It happened to be one of my favorites. I put this down to some chance moment of lunacy by an oddball reviewer, but did not give it much thought.
I first met the man himself at a North Carolina Writersí Network annual conference some time later, and he seemed completely normal. He and the friends he was hanging out with seemed to have a interest in theater, and were talking about some complex production they were planning the nature of which I never quite grasped.
A year or two after that Andy enrolled in the graduate writing program where I teach at North Carolina State University. He had quit a perfectly respectable job as a journalist, the kind of career our students are eager to land, to come back and make big bucks studying Moby Dick. I began to wonder if there was something seriously wrong with him.
Then in the Spring of 1994 he enrolled in my graduate writing workshop, and the stories started coming in.
Anyone who has taught writing for any length of time will tell you that the best thing that can happen to a writing teacher is to have a person who is touched by the Holy Fire show up in class. Itís a gift from the gods. Every day becomes a brighter day, knowing that you may find a manuscript from him or her in your mailbox. And later that afternoon, in your cluttered office, you may have a conversation with this soul so like your own but different.
But the advent of that star writer also scares you silly. The biggest responsibility a teacher has is dealing with such a student. You have to provide all the support you can, yet tell the truth. You have to challenge the writer not to take the easy way out, but not put out the fire. Most daunting of all, you must be able to tell the difference between a mistake and a breakthrough. The two worst things you can do are either to strap the student to the procrustean bed of your accumulated wisdom, or not provide any structure at all for him to shape himself against.
Andy presented this delightful challenge from day one. The first story he turned in was about a Pope in the 800s who was exhumed by his successor and tried for heresy. Most of the students in the workshop did not understand that it was a comedy.
Then came a historical story about the Paris theater, the Grand Guignol, complete with details about eyeballs with "more bounce!" In this one, without any bluster or drawing of attention to himself, Andy pulled off the near impossible technical feat of telling a coherent story, each scene of which was presented from the perspective of a different character.
Another was about Robert Johnson in Hell. Hell was exactly like the Louisiana delta. Though full of wit, this was not a comedy.
Much later, as a portion of his masterís thesis, came a long and incredibly detailed novella (unfortunately not included in this collection but, as of the time I write this, soon to be published) about the man responsible for the Soviet space program, a man whose identity was so secret that for years American intelligence officers did not even know his name. They called him "the Chief Designer." His name was Sergei Korolev. Even I could see this was a major work, heroic, detailed, sincere, and in the end profoundly moving. The only problem was that it did not fit easily into any genre, and I worried that it might never find its audience.
The problem of definition--if it is a problem--arose in Andy's work from the beginning. No two of his stories were alike. Or if they were alike, they were alike only in their quirky investigation of historical backwaters, their sidewise dissection of the odd corners of the human soul. Their humor, their occasional gothic excess, their humanity.
Working with Andy was one of the most rewarding experiences of my almost twenty years now as a teacher at NCSU. Mostly what I did with Andy was rack my brain to think up questions to ask him that he hadn't already asked himself, and otherwise keep the hell out of his way. I canít tell you unequivocally that I taught him anything, but damn did the boy learn! He has had many teachers before and after me--ask him about Michael Swanwick or Howard Waldrop sometime--and he's not done learning yet, but I have to say I hope to take all the undeserved credit I can out of the fact that he once sat in my classroom.
One of the stories I had not read until I got the manuscript for this collection is "Map to the Homes of the Stars." As a way of telling you what I like about Andyís writing, let me go on a bit about this one. Iím assuming youíve read the story already, so if you havenít, maybe you better skip this part lest I spoil your fun.
On its simplest level, this is the story of Jack, a man who is being haunted by the ghosts of Tom and Anne, his best friend and a girl from their town, both of whom disappeared more than a decade ago. The ghosts never appear on stage, but simply cruise past Jack's house in Tom's Firebird in the night.
It's a quietly creepy ghost story. But the ghost story works only if you feel the real story lurking beneath it. The real story is about a man who is not willing or able to take a chance. We learn what Jack was like when he and Tom were seventeen years old and used to cruise the streets of their small town in that same car, past the homes and hangouts of the various pretty girls they fancied--but never had the nerve to approach.
I love the detail with which Andy evokes these boys and their town. The description of them riding bikes and talking through the long afternoons. The conviction that Tom and Jack have (I know I had it) that life is going on out there someplace else, anyplace else but here in this stifling town. Life happens on television, on movie screens, in New York City, in California--especially in California, to the movie stars so much brighter and more romantic than we are. Sometimes it seems like we might have a chance to grasp that glamorous life (isnít that the American dream?--in the late 20th century thatís what we mean, whether we admit it or not, when we talk about "the pursuit of happiness"). At other times it seems that dream's an ungraspable phantom, forever beyond the reach of ordinary people like ourselves. Especially ourselves at age seventeen.
For a young boy, a virgin, this dream has everything to do with sex. The girl we see walking back from the tennis court every day in her short skirt is in possession of this dream, we imagine. If we could only ask her out. But thatís not possible. Not for Jack, anyway.
Why not? Other guys ask girls out all the time. But Jack is not those other guys. He can't make the first step that might liberate him. As Kafka (another lonely bachelor) says in his "Letter to His Father": "It is as if one person had to climb five low steps and another person only one step, but one that is, at least for him, as high as all the other five put together; the first person will not only manage this five, but hundreds and thousands more as well, he will have led a great and very strenuous life, but none of the steps he has climbed will have been of such importance to him as for the second person that one, first, high step, that step which it is impossible for him to climb even by exerting all his strength, that step which he cannot get up on and which he naturally cannot get past either."
Tom, when he and Anna leave town, manages to climb that first step. And they are never heard from again.
Thatís what Jack is afraid of. The ghosts that now cruise in front of Jackís house are the ghosts of what he might have done. He might have broken the rules--sexual, social, racial--by which he has been constrained. Of course, when you break rules you put yourself at risk. You swivel around on the wooden bench, you might get splinters. You leave home and you might end up dead, like Tom and Anna. But as you get older, the fact that you never tried begins to kill you all by itself, only more slowly.
The strength, subtlety and economy with which Andy realizes this idea floors me. Read the story a second time and notice the numerous sly illustrations of this townís repressions, and to Jack's desperation. At Christmas, drive once around the block, and sexy Cynthia handing out candy canes is replaced by good Christian Mr. Thompson handing out comic books about hell. It is absolutely impossible even to contemplate dating a black girl. "Iím just sitting here," Jack says. In the very first paragraph, Jack stands in his kitchen in the middle of the night eating something "stale and cool." He is reading the movie ads in the newspaper "just to reassure myself that everything I had skipped in the spring wasnít worth the trouble anyway." That is Jackís life. And it is precisely as he has this thought, reaffirming his inertia, that he hears the car coming to take him to life, or to death. To California. Or Hell. If he can muster the nerve.
Some of my favorite moments from Andy Duncan stories:
"Are you a man who appreciates amusements, then?"--The droll wit in every line of that sexy divertissement "The Premature Burials."
"Hellís about full."--The moment in the first scene of "Beluthahatchie" where the voice of the old woman calling out for Jesus is cut off in mid-word.
"Not just game acceptance with a hint of weariness, but something downright wise and tragic as well."--In "Fennemanís Mouth," the implicit parallel between the video synthesis of events that did not happen, and peopleís subjective memories of their interpersonal relations--which turns a comedy into a personal and political statement.
"Stress? Love? Syphilis? Who can say?"--Just about everything in "Grand Guignol."
"But as the years pass by, my ears get better."--The loving, leisurely portrait of 1930ís radio in "Liza and the Crazy Water Man."
"Private Angelo slid down the crumbling slope on top of Papa, then crawled through him and leaned over me, examining my eyes and face."-- In "Fortitude," the overlapping actions of Angelo and Patton in the shell hole, and Pattonís conversation with the ghost of his father.
"Iím talking to the man whatís come to kill me. You see anyone else here that wants to do it?"--In that ambiguous epic of ordinary Americans taking on the age-old burden of capital punishment, "The Executionersí Guild," the moment the phone begins ringing the middle of the execution. And especially the reason for that call.
I wish I had written all of these, and am damn proud to know the man who did.
Those of you who have been lucky enough to meet him know that in person, as much as on the page, Andy Duncan has the Southerner's gift for words. When he wants to, he can crank up a South Carolina accent as broad as the Piedmont, and those Northerners who automatically assume anyone with a southern drawl is lacking twenty IQ points are ripe for a plucking. Andy has a few stories to tell. If you stop by the Duncan residence for a brief word with him, donít leave your car running and a quart of ice cream on the front seat.
Had he been born in the nineteenth century, I imagine Andy at home in some dry goods store or print shop, idling away the afternoon gossiping about the town eccentrics (of whom he would be the prime example)--if you will allow a small town rustic an anthropologist's interest in UFO cults and the life of the waitress and medieval history and the European avant garde. And in the alternate history where Andy was born in 1835 instead of 1964, if heíd managed not to get himself killed in the Civil War, I can easily imagine him striking up an acquaintance with another backwoods eccentric with an active mind, a guy named Sam Clemens from Missouri who wrote, "If Iíd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldnít a tacked it."
Hereís one reader whoís glad both of them
copyright 2000 by John Kessel