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October 31, 2000

Books by Kay Kimbrough

Geoff Schmidt
Smallmouth Press, New York, 2000, $24.00.

Geoff Schmidt's first novel begins with the death of an instructor of writing who is also a writer, Gus Jones. Another writer, Andrew Shay, a former student of Gus Jones, publishes his mentor's handbook for fiction writers as a tribute to "his genius as a teacher." Shay has won the National Book Award as Jones is dying. Shay seems to have learned more than how to write from Jones, for he seems to be getting right everything Jones got wrong.

Jones' message to his students is simple: "Fiction matters." While he succeeds in creating a winner of the National Book Award in Andrew Shay, he lives his own life by another rule, traveling the complex road to self-destruction through alcohol, drugs, indolence and indifference to the family he professes to love. In the beginning of his descent into the hell of his own creation, Jones is vaguely aware of what is happening to his wife and his marriage: "Oh, she wrapped her chagrin around her like a stole, Penelope did, and wore it everywhere, on the hottest days especially, and I, besotted, eyeballed her chagrin and smiled with false benignity and cracked another beer and went outside to pour more drinks." To his credit Jones admits in the next paragraph, "I hang my head in shame. Something was terribly wrong with me."

While the terribly sad story of Gus Jones' life is unfolding inside the handbook, some wildly comic accounts of fiction writing classes, absurd writing assignments, actions and statements of named fiction writers entertain and amuse. Imagine Margaret Atwood, drunk and enraged, throwing a flaming croquet mallet at Tama Janowitz. Imagine Jones being assaulted by a furious Tony Early either because Jones has thrown a piece of chalk at him or because Early believes Jones has accused him of plagiarism. This anecdote ends in a tribute to Early: "He has since gone on to publish widely, beautiful stories of a very real South, and we get together every now and then and have a cup of coffee and laugh about our tiff."

The many references to great and good writers function as valuable advice to aspiring writers, bringing to mind the qualities that make their books worth reading. They learned how to "write as if it mattered."

Jones gives instructions on how to stimulate the writer's imagination; he is himself an endless source of invention. The list starts with WATCH TELEVISION and includes THROW A PARTY and HOLD A BABY. What could be easier? On television, Jones confesses, "Here now in the Moon Winx I have a staticky television that I watch only sporadically. Maybe five-six hours a day. I don't think it's healthy to obsess over what is, essentially, just another writer's tool." His party suggestions are sadistic. He concludes, "You get the idea--what would you do at a party to inspire anger? Sadness? Get creative!" The baby holding passage ends in sad longing: "Just now I had such an ache in my hands and arms, some lingering muscle-memory of Chloe and Miranda as I held and changed them. But that was long ago. That was long ago."

The message always returns to the family Jones has lost. Just before his death, he opens the chapter on revision with, "Given the chance, I would do everything differently. I would explode the world, rip apart the universe at the seams to undo all that I have done, to change all that is. I swear to you I would dismantle yours and every other life, oh my gentle readers, if it would mean my family was not lost to me, my love, my only real happiness defiled." He is saying that fiction matters but not as much as living matters, not as much as loving matters, not as much as the people you love matter.

Jones begins his chapter on setting by describing his room at the Moon Winx Motel, an old establishment on the old Birmingham highway, north from Tuscaloosa. It is an anonymous room with anonymous characters on the staff, a perfect place for Jones to end his increasingly seedy and isolated life. Fans of Schmidt's novel might be making pilgrimages to this landmark of life at the University of Alabama for years to come.

In the endless pieces of advice Jones offers, there can be found some basic rules that work. The "Plots to Avoid" chapter ends, "What is socially relevant today is the Morton Downey, Jr. show (note: Rikki Lake is hotter now (note to self: insert name of hot abrasive talk show host here)) of tomorrow -- avoid relevance. Read a lot. Write a lot. You'll start to get a feel for what's old and what's new. As we crash into the next millennium, search your hearts. Find something new in there, and squeeze it onto the page. It may be bloody, but it will be fresh."

Schmidt's novel is always funny or moving, and it is never dull. It will make you want to "write your heart out."

NOTE: Geoff Schmidt will be reading from his work at The Bubble Lounge (5546 Old Shell Road) on Friday, November 3 at 7:30 p.m.


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