And To Think He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street
By Richard Grayson Dumbo Books, 310 pp., $16.95 print, $6.21 download
There is a kind of writing I'm going to call confessional fiction (at least for now I'll resist the urge to call it Confessional Fiction). Confessional fiction is the prose equivilant of confessional poetry; it is intimate, extremely personal writing, usually from a first-person protagonist.
At its best, Confessional fiction is rousing, provocative and nuanced; the greatest work of the style is probably Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, and its roots go back to the renewed intimacy found in mid-nineteenth century novels like J.K. Huysmans' Against the Grain. However, like confessional poets, many authors write confessional fiction that is little more than vignettes excerpted from their own life stories and are delivered with the implicit assumption that the reader will be interested not in the story but in the writer and this whether or not the writer has ever done anything interesting at all.
Richard Grayson's new book And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street is a collection of confessional fiction that I think illustrates both the best and the worst of how the style can be used. Much of Lorimer Street is clearly autobiographical—Grayson even uses his own name—and reads more like memoir than fiction, though at least once he plays around with this by making himself married to a woman and with children, while in the other stories he's an unmarried, aging homosexual. Grayson generally organizes these stories around themes and objects—e.g. libraries he used to go to or the dead silent film star who once lived in his house. In the story "Conselyea Street" he employs this trick to devastating effect as he tears off pieces of life in New York until the only thing left is real estate. By way of contrast there is "The Cool Guy," in which Grayson rambles on interminably about some guy he used to know, and how this guy dated this girl and then this other girl and then he (Grayson) dated this girl and now she's married and has kids and... wait, why am I reading this again? "The Cool Guy" feels like something Grayson copied right out of his diary.
There are other stories that (though still confessional) are more clearly fictional, and those are the high-points of the collection. Richard Grayson has been around for a long time and his practiced simplicity is easy to read; his prose manages to be lean without being terse. Among these more fictional stories is a tale about a foreign girl who is one of the hot dog mascots for the Coney Island Cyclones baseball team. Another is about a kid in college whose Muslim roommate has a therapy monkey. A third is about a guy whose pushy female friend gets off on watching the protagonist kiss her boyfriend. These are all fun to read and a story collection made up entirely of stories like these would deserve glowing praise. As it stands, parts of this book make clear that Richard Grayson is very good at writing fiction, while other parts make you wish he would actually write some.
The question then isn't "can Richard Grayson write," it's why is he typing out these boring autobiographical numbers? If I quote from the text, it may explain itself,
There's an entry for me in the reference book Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes. The little article, originally published in the early 1990s, says that I was once one of the most prolific young fiction writers of the 1970s and early 1980s. The author of the entry, Richard Kostelanetz, concludes, "I speak of him in the past tense not because he has passed away, but at last report he has stopped writing and has entered lawschool."
I started writing again, even while I was still in law school, but my stories are no longer so innovative or so interesting.
Susan hated it when her friends would ask me what kind of stories I wrote and I would tell them shitty stories.
"I never understood why those reviewers said your stories are too cute," Susan says. "How can anything be too cute? It's like being too nice."
But I do think things can be too cute, and I know what the critics mean.
Grayson also refers to "...the small press that published... my book of idiotic stories." Which might be funny if he didn't sound serious, and this wasn't a book of "idiotic" stories published by a small press. Grayson's work paints a portrait of a talented writer whose ambition has washed away in a sea of middling reviews and self-pity. This is a man who has given up, and I'm not talking about going to law school, I can understand resigning yourself to not making a living as a writer when so few do. It's like he's given up on being read, he's given up on literature, and he's given up on mattering. And frankly if he thinks so poorly of his own work then why is he inflicting it on other people at all? Why bother?
What happened to you, Richard?
Whatever happened, I think it's the real reason for the uneven quality of the stories in this collection. This is the work of a good writer who doesn't think what he does matters anymore. And that's kind of sad and unfortunate. Richard, come back.