A NEW LITERARY MOVEMENT, The Return to Engagement

Klaus Hauser, Stuttgart

During an interview, author Rick Harsch (The Driftless Trilogy, Skulls of Istria, The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas), once expressed his disgust with great US writers’ fascination with the assassination of JFK: »In Portugal you have Antonio Lobo Antunes putting out one masterpiece after another about fascism and colonialism, matters of global historical import, while there they write trifles about an assassination that changed nothing. I threw DeLillo’s Libra into a ravine when I finished it, and along with my colleague, friend and fellow anti-fascist author Sesshu Foster pelted Mailer’s nonsense with a potato gun.«

As of a moment ago, having finished America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots: a Diagnostic by Phillip Freedenberg, I am pleased to announce that fiction in the United States appears to be catching up with that of the rest of the globe. Published by Harsch’s fledgling press corona\samizdat (begun in April of 2020), Freedenberg’s book comes on the heels of Sesshu Foster’s History of the East Los Angeles Dirigle Air Transport lines, from City Lights, as well as two monsters of anti-fascism by the late Chandler Brossard published by corona\samizdat, Wake Up. We’re Almost There and As the Wolf Howls at My Door, as well as Harsch’s own unique The Assassination of Olof Palme, an anthological novel, volumes 1 & 2, and The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas by Harsch himself, and, while I am at it, Harsch’s baseball diary Walk Like a Duck, a season of little league baseball in Italy, perhaps the only anti-fascist baseball book ever written, and definitely the only baseball book I have ever read—most engaging in its fasci loci elements. What all these books have in common is a thematic concentration on the disastrous political climate of the United States today and a strong anti-fascist thrust.

Cactus Boots seems to me destined to become the most famous of all these books, and while there is no sense in ranking them (if that were my task I would include Harsch’s Skulls of Istria in the above paragraph), the excitement of receiving a great fat novel ahead of US readers (I got mine straight from Slovenia on Friday and read it intensively until a short while ago, not resting to absorb the pure experiences of the book as the notion of this essay about a much needed convergence began coursing through my mind as I read) perhaps part of that notion, but also judging from the extraordinary inclusiveness of Freedenberg’s novel and its pointed focus on perhaps the most metaphorically frightening organs of the fascist mentality—destruction of the word. In the baseball book, Harsch’s son is playing baseball in the near environs of Trieste and Monfalcone, the very region the fueled the Italain fascist—and colonial—irredentist movement, and where up to this very second Italians of modest and well-behaved aspect unquestionably live amongst a terrain of lies marked by monuments to a valor that never amounted to anything but horrific death to Italians and a victorious Italy that glorified military involvement on the terrain they could not hold but were granted by their allies despite their military failures, always at the expense of indigenous peoples, mostly Slovenes and Croats. The immediate result of post war mania was D’Anunzio’s bizarre assault on Rijeka, staging near Monfalcone (where three little league teams play, one of them, in Redipuglia, in plain sight of one of the grotesque fascist monuments ever built), marching to Trieste and beyond. The extension of D’Annunzio’s mania was the realpolitik of Mussolini’s fascism, which attacked the Slovene word, the Slovene language being outlawed for virtually the entire span between the world wars in all territories in which Italians ruled Slovenes. It’s no news that fascists (let us not require this puny author to list what are essentially synonyms, like dictatorship) require censorship, and it is right that they do so if Phillip Freedenberg is onto something, for the ultimate triumph in his novel is saving the word, both within his book, and if I am onto something, in the reading world of an increasingly fascist United States.

In the United States, readers now more than ever celebrate a period of literary blossoming that occurred from, say, the mid-1950s when Gaddis’ The Recognitions was published, through the emergence of writers such as Barth, Hawkes, Gass, Pynchon, Wallace, and Vollmann, that they speak of in the past tense even though many, even Alexander Theroux, are still alive. Recently, more than once, I have read critics who were discussing excitedly the state of the US novel in paradoxically pessimistic terms as one question persists: who is next? Anyone? Rikki Ducornet? Too old. Vollmann? If he mitotes. Pynchon? Even he will die one day. Through excess of love of a generation off writers, it seems to me, the US literary community, already a survivalist phenomenon in and of itself, is humming along to a long dirge, expecting nothing. And they are right that Murakami Haruki will save no one.

But the question occurs to me: who did Pynchon save after Gravity’s Rainbow? Who did Gaddis save in his Recognitions? Granting that novels that are written to recurrently delve into the mystery of the ‘human condition’ will not always have an historical or political sheen, and that Gaddis’ JR is insuperable political satire, the general thrust of the books of this period, or, at the very least, the critics who rightly laud them, is stylistic mastery. Thus do these books cohere and rise above others and meet the books of previous literary movements. Yet, to my mind, a movement is only as good as its autonomous desire to persevere. The greatest failure of the English literary conglomerate of the 20th century has been the persistent refusal to bring James Joyce’s Finnnegans Wake into the practical canon, or, say, the toolbox of the workshop.

Luckily, Finnegans Wake still exists, as do Dadaists, Surrealists, Symbolists, and masters of all eras, epochs, movements, all of which, it seems, are instinctively, as is only perhaps obvious, anti-fascist—Rabelais more than any in my estimate. But the engaged world literature of recent years has been far from an exalted US literary feature. Sebald and the too little known Daša Drndić are perhaps the most well-known in Europe, but the Gaddis-Vollmann continuum features only Vollman as a dedicated engaged writer. Yet as a novelist, he lacks the esprit of most of his compeers. What America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots: a Diagnostic, particularly as it is published by the press that Harsch has used to bring out his own Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, reprint Skulls of Istria—as pointed a work of anti-fascism as any I have read by a US writer (if I may still call him that)—and the utterly original Assassination of Olof Palme, which Harsch told me was in large part his apology at not going far enough into and at the derangement of the United States in Eddie Vegas, what Freedenberg’s opus represents to me is the moment when great US modern fiction becomes definitively engaged. This is where the apology fits in, where I pat some oblivious genius on the back and say it’s okay to write brilliantly about grandma and your traumas overcome, yet there is an urgency that this time seems to be screaming, an urgency to Phillip Freedenberg’s refrain: ‘This is a possible world.’ And this is where Sesshu Foster comes most brilliantly alive as little known as he is, for each of his utterances in one way or another is rage enwrapped and alive for the sake of his own children and all the other children to come or not to come. Foster writes informed by all those who informed the Gaddis-Vollmann continuance, and remembering all of their predecessors, and he writes every word for the sake of real, living children throughout the world, and if he does write funny books, he is not laughing deep inside, and he is not reading Gaddis through Vollman—he’s reading history and its vomitus lived in today. His books are, combined with the others of the post critically lauded authors mentioned herein compelled by the need for the children of his species to survive; while Freedenberg’s is written in the faint hope that they will thrive. Harsch’s books are meant to ensure that readers remain on their toes, that they not backslide, that they learn what crimes are sludging their minds and remain stuck under their fingernails.

Perhaps this is the mere raving a man excited upon finishing a book. If that’s true, let me say this: I feel something akin to this quite rarely, and even if I was thrilled similarly when I read Harsch’s novels, I was not optimistic. Far from it. Right now I am extremely optimistic, and ‘This is a possible world,’ and there, right there! Is page two of America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots: a Diagnostic.

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