by Nicholas Delbanco
York : William Morrow & Co., 1990
Review by Chris Lott
series of stories that are at once incredibly diverse but united
through Delbanco's unique craft and voice.
Bottom line: Read this book, whether you are a writer or not!
Nicholas Delbanco is enjoying a sort of renaissance among writers recently, being featured in a number of writer's magazines and being interviewed for a variety of journals. This new acclaim occurs a year after the publication of his most recent novel In the Name of Mercy not long in literary terms, but quite a while in the publishing world. However, Delbanco has been producing good work for a long time now, in both long and short forms.
In The Writer's Trade, a companion book to his first collection About My Table, Delbanco once again presents nine thematically related stories. The stories in the present volume are about nine very different writers. Each of them is at a different stage in his career (and I mean "his" all nine of the protagonists are also male), but each so finely rendered that it is challenging to place Delbanco himself within the schema. He is at once so skillful in his portrayals that the reader feels he must be an older master, while the young writing characters in the book are so finely rendered and vibrant though not generally sympathetic that one feels the author must be one of them.
The stories are arranged in roughly chronological order, opening with the tale of the reception of a young writer recently published for the first time and ending with the internal dialogue of an old master, a Nobel candidate, who is unlikely to write again. In between are writers of varying acclaim who are coming to terms not just with what they must do with their writing, but what the act of writing is doing to them. In "You Can Use My Name," for example, two writers who started together in graduate school are separated by the growing fame and critical acclaim accorded one of them. This is ground that has been well covered in other stories and novels such as Martin Amis' brilliant work The Information. But Delbanco chooses to emphasize the similarities between the two rather than the differences, and the differences which are left tend to favor the less famous:
"He [Adam] spoke about the novelist as nomad a rootlessness, a restlessness and how it became second nature. He loved, he said, the traveler's oblivion: the sense that no one knows your name and nobody who knows it knows where to locate you. There are ways to wander that do not entail first class; he had gone unrecognized for years.
'You can use mine,' Richard said. 'My name, I mean. For all the good it does you. Or did me.'
Then he grew animated. He asked Adam how he planned to earn a living, where, and what he had been up to after all. What if he and Adam traded lives, replaced each other for a day, a week, a month Richard was pacing, gesticulating hell, a year! He was sweating, urgent, laughing, giddy at the prospect of escape."
But writing is the organizing principle behind the book, not the raison de etre. The main concern of the stories is generally not the act writing, but the act of being human. Notably absent are themes of the writer as martyr, the writer as one true visionary, the writer burdened with gifts, etc. Instead the stories are those of humans who happen to be writers, feeling and experiencing things that everyone experiences and feels at various times. This quality gives the stories a broad appeal which enhances the meaning of the title: not only are the stories about the trade of the writer, but the stories themselves are quality examples of the writer's trade as well.
Delbanco's style is fluid, moving naturally from the ranging, elegant paragraph to the staccato, rapid-fire sentence often within the same page. The physical descriptions of scene and character are competent, though generally unremarkable. It is in the psychological understanding, the subtle accretion of characteristics and the attention to details which initially seem digressive that Delbanco shines. Consider this exchange between a young, highly acclaimed writer and his mother, just before a party in his honor:
"My son the poet," she said.
"Except it's fiction, Mom."
"You'll always be a poet." She swallowed the olive intact.
As the story goes on these three lines become emblematic. At the risk of sounding didactic, this is an extraordinary moment in the story. All at once the mother's heavy drinking, her lack of understanding of his writing, her desire to make him something he is not the flatness of the collaboration of mother and son are all exposed.
It is difficult to illustrate the power of Delbanco's writing without resorting to far too many textual examples. The manner in which he utilizes disparate techniques such as stream-of-consciousness, accretion and rapid-fire, flat-toned Raymond Carver influenced descriptions must be seen in full to be appreciated. If there is any weakness it is only the inescapable mark of quality: when she is finished the reader is left wishing there were many more stories!