- - Thursday, November 12, 2015


By William H. Gass

Alfred A. Knopf, $26, 256 pages

A book called “Eyes: Novellas and Stories” inevitably focuses attention on vision. Here it’s on the vision of author William H. Gass, who scrutinizes his materials so long that they shift their shapes — a process he renders in language of balletic precision.

The first novella, “In Camera,” has a particular focus on seeing things. It’s set in a run-down out-of-the-way store, whose owner Mr. Gab “didn’t have that gift,” but has the aficionado’s appreciation for the classic black-and-white photographs that are his stock-in-trade. He despises color. With gray, he claims, “the snowy rooftop, the winter tree, whole mountains of rock, the froth of a fast steam, can be caught, spew and striation, twig and stick, footprint on a snowy walk, the wander of a wrinkle across the face.”

He has hundreds of prints carefully stashed, methodically filed, and pored over for their ravishing grayness. His few customers are usually helped by the assistant “who was supposed to be stupid, but only looked so.” Occasionally though, a client will be whisked into Mr. Gab’s living quarters, and who knows what goes on there? Not the assistant, though he draws conclusions. Slowly he comes into sharper focus. At first addressed by Mr. Gab only as “you stupid kid,” he then becomes u-Stu, and as the balance of the narrative shifts, he morphs into Stu, and finally, like a butterfly leaving its cocoon, he becomes Mr. Stu. And what’s important about this is the delicate toughness with which the author changes the equilibrium of the two characters, choreographing a pas de deux that sets them in new positions.

“Charity,” the other novella in this collection, has a more familiar setting. Its central character Hardy is obsessed by demands for charity. They come from letters and emails, from kids at stop lights, from women wanting the price of a train ticket or taxi, and a myriad others: “Occasionally the solicitors were dressed in the uniform of some odd rip-off cult … but mostly it was black boys raising money to buy basketball uniforms, or those … creeps selling rosebuds — what a racket — or once in a while a woman willing to work for food to feed her get — like the Yonkers con — the sole support of her entire unfortunate family, their lives hanging by a thread.”

Of course we have all been where the hard-headed Hardy so often finds himself. His rants earn some fellow feeling, and often a chuckle. His sexual exploits with Molly — rarely far from his thoughts — seem a deserved relief from the demanding world. But the author rarely lets responses to his character harden. Hardy walks the lively streets of Washington as a lawyer employed by a medical company; he visits Molly as a lover; he thinks of the lives of beggars, even of the lives of his fellow Washingtonians. He thinks of charity, though not in the sense of love. But most significantly he acts: he is an agent not a patient. Or is he? Is anyone?

Such questions occur because Mr. Gass’ novellas stay in the mind, their action a matter of shifting perception rather than plot. The frontispiece to this book is a photograph called “Die Augenturn” — “The Eye Tower” — which is a model of the eye made from twiggy members, cradling a seated human figure where the eyeball would be. It looks rickety. The weather is foggy. The figure is only partly clothed so he must be cold perched up there. He is trapped too. There is no obvious way down. This is one metaphor for a point of view.

A less alarming one is offered in the epigraph, “The point where an underground spring suddenly bursts to the surface is known as an eye … where dry ground becomes soaked with life-giving water, and nature gives us a glimpse of all that happens out of the realm of human vision.” This aptly describes the effect of the two admirable novellas that open this book. It also explains the points of view of the stories: in “Don’t Even Try, Sam” it’s that of the piano used as a movie prop, in another story it’s a barber’s chair — objects that entertain with glimpses of events hidden from human vision.

The four short stories in this collection are tight, steely, interesting but they don’t compel as the other novellas do. Yet readers already familiar with William H. Gass’oeuvre will find all six tales in this volume sending them back to his earlier fiction, while newcomers to the work of this American master will hasten to discover more.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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