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In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & Other Stories by William Gass

24 Jan

I know a number of you have enjoyed reading posts about classic books by authors you may not have heard of before. And that’s to be expected. After all, if you didn’t love James Joyce when you read him in your college freshmen English course, then why would you want to read him now? And today I have a real gem for you. This past fall I fell in love with William Gass and his short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. He may not be your standard book club pick, but he’s certainly a hidden gem of an author. If you love mid-1900’s literature, have a look at Mr. Gass and his works.


In the Heart of the Heart of the Country & Other Stories by William Gass

Quick Read?: Mostly. What slows it down somewhat is his use of a lot of colloquial language and experimental stylistic elements, but that can easily be adjusted to.

Difficulty: Not too difficult, though the narration can sometimes be hard to pin down.

Synopsis: The five stories included in the collection feature narrators isolated deep within themselves and their surroundings, yearning for ways to reach out to those around him. In “The Pederson Kid,” a young boy tries to assert himself as a man when the men in his life only show themselves to be disappointments. As they try to save a young boy found frostbitten on their farm in the middle of a blizzard, the young narrator joins the men in his family on a trip to the neighbor’s farm that only brings out the darkness amongst them all. In “Order of Insects,” an odd infestation of bugs in a new house allows for a 1950’s housewife to make a mental world of her own for the bugs. She catalogues and researches the bugs, ultimately to allow her to feel like she has some control over her life. And in the title story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” a writer who vows to immortalize his town through his work finds himself unable to shake the memories and influence of a long lost love that has left him unable to actually go out into the world. Each story is unique, but all highlight the loneliness of the twentieth century experience, and the need for love to push a person outside of themselves.

Why read this book? This collection was seen as groundbreaking in the 1960s, and Gass was considered a very influential writer for many who wrote experimental fiction in the 1970s and beyond. His sparse use of language, and his focus on specific things–the strange appearance of a child, weird bugs, a small town in Indiana–beginning to show other essential parts of his characters. It is a book full of subtlety, but also beauty.

Gass was also a philosopher, and his books reflect a lot of his views on humanity and love. He felt that philosophy and language were very much intertwined, and when reading In the Heart, it is clear that he felt philosophy and literature could oftentimes go hand in hand almost seamlessly.

William Gass: making experimental fiction aesthetics look jaunty since 1966.

Some interesting facts:

  • Gass was a philosopher and considered writing to be a side project for himself. He then, however, went on to become one of the most influential writers of the later half of the twentieth century. One of the few times one might say he could have quit his day job! (Though I’m glad he did not).
  • When getting his Ph.D. at Cornell, he studied philosophy of language and metaphor, but then wrote wildly long papers on aesthetics just for fun, since no one there specialized in the philosophy of aesthetics. You can bring the student to school, but I suppose you can’t control how many papers they will write?
  • He called each of his books “experimental constructions” because each played with different elements of style in language, punctuation and syntax. This in turn became inspirational for many experimental writers after him.

If you like this, try: Omensetter’s Luck by Gass; Lolita or Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs; The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger.