William H. Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”

Having not read other books by William H. Gass, unlike so many of his other reviewers (on GoodReads), I was generally impressed by In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, an early collection of short stories. But I admit that my reading was less one of constant moving joy that pushed me from page to page. Even when I was captivated by the imagery and associations, these provoked contemplation but not turning the page.

Cover of the New York Review of Books edition of this book.
Cover of the New York Review of Books edition

“The Pederson Kid” certainly confounded my expectations, but I found that I neither appreciated the characters nor was terribly interested in what happened to them.

“Mrs. Mean” is what I think—in what little I know of him so far—Gass is best at. These reflections on suburban life and its dark, smelly underside, bouncing from one unexpected moment to the next. He particularly has a gift in approaching the pathos of old age, which surprises me because when he wrote this he was not an old man. Yet maybe it is just the way we imagine the old man.

“Icicles” is sad but fascinating in moments. This is also about the pathos of suburban life—what I once called prosaically “the suburban wasteland”—albeit following the daily mistakes of a foundering real estate agent.

“Order of Insects” is so peculiar: follows the slow transformation of the housewife into an entomologist. I really liked it a great deal. I wish I could say why in a compelling way, but both the descriptions of the insects as well as the slow transformation of the housewife into entomologist is scintillating. She begins with irritation and disgust and ends with love and fascination. And then there are just these sentences:

Corruption, in these bugs, is splendid.

(“Order of Insects,” 166)

“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” bears a funny, dare I say elliptical structure that is lovely and enchanting, like a chain of short prose poems connected to each other. The subtext is retirement from love and Gass’s restraint in that is quite amazing. So many of these short prose poems touches at some point on the skin of the lost beloved but they will not allow themselves to indulge in revelry.

I want to read The Tunnel next, but given my current caseload of readings, I am dubious about how soon that will happen.

Further Reading:

What have I written about other short stories?