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A Man’s World

ISSUE:  Winter 1996
The Way We Know in Dreams. By Gordon Weaver. Missouri. $24.95.

Although Gordon Weaver has garnered many honors—among them the St. Lawrence Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, the O. Henry First Prize, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the Quarterly West Fiction Prize, the Novella Prize, and a Pushcart Prize—this author of four novels (one adapted for the motion picture Cadence) and six previous collections of short stories is not as well known as he deserves to be. That has been the fate of most American writers committed to the briefer genre, which some critics even now consider less worthy than long fiction. Weaver’s own long fiction reflects this commitment, since Give Him a Stone and Circling Byzantium were merged and expanded story groups, while The Eight Corners of the World began as a series of shorts. With the recent appearance of a seventh collection, The Way We Know in Dreams, he became the author of nearly one hundred published stories, and, more importantly, confirmed his status as a contemporary master of this difficult yet underrated form.

Gordon Weaver was born on Feb. 2, 1937 in Moline, Illinois, but he grew up in Milwaukee and upstate Wisconsin. Therefore, it should surprise no one that the new collection is framed by selections treating these locations: the first, “Fearing What Dreams?,” unfolds near Silver Lake, and the last two, “Modern History” and “Lie-A-Form’a,” mention Milwaukee’s Riverside High and Hartford Elementary. A couple of stories occur in Stillwater and its environs, where, at Oklahoma State, Weaver taught creative writing and edited the Cimarron Review. Most of the other tales constituting The Way We Know in Dreams have no specific locale, are “generalized,” yet they too reflect Middle America.

This microcosm was fashioned by a well-educated individual, an English professor who received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1961, his M. A. from the University of Illinois in 1962, and his Ph. D. from the University of Denver in 1970. Hence Weaver’s tendency to preface fictions with epigraphs, many Biblical. During Men Who Would Be Good (1991), the collection preceding The Way We Know in Dreams, he drew upon Timothy, T.S. Eliot, Edward Taylor, Dostoyevsky and Ezekiel, while during the later volume, he cites Shelley, Arthur Miller, Zelda Fitzgerald, Kings, Book of Common Prayer and Wallace Stevens. Genesis 18:32, which introduced Men Who Would Be Good, suggests its concentration on the destruction of present-day America as a latter-day Sodom, where, throughout the final story, several natural disasters happen. But Richard Wilbur’s “The Eye,” which introduces The Way We Know in Dreams, directs us to the act of observation itself, concluding “. . .and that my eye should flutter there, / By shrewd promotion, in the outstretched air, / An unseen genius of the middle distance, / Giddy with godhead or with nonexistence.” One later selection, “Bunce’s Neighbors,” whose epigraph comes from Death of a Salesman (“attention must be paid”), features an insurance agent-cum-Peeping Tom. He spies on acquaintances occupying his cul-de-sac, records their intimate activities, and, echoing the nameless lawyer’s “Ah, humanity!” in Bartleby, the Scrivener, exclaims, “Oh the Humanity”

The other protagonists of Men Who Would Be Good and The Way We Know in Dreams are also middle-aged WASP males who work at middle or upper-middle income jobs to support dissatisfied wives and obnoxious children. During the earlier collection, they appear as alienated from this nuclear family and members of the community— including their own counterparts—through the curse of awareness that causes excessive drinking, game playing, letter writing, dreaming, weeping, and even prophesying. Only a remembrance of things past provides them with continuity. Awareness and continuity, though still visible, seem to be less central in the present collection, where alienation becomes divorce.

For example, the plight of the “new” Parker of “Fearing What Dreams?” is quite different from that of the “old” Parker of “Parker Lacrimans.” Despite uncontrollable weeping over “[a]ll that is, has been, will be,” the original character remains with wife Marian, daughter Jolene and son Stevie, while the subsequent Parker leaves a wife and two boys in Chicago to return “home” to the summer cottage of his deceased parents on Silver Lake. The three Bs—T. Boone Boggs (“The American Dream: The Book of Boggs”), Bunce, and Batteiger (“Batteiger’s Muse”)—end up living alone, the last as a failed writer now doing hack work. Their wives have fled, Mrs. Boggs with a Mexican gardener, and the Bunce/Batteiger spouses with daughters.

Except in the Boggs story—a travesty of both “The American Dream” and the Bible’s Book of Job—where the outcome is determined by God and Satan, psychological factors motivate most Weaver protagonists. Batteiger moves from delusion to delusion while his personified Muse, the strumpet Alma Jean, grows larger and larger. Once voyeur Bunce, “instinctive seeker after epiphanies, “discovers the actual vulnerability beneath the superficial masks of fellow Nottingham Estates residents—a seemingly perfect family named Kintner, a feminist nun Sister Mary Angelica Hanrahan, a Bohemian poetess Megan McClard, and a typical academic Professor Wendell Mayo—he discards his own “supremely dull, mundane persona” to embrace humankind. We last see him in the empty cul-de-sac screaming, “Come out! Come out! Come out! Come out!” The tale that follows, “Elegy for Orrin Bodine II,” treats yet another protagonist whose surname starts with B, this one suffering from mid-life crisis that gradually leads to self-induced “imminent termination” on his 50th birthday.

All four of these stories are narrated in the third person. However, if we exclude the comic satire, “Poet-In-Residence,” it is the more intimate first-person narratives scattered throughout the text which explore agitated states in depth. The framework selections, “Fearing What Dreams?” and “Lie-A-Fornia,” like “The Way You Know in Dreams” and “Modern History,” juxtapose past (the 40’s and 50’s) and present, since, as Parker comments, “”[M]y trouble is I don’t have any roots any more. I’m beginning to wonder if I ever did. What I want to do is figure out something to do for the rest of my life.”” “Fearing What Dreams?” ends with him protesting too insistently that he is “not afraid to die” nor afraid of “any dreams I may have.” “Lie-A-Fornia’s” protagonist, adolescent Clarence Hale Cross, “was the biggest, most outrageous liar” his narrator had ever known, presumably because of a grimly drab homelife. Now, 40 years later, this same narrator admits, “I would be hard pressed to distinguish what, of all I remember, was truth, what falsehood,” yet Clarence Hale Cross, from whom he might have learned, remains “clear, exact, tangible among all the abstractions.”

The narrators of “The Way You Know in Dreams” and “Modern History” are nameless too, but their tales involve violence. A Vietnam veteran recalls waiting to be rotated home from “Division’s repo depot . . .near An Loc” in the first. This account is not entirely reliable as several allusions—often defensive, often veiled—indicate that his ongoing “disability” signifies mental illness, since he was among those removed from “the field early” to “avoid problems” over some “situation.” Whenever interviewed, then or now, the narrator has always played dumb; yet we surmise from one session led by a doctor who asks, “”do you know anything of family structure in a hamlet like An Wan?” “that the “situation” affected people the American soldiers called “dinks.” He therefore develops deep antipathy toward talk, which eventually encompasses VA counselors and “professional whiners.” His refusal to communicate is no doubt reflected by two broken marriages after discharge, a pattern of separation that began in the service and continues back home, where “I never see my brothers and their families, much less all the cousins I was so close with growing up.” Instead, he now pays “attention to dreams,” believing “I’ll learn something in a dream I can’t find out otherwise, anywhere, from anyone.” This has already happened, if only subconsciously, through his dream about Uncle Roy when stationed at repo depot. Depicting them alone together during a family reunion, the dream, along with several early exchanges, helps the narrator to intuit their secret sharer relationship. Uncle Roy, an otherwise reticent relative whose mysterious past included “a stint in the Navy” and “gamblers’ games,” once virtually admitted killing some cheat while playing “”cutthroat poker” “off Borneo. Under his tutelage, the guilty narrator studied Morse Code, which, like dreams, is a non-verbal mode of communication.

“Modern History” begins, “The most memorable episode in my life involves a man—a high school boy—named John Henry Ruttman. I say memorable, not significant, because the episode was so horribly inexplicable beneath its surface that significance—import, meaning—is absolutely unimaginable.” Now middle-aged, the anonymous male author of these sentiments claims “blind chance” brought him as “a first-semester freshman” and Ruttman as “a senior” together in 1951. After they nodded at each other one Friday night during a basketball game, the narrator would never experience “that stay of peace and security against whatever confused or frightened or frustrated me . . .the tangible certainty that I knew who and what I was,” for Ruttman had just murdered mother, sister and brother over something trivial. Public events—wars, riots, assassinations, economics, politics, drugs, diseases, and so forth—stopped making any sense. Private life became irrational too. Why did his parents divorce “after nearly forty years of marriage,” then die “painfully” and “slowly?” And, he also asks, “Is there some reason my son drowned on his eleventh birthday, my daughter married a very bad man she will not abandon? What made me think it right to marry again, a bad woman who abandoned me?” Described as “impenetrable” and “inscrutable,” John Henry Ruttman clearly symbolizes existence itself.

“The Way You Know in Dreams” and “Modern History” effectively illustrate Thomas E. Kennedy’s contention that “[a]t the core of [Weaver’s] fiction is a fascination with the mystery of time, and what he seems to find within that mystery is the key to identity. Weaver approaches the process of time via the moment, the point of temporal intersection of past, present, and future” (Dictionary of Literary Biography). Some comic stories, besides many serious ones, reflect this, especially a hilarious academic satire titled “The Apotheosis of Neddie Hacke.”

It precedes “Batteiger’s Muse” because both title-characters are “hacks,” one in the pedagogical world and one in the literary world. A small, asexual, 40-year-old “twerp” with “pale face, mousy hair, and nondescript clothes,” “Neddie”—as his opposite Weber, a family man and a brilliant scholar, calls him—rises rapidly from untenured assistant professor of history to dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at some unspecified, microcosmic university. That he possesses “average intelligence” and mediocre credentials, that he “managed to publish only two short book reviews, neither of them peer-juried,” and that he has rated “only satisfactory” classroom evaluations do not hinder him. Indeed, the protagonist, according to ironic Weber, who foresees Neddie’s ascension, was the “”odds-on”” favorite because “ “least qualified.”” The English professor explains, “”Man, they start bringing in outsiders, they might goof, get some now and then with actual ability, actual records of achievement.”“Aside from “strikingly handsome” Richie Potter, Neddie had no real competition, since Sister Mary Hammer was a renegade “uncloistered nun” with feminist and Freudian views, and Dr. Ravi Singh, Director of International Studies, possessed “the wrong hue” and talked “like Gunga Din.” So Hacke is chosen, Affirmative Action notwithstanding, by the “”representative bozos”” on the handpicked “”search committee,”’” “[s]olitary, unresponsive, diligent, competent” Hacke, who gladly mouths the platitudes The Prez, the Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and the rat-like incumbent Dean Sammy Holly all expect. Then he joins these “‘home grown’ ”administrators characterized as “”dorks, nerds, semicompetents, time-servers, trimmers, [and] orifice osculators,”” at his “formal ceremony of investiture,” where Neddie Hacke the betrayer of one alcoholic colleague already, silently vows “to straighten Professor Weber [Weaver?] out,” that rebel whose axioms—for example, “”the easiest way to make enemies is show ambition, energy, or accomplishment!” —reveal “the sham and fraud at the heart of academic life.”

This same “sham and fraud” extends to other professions. Organized religion becomes Weaver’s target in “The American Dream: The Book of Boggs,” where we encounter not only God and Satan, but also the Crystal Palace of God’s People and Reverend Dr. Vardis Klemp (author of Corporate Capitalism: God’s Way?)—who are as fair game as the two Sister Marys.

Both Establishment and Anti-Establishment come under fire during “Poet-in-Residence.” Here, Darcy works for “Acme. . .a multinational corporation.” Reiterating “Poetry is discipline,” he considers himself the real thing even though his appearance, apparel, routine, and education more nearly fit the typical young business executive. Ordinary poets may look the part, yet they are actually “pretenders,” among them, hairy Prinslow, braless Patty Malone, masculine Stephanie (a.k.a. Stan) Dykstra, and bald Leonard and Linda Seilig. Much to our surprise, Darcy commands a wide variety of poetic forms and techniques, which he-amusingly applies to office documents.

This corporate world is attacked again in “Immediate Review”: “the process whereby middle-management-level personnel in the employ of Unitron, Inc. (to include all subsidiary divisions: Unitech, Unifab, Univend, Uniserve) may elect to bypass established evaluation/promotion procedures,” according to the jargon-filled Unitron Personnel Manual that the story repeatedly invokes. Thirty-six-year-old Leff (“Leffie”)—husband of Jill and her five cloned daughters, all of whose names also begin with J—is Public Relations Specialist Grade III in Unitron’s Uniserve Division. Wanting “”to count for something,” “he undergoes said process in order to determine “the current market value of his grief.”

Leff’s grief encompasses an unsatisfactory homelife as well as an unrewarding job. He and Jill cannot “generate a human center” for their children, so the latter’s lives contain, instead, the expensive “trivia of culture: plastic and graphic arts, dance, music, mime.”Marital incompatability and familial discontent are aggravated by the “politically correct” females at work; for instance, Nadine Archibald: “Her hair cut reminded him of the barbering done on Marine Corps recruits; enormous earrings dangled close to the padded shoulders of her jacket; though her eyelashes were black with mascara, she wore no lipstick or nail polish; when she smiled at Leff he saw her very small, very sharp teeth.” Many heartless wives and aggressive (or pretentious) career women populate Men Who Would Be Good and The Way We Know in Dreams, yet none emerges as a major character.

Currently, when middle-aged, middle-income white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males represent the preeminent cultural villain, this author has chosen to explore their humanity. Often they are viewed as victims of women and children, of corporations and other institutions, of history and mid-life crises. Sometimes such alienated figures end up alone, looking back upon a simpler past where extraordinary connections like Uncle Roy, John Henry Ruttman, and Clarence Hale Cross embodied the unknown future. Several suffer from angst in an unrecognizable present whose other inhabitants blame them for every private and public ill. Less frequently, these protagonists become self-deluded fools fostering the “sham and fraud” that define contemporary American life. Weaver’s double perspective gives his fiction both thematic complexity and tonal variety, making what might otherwise be a rather static man’s world richly layered. As Richard Wilbur’s “eye,” he is indeed “[a]n unseen genius of the middle distance.”


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