Books I was assigned during my MFA that I actually still like: Donald Antrim

Posted by @ 12:26 am on May 5th, 2009


At Bennington, one of the many excellent books that Amy Hempel put on my list for which I am now thankful was Donald Antrim’s ‘Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.’ At the time, I’d already read Antrim’s two other novels, the amazing ‘The Hundred Brothers’ (literally about one hundred brothers at a reunion) and ‘The Verificationist’ (an amazing piece of work, all of which is narrated by a man having an out of body experience at a pancake restaurant), but for some reason I’d skipped the first one. Amy made me go back and read it: it was still her favorite.

Among other things, Antrim’s first novel is a bit more raw around the edges, more wild and fucked and no-world made than the other two (which are both also pretty fucked). For all that there is to admire about the novel, the two things that still stand out most in my mind are among two of the most unusually narratively rendered scenes in contemporary fiction of the past 10 or so years. Antrim has a pretty amazing ability to tell stories that others would write off as ‘bonkers,’ and make them seem not only plausible, but plausible in a way that makes people who hate entirely plausible stories still down and like ‘I’m in.’

More after the jump.

Take this excerpt, from a scene early on in the book where a bunch of men in a neighborhood get together and essentially lynch a neighbor, tying him to their cars to draw and quarter him while the neighborhood looks on. Sounds ridiculous, but the way Antrim handles it, in a vein akin to Saunders, Shepard, or the like, but slightly odder, in an odd way, works so well I can still remember the scene inside a brain that forgets scene almost right after I read them:

But back to the Kunkel business. I can’t get it out of my mind. I keep seeing Jim’s face, lit red by taillights, in the long moments before the lines snapped taut, while Bill Nixon tried and retried to start his fume-spewing, out-of-tune Celica. It was all so profoundly uncomfortable; there was nothing to do but toe the grass and stare up at the stars in the sky, and listen to that revving and choking, and, of course, to Jim Kunkel, trussed, bound, spread out and spread-eagle on his belly, weeping. Heavy nylon test, the kind sport fishermen around here use to haul in tarpon, radiated from Jim’s wrists and ankles, ran across grass and Jim’s beautiful Japanese rock garden to the back bumpers of cars poised to travel different directions. I wanted to tell Jim it would be over quickly, that it wouldn’t hurt. In fact I suspected otherwise. I was particularly concerned over the use of fishing line for a heavy-stress operation like this. Leaders might hold, or snap, in any of a wide range of infuriating combinations. Success depended on a clean, even pull, with no lurching–just like hauling aboard a big fish.

After a while it became clear that Nixon’s engine was flooding; and, as well, the battery was at risk, grinding down, so Jerry Henderson wisely suggested, “Bill, give it a rest.” The other guys turned off their motors too. It was agreed to wait five minutes, then try again. By the shrubs, in the driveway, at road’s edge, men huddled: Jerry and Bill, Dick Morton, Abraham de Leon, Tom Thompson, Terry Heinemann, Robert Isaac. Did they hear Jim’s sobbing? It occurred to me to go to Jim and rest my hand on his shoulder, to hold him or wipe his forehead, possibly scratch an itch if he felt one. That seemed right. Yes. And to apologize: for the sentence, for the delay in carrying it out, for whatever.

The scene goes on from there, and leads into the other scene I vividly recall from this novel, a sex scene between the narrator and his wife in the backyard while she is gardening, which involves, among other small oddities, sex delivered in layered snippets of small dialogue like:


It continues in such fashion, building in its own way, and peppered with more Antrim things. Gotta see it to make sense, but it’s a refreshing rendering in a place where most nearly middle-aged white men would try to turn on the goose and sweat themselves in a boner that does not quite transfer through the page. Gross.

Anyhow, this is to say that if you haven’t checked out Antrim’s three novels, they are all three worth it, and unique in their own Antrim-ing.

Amy was also really into Antrim’s memoir ‘The Afterlife,’ about his mother’s death, which I just couldn’t quite feel as much, despite it having one of my favorite memoir chapters of all time, in which Antrim goes looking for the perfect mattress. It’s just something you have to read.

Not sure what’s up with Antrim now, it’s been a while since the memoir, though I imagine he has enough stories to put out a collection, at least? He’s one I always anticipate the next thing from, as it promises to be both a new stroke in the book of books, but also a shift in the fun of Antrim’s own sensibilities: a challenge-to-self for constant innovation while maintaining identity, which is certainly something to admire, if not strive for.

Looking back, I can say for sure that reading Antrim when I did made a huge impression on me, and certainly I think if not influenced me, at least came at a time (MFA-life) when I think I really needed to be reminded of ways of saying things new. Donald Antrim at the very least helped me figure out some of what fiction could do, and what I could do with it, all while being hilarious and fun and inspiring on its own time, and that in itself is a big ass gift.

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