previous chapter
First Prize
next chapter

First Prize

Although I didn't know it at the time, the title of Douglas Woolf's first novel, The Hypocritic Days , comes from a poem of Emerson's, "Days":

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands . . .

It's a curious beginning, this echo of a determinedly New England root, for a story that has to do with the LA aches and pains of becoming a so-called person. But that's not really its point either. Better (again Emerson)—"Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind . . ." Or—"Give me truths; / For I am weary of the surfaces, / And die of inanition . . ." There has been persistently in Douglas Woolf's writing an unremitting judgment of the grotesque banality of such "surfaces" and a remarkably tender allowance of those trapped 'between,' as it were, a nonexistent 'top' and 'bottom.'

Anyhow! My own relation to this all begins with getting in the mail in Mallorca, sometime in mid '54, the manuscript of the novel. I had (and still have, in obvious ways) a disposition that wanted one of each , and the fact we had published, as The Divers Press, (my) short stories, several collections of poetry (Paul Blackburn, Irving Layton, Martin Seymour-Smith, who was my initial collaborator on the press, and Katue Kitasono, in his own translation), and a kind

The Review of Contemporary Fiction 2, no. 1 (Spring 1982).


of belles-lettres, Olson's Mayan Letters , meant we now needed a novel to prove the range of our competence and serious intent. So at least I thought, and reading Douglas Woolf's novel, I recognized the very lucky coincidence of what we both wanted.

But so much more—corny as that will sound. I don't know about you, like they say, but remember this was the first novel I'd published. (Apropos, there's a story of Thomas Seltzer, the publisher, which Henry Wenning told me years ago—he was trying to compliment Mr. Seltzer on his exceptional list of authors, e.g., D. H. Lawrence, but Seltzer kept demurring, saying that they were simply the only ones he could get.) I don't recall that The Divers Press paid anybody anything—it was my first wife's modest income that kept any of it going—and so our choices had to be limited to writers as existentially defined as ourselves. Later I came to know that Douglas Woolf had literally rejected a patrimony that would have made things much easier, although the presumption is large (and offensive). I think he forever rejects any situation that 'signs him up,' 'provides for him,' makes his own qualifications and responses necessarily secondary to the 'big one'—whatever. His book was very good. Somehow one had not anticipated that, something out of the air, nowhere, so extraordinary, so specifically written :

 . . . But then it invariably happened, as it now did, that his father smiled at him with the appearance of such genuine fondness that he was compelled to admit if any love at all were in this room it was he himself who at the moment aped it.

It's twenty-five years later and the people of this painful rite of passage stay vividly in mind: the dwarf father, Chick; the senile Uncle Sam with his upside-down flag; the sort of Beach Boys gang, who make a usefully puerile company for their crippled fellow, Lloyd; Mr. Lippincott, Lloyd's father—who's responsible for the ending; his mother, faint and inept; Charles' girl friend, Jan. His friends Rollo and Billy Hart. Even the way the pornography Mr. Lippincott apparently switched into a usual film has a gritty, unexpected tenacity: "At first his stunned mind wanted to believe the girl had merely ducked her head to nibble a banana, a large, ripe banana the man held in his fist."

Possibly it's the fact that Douglas Woolf has a tone, always, of wry, persistently awake question, of a superficially bland but harshly abrasive content. Ed Dorn writes very usefully of his work: " . . . satire is only one of the pointed elements. And even then, taking the dictionary as a guide, irony is more the important rule for him.


A dissembler of speech . . ." ("The New Frontier," Views , p. 57). There is no way off its hook, no shared laugh that lets it all fade out, which, significantly, is the title of his second novel—which has the one happy ending I recall, of sorts at least. Again—certainly as age approaches—one will not forget simply the hero's trying to sell Xmas cards with his crony, or the awful, graceless, unremitting and unfair battle he has with his granddaughter, Gloria. There is a way in which Douglas Woolf vindicates the mawkish American pitch of "Give me your etc etc"—he gives them deathless representation at least, the old, the mad, the hopeful, the fucked up. There's nothing funny about it, no matter one laughs.

Given there's more and more, and will be, and that the times now move to some convenient epiphany of Woolf's World, I'd like to think of the honors he might be afforded, i.e., I think we can afford them, at last. Of all the others of his various company, from Wyndham Lewis to Nathaniel West, from Socrates to Sorrentino, there is no one quite like him, so quiet, so quick, so gentle on your mind, so truly at your throat. Let's give him everything .


previous chapter
First Prize
next chapter