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My English Teacher's Son Won the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award

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Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish won the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award this week. I have nothing to say about the book, since I haven't yet read it. The writer's name gave rise to my subject. Reading it released a memory rush that's been cycling just behind my eyes ever since.

The author's father, Gordon Lish, trails a huge reputation for his days as a fiction editor at magazines and publishing houses, for his own writing, and for his teaching at Yale and Columbia--as this Guardian piece attests. He's also famous for flat-out pronouncements and slash-and-burn editing (most cited: excising half the words from Raymond Carver's early stories, bringing Carver both success and ambivalence, as detailed in this 2007 New Yorker article.

I met Lish half a century ago in a high school classroom in Millbrae, California. He was one of two teachers whose kindness helped me survive four years as a strange, arty, activist teenager in a suburban world I found entirely incomprehensible. Both teachers are inscribed in my memory because they were the first adults I met who looked at me and saw something other than an annoyance or a perpetual misfit.

(The online oracles brought me the news that the other teacher, Peter Seybolt, passed away a few years ago after a life of scholarship and good works. As I knew him in the sixties he was very young, earnest, intelligent: the teacher who let a few alienated kids gather in his classroom after hours to invent ourselves out loud, searching our hearts and venting our fears; the teacher who blushed when we talked about sex but let us do it anyway.)

During my school days students were tracked into classes based on testing and grades. In elementary school, you might be dubbed a bluebird or a robin, your species dictating the complexity of your reading assignments. Now I think the choices are mostly sink-or-swim or advanced placement, but perhaps that amounts to same-same. I ranked high on IQ and standardized tests, less so on grades, spending more of my time dreaming and drawing than studying. I met Lish when I attended a meeting of kids wanting to work on a publication; he was the faculty advisor. I think I was born knowing how to talk--lucky, lucky! He pulled me aside after the meeting, quizzed me on my classes, and soon I'd been transferred to a classroom filled with kids who wore glasses and toted slide rules, led by a teacher who chose not to kick me out for swearing in class or saying I was bored by the whaling lore in Moby-Dick. I remain grateful.

Lish had a good story for every occasion. I just googled one anecdote that has stuck with me for no reason I can comprehend, stuck fast all these years. In my recollection Lish told us that as a radio disk jockey, he'd barricaded himself in the studio to play a single song all day. If the November 27, 1954 issue of Billboard can be trusted, under the nom de radio Gordon Lockwood, Lish treated the listeners of WELI in New Haven to two hours of the obsessive lament "Let Me Go, Lover," a song that made the charts three times, by Joan Weber, Patti Page, and Teresa Brewer. I have no idea if the time discrepancy is my invention. Probably, but still, I imagine two days felt like all day to everyone involved.

Lish and a fellow teacher founded a literary magazine, Genesis West, which gathered writing and images from the Bay Area's cutting-edge and far beyond: from Merry Pranksters to Allen Ginsberg to Denise Levertov to Amiri Baraka. The summer after my junior year, Lish put on a kind of day-camp for bright students. My best friend and I signed up. We were taken on a series of trips to visit artists in their own habitat. I remember Ken Kesey in his Woodside cabin talking about Plastic Man; most of that conversation, as with so many of the others, went straight over my head until life gave me time to catch up to its double meanings, to understand why the adults had laughed or nodded knowingly. We spent time with the poet Jack Gilbert, serious and suffering over a woman; the collagist Jean Varda on his houseboat in Sausalito; the sculptor Ruth Asawa (who I came to know later) in her San Francisco studio.

Just before school let out that year, the school board, incensed by the transgressive words and images in Genesis West, voted to deny Lish tenure. A couple of other teachers quit over it. His students and admirers protested. There was media coverage. The impact for me was to reinforce my outrage at the hypocrisy of authorities who trumpeted freedom and practiced suppression. Lish went on to a stellar career, attaining literary heights that a longer tenure teaching high school might have impeded. As so often happens, a loss opened a path to a gain.

Flash-forward a dozen years. I've now forgotten the exact details, but a high-school classmate mentioned that he'd been in touch with both my hero teachers (always referred to as "Mr. Seybolt" and "Mr. Lish"). I was headed to New York for a project and wrote to Lish, who was then an editor at Esquire. I'm not sure why he invited me to stop by--curiosity, I suppose--because he didn't remember me and spent the few minutes while I sat on the other side of his desk going through his mail and taking phone calls.

Yet even that was instructive. I'd never had a chance before to experience the condescension I came to understand as characteristic of that milieu--not exactly the art world but the place where art and money meet and fall rapturously into each other's arms while looking over each other's shoulders for someone more interesting to embrace. And after that I knew to guard against believing dispatches emanating from a stroked ego, the ones that drown the part of you that used to hold everyone as equal, at least in potential.

"Let Me Go, Lover" by Joan Weber.


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