Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mark Harris

I often think I should write more fan letters to authors who’ve been important to me. In our increasingly nonliterary time, I’m guessing that even fairly well-known writers don’t hear that much from their admirers. So a few days before Christmas in 2006, having recently reread Mark Harris’s book Twentyone Twice, I sent an email to his address at Arizona State University. I didn’t hear anything, which didn’t surprise me, but it was a bit of a shock not long ago when I looked him up and discovered he had died, a few months after my email. Perhaps Mark Harris wasn’t a major writer, but to me he was an intriguing and endearing one. I felt an additional connection because we shared a birthday. The author of several baseball novels, including Bang the Drum Slowly, he had also written two works of nonfiction that I liked even better. Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck was an attempt at biography, with the eager Harris pursuing his old friend but elusive subject Bellow. (The title is from Robert Frost’s poem about a woodchuck that “dives under the farm” when pursued.) Inevitably, the book becomes as much about Harris and his quest as it is about Bellow, and we experience all the trials and humiliations of the biographer, as he struggles with his attraction to Bellow’s various girlfriends and ex-wives and with the unreliability of his subject and his own memory. (Consulting his notes, he finds that one dinner conversation was either about Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich or the radical writer Ivan Illich, author of Medical Nemesis.) Twentyone Twice was about Harris’s improbable mission to Africa, to check out the performance of some Peace Corps volunteers. (In my email, I had asked Harris to confirm that his fictional country of Kongohno was actually Sierra Leone.) Subtitled “A Journal,” this funny and rambunctious account was apparently a small slice from an enormous personal journal that Harris had been keeping for decades, and mailed out in sections to a small circle of friends. Harris’s papers are now at the University of Delaware, and I hope that more of the journal will someday see the light of day.

No comments: