Tuesday, September 16, 2008


A Man on the Moon

In 1989 I was in the MFA fiction program at U Arizona for about 5 minutes. I was 20 years old, sort of making me the Doogie Howser of the program -- which was cute until I discovered that being underaged in an MFA program is like getting locked out of the best classroom on campus. I soon left.

But while I was in Tucson, there were two names always spoken with reverence. The first was that of Edward Abbey, the program director who'd died just days before my first visit to the campus; the second was a guy named Dave Wallace. He'd come brilliantly alive: he'd finished the program recently, after publishing his first book while still in the program, and just that week had published his second collection. Understand that to MFA students, this achievement was like landing on the moon. We were in awe. Somewhere in the department office there was a display with a new copy of The Girl With Curious Hair, and when I'd walk past, it was like looking at a photo of Neil Armstrong.

Wow, I'd think. That man has walked on the moon.

And the thing is, he kept walking. When his Harper's nonfiction pieces ran in 1994 and 1996, you could see a genre being reborn. By then I was living in San Francisco, struggling hopelessly with a novel that a publisher was hemming and hawing over, and the moment I read those pieces it was like... Good god, you can do that with nonfiction? John Hodgman just put a lovely appreciation of Wallace and his cruise ship piece up on his blog, and I think he best expresses what many of us felt back then. Writers remember those Harper's issues the same way another generation recalls seeing Tom Wolfe in Esquire for the first time.

I still think you can date a literary era from those Harper's pieces. And while I won't claim that Wallace laid all the track for the amazingly inventive nonfiction of the last decade, I know this much: when we laid those articles side by side and put our ears to the rails, we could hear the train coming.

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