This review originally appeared in Bookforum.
Most attentive readers of contemporary American fiction are probably aware of Stephen Dixon and his voluminous body of work, his plain-spoken expository style complete with serial run-on sentences and with paragraphs that might take up pages, his apparent use of his own autobiographical circumstances to slice off a seemingly inexhaustible supply of real-life episodes. They may even have read one or more of his myriad short stories (collected in at least a dozen volumes) or tried one of the novels—themselves frequently constructed out of what seem separate and self-sufficient stories—perhaps Frog (1991) or Interstate (1995), probably the two most well-publicized of Dixon’s books.
Such readers may have felt somewhat at a loss. How exactly to approach a writer whose prose is so clearly distinctive yet finally almost not prose at all, so free does it seem of obvious signs of craft, of any recognizable evidence of being composed at all? What to make of a narrative strategy that seems to revel in discontinuity and to defy good order, that features long stretches of snowballing exposition and undifferentiated dialogue? Is this Dixon’s own kind of obsessive realism, or, given their frequent focus on writer protagonists and discussions of writing, are these stories and novels really a version of metafiction, and thus essentially to be considered postmodern‖?
Unfortunately, curious readers won’t find much guidance from the reviews Dixon’s books have received, since they have often been equivocal, even contradictory, in answering many of these very questions. Moreover, except for Frog and the next few books following on its publication, Dixon—whose first book appeared in 1976—hasn’t really been reviewed much at all, intermittently at best. Even academic critics have been almost entirely neglectful.
Happily, the reader who picks the short novel Old Friends will have the opportunity to sample Dixon at his sharpest and distilled best. Old Friends provides a more or less straightforward account of the friendship between two writers. It manages, in fact, to depict this thirty-year friendship in a fully satisfying way over the course of 220 pages, relating its history in a series of salient episodes that evoke the relationship between these writers, Irv and Leonard, quite convincingly, if not through entirely orthodox means. Much of the action in Old Friends occurs in the form of telephone calls between the two, later between Irv and Leonard’s second and much younger wife (and former student) when Leonard begins to suffer from species of dementia induced by Lyme disease. Along the way, Irv listens to Leonard describe the various irresponsible behaviors that lead to the dissolution of his first marriage, and in its wake he helps Leonard find the teaching job he needs to support himself.
Both writers come off as prickly sorts, opinionated and not infrequently self-absorbed, which if anything makes the fact of their sustained friendship even more unlikely. Although the novel ultimately focuses on Irv’s attempt to deal with Leonard’s irreversible mental decline, Irv himself has his own problems: His wife is an invalid who requires his help to perform the most rudimentary daily activities. (This situation is common to many previous Dixon characters as well, suggesting it is a reflection of the author’s own circumstances, although it recurs so often one simply accepts it as an established feature of Dixon’s fictional world.) Their conversations suggest that Irv is a somewhat more successful writer than Leonard, but Irv also struggles with the various forces buffeting those who would take up the mostly thankless duties of the serious writer in America.
Ultimately, however, Dixon’s fidelity to what seems a kind of unstudied immediacy in the portrayal of character—unstudied, but surely not artless—serves him well indeed by the time we get to the novel’s final encounter between Irv and Leonard in the mental hospital to which Leonard’s wife, Tessie, has been forced to confine him. The man once possessed of nothing if not a clear sense of his own personality (flaws and all), the writer concerned most of all with the marshaling of language, can now summon up only a stream of unmoored words:
"Leonard," Irv says, going up to him after first approaching another patient in a chair he thought was Leonard, both of them pale and gaunt from not going out and just being sick, and that same loss of head hair, "how you doing?" and Leonard looks up, without seeming to recognize him, and then gives him a big smile and says "Hey, how are you, how’s it going, good to see you," and sticks out his hand and Irv shakes it. "Thanks for coming, but you didn’t have to, you know. I’ll be out of here before you leave yourself." "Very good; your humor, it never flags," and Leonard says "Oh, I’m a funny guy, all right. People always liked my jokes when I cracked them. They also liked to crack my nuts, but that’s a story we won’t go into. You’re a funny guy too, always funny, always cracking me up. But tell me, because I don’t want to be disrespectful to you or a fake, but what’s your name again?"
These final few pages of Old Friends are emotionally powerful in a way that is both well-earned and aesthetically convincing. The novel is a compelling and skillful, if idiosyncratic, work that should convince readers Dixon is a splendid literary artist. His deceptively transparent prose style and ingenuous manner ultimately reveal a writer examining the profound issues we all confront at some time in our own unavoidably prosaic lives.