Las Vegas, NV
May 20, 2020
Garrison Keillor hits Las Vegas with a new solo show!
April 18, 2020
Garrison Keillor comes to the Rochester Civic Theatre for a night of stories, songs, poetry, and humor. Tickets $50 and up
February 19, 2020
Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 2 of 2. Tickets $30+
February 18, 2020
Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 1 of 2. Tickets $30+
What Muskrat Tastes Like
by Jeff Coomer
During a lull in the conversation at my table,
I overhear one of the two well-dressed women
of a certain age sitting behind me say that
she recently spotted a rather large muskrat
swimming in the marsh near her summer house.
Her companion dabs her lips with her napkin
and observes that she’s eaten muskrat
on several occasions, both fried and in stews.
And what would you say it tastes like?,
the first woman inquires while swirling her wine.
Squirrel, the second woman responds
after the briefest of pauses for reflection.
Her answer impresses me as the kind I hope
to give when I’ve attained a certain age,
and one I’m especially grateful for on this night,
having just ordered the chicken.
“What Muskrat Tastes Like” by Jeff Coomer from A Buzzard in the Proper State of Deadness. © Last Leaf Press, 2018. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
He was 52 years old, and his two greatest novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), were behind him. He had found himself in a crisis—he was famous, had a family and land and money, but it all seemed empty. He was unable to write, had trouble sleeping, contemplated suicide. He read the great philosophers, but found holes in all of their arguments. He was amazed that the majority of ordinary Russians managed to keep themselves going every day, and he finally decided that it must be their faith. From there, it was a short time until Tolstoy took a walk in the woods and found God. He wrote: “At the thought of God, happy waves of life welled up inside me. Everything came alive, took on meaning. The moment I thought I knew God, I lived. But the moment I forgot him, the moment I stopped believing, I also stopped living.”
His wife Sophia was not so thrilled with his conversion. He renounced meat, sex, alcohol, fiction, tobacco, and the temptations of a family. He dressed like a peasant. He wanted to give all of his money away, but Sophia wanted to live what she considered a normal life, not to mention raise their 10 children.
Tolstoy made his first visit to Optina-Pustyn in 1877, a visit in which he apparently exhausted the chief starets—or community elder—with his questions. On this day in 1881 he set off on a second visit, and this time he decided that to be more like the common people, he would walk all the way there, dressed in his peasant coat and wearing shoes made out of bark. He was pleased with his spiritual guidance, but he wasn’t used to walking in bark shoes, so by the time he made it to Optina his feet were so covered in blisters that he had to take the train back home.
It’s the birthday of the man who said, “A novelist may lose his readers for a few pages; a playwright never dares lose his audience for a minute.” That’s playwright Terence Rattigan (books by this author), born in London (1911). He said he wrote for the common theatergoer, whom he called “Aunt Edna.” He said Aunt Edna was a “nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady, with time on her hands and money to help her pass it.” His plays include French Without Tears (1936), Flare Path (1942), and The Winslow Boy (1946).
It’s the birthday of Canadian-American novelist Saul Bellow (books by this author), born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec, Canada (1915). His Russian-Jewish parents immigrated to Canada from St. Petersburg in 1911. He found his way into literature after a respiratory infection left him bedridden for six months in Ward H of the Royal Victoria Hospital, where he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and pored over the Old Testament.
The family moved to Chicago, settling in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Though his father worked steadily as a bootlegger and delivering coal and importing Egyptian onions, Bellow’s childhood was poor. “I saw mayhem all around me,” he said. “By the age of eight, I knew what sickness and death were.” The self-described “slum kid, thick-necked and rowdy,” devoured Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe. He studied anthropology at Northwestern University, avoiding literature studies because he felt the department was anti-Semitic, but he couldn’t shake his desire to write. He said, “Every time I worked on my thesis, it turned out to be a story.”
Bellow landed in New York and became a Trotskyist, was rejected by the Army because of a hernia, and was training in the merchant marine when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He completed his first novel, Dangling Man (1944), while still in the service. His father disapproved of Bellow’s writerly aspirations, telling him, “It’s just writing, then erasing. What kind of profession is that?” He taught at the University of Minnesota, living humbly on Commonwealth Avenue in St. Paul, before winning a Guggenheim Fellowship and moving to Paris. It was in Paris that he composed The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the novel that made his name and introduced the character of Augie March, the first of what would become Bellow’s literary trademark: fast-talking characters with a passion for big ideas, suffering problems of the spirit. Augie March won the National Book Award.
Writing had always been a physical act for Bellow: he pounded the keys of his Remington so hard he soaked his clothes and had to peel them off one by one. Even injury could not keep him from his work: once he typed through a nosebleed, his face and T-shirt covered with blood. But with Augie March, something had changed. He wrote the book, he said, “in a purple fever,” longhand, on trains and in cafes. “I loosened up, and found I could flail my arms and express my impulses. I was unruly at first and didn’t have things under control, but it was a kind of spontaneous event. It was my liberation.”
Bellow went on to write Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Seize the Day(1956), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975), and received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976. Novelist Philip Roth called him “the backbone of 20th-century American literature,” though Vladimir Nabokov dismissed him as a “miserable mediocrity,” which Bellow shrugged off, saying, “Every time you’re praised, there’s a boot waiting for you.” He bought a farm in Vermont, wore bespoke suits with Turnbull & Asser shirts and a Borsalino hat. He married five women, divorcing four, and became a father for the last time at 84. He taught for 30 years at the University of Chicago, and when asked why he continued teaching long after he was financially successful, he answered: “You’re all alone when you’re a writer. Sometimes you just feel you need a humanity bath. Even a ride in the subway will do that. But it’s much more interesting to talk about books. After all, that’s what life used to be for writers: they talk books, politics, history, America. Nothing has replaced that.”
It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer James Salter (books by this author), born James Horowitz, in New York City (1925). He attended West Point and became a pilot in the Air Force. He flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War, and served as a squadron leader in Europe before retiring in 1957 to become a writer. His first two novels, The Hunters (1957) and The Arm of Flesh (1960), were based on his experiences as a combat pilot. Next came what he called “the first good thing I wrote,” A Sport and a Pastime (1967), a novel about the love affair between a Yale dropout living in Paris and a working-class French girl.