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A READING LIFE

Poet, novelist, astute chronicler of Appalachia

With writers we follow, each new book affords us the chance, indeed impels us, to reconsider the body of the writer's work, which becomes ever richer; our pleasure is redoubled.

Fred Chappell is one of those writers revered by their peers yet poorly known among general readers, one of the few equally valued as poet and novelist.

Louisiana State University Press has just published in tandem Chappell's latest collection of poems, "Backsass," and an anthology, "More Lights Than One: On the Fiction of Fred Chappell," edited by Patrick Bizzaro. The latter is more or less a companion piece to Bizzaro's earlier "Dream Garden: The Poetic Vision of Fred Chappell," also from LSU Press. And together, they've had me thinking quite a lot about Chappell.

"Backsass" is a collection of humorous poems. Not that "Ole Fred," as he often refers to himself, hasn't always been funny. He's just rarely been so in such concentration, offering us titles like "Someone Told Me Death Can't Take a Joke," "Down With Democracy," and "The Nothing Which Is Not Poetry." Two long poems are "imitations" of Juvenal satires, as when in "The Sorrows of Intellectual Life" he writes:

Perhaps you'd speech-write for a senatorWhose whole vocabulary totals fourAnd whose political ideas are suchFour little words attire them overmuch.

Poems spoken by an answering machine bookend the volume:

I am Fred's answering machineI have many of the answersFred has noneso you better talk to me

In another, a man wakes on New Year's Day with a hangover he realizes is the same one he had last year at this time.

it had aged a year and thataccounted for most of the changesthough obviously it had grownno wiser with the passage of time. . .a jaded thing it was these dayscynicalfor 365 days in a rowevery promise made to it

had been broken

The collection ends as it began:

I am Fred's answering machine You would not have dialed this number againunless you had dialed many othersand were disappointed with their answers. . . don't call here again

"More Lights Than One" contains 13 very readable essays by the likes of R.H.W. Dillard, George Hovis, and John Lang; a poem by Kelly Cherry; a foreword by Robert Morgan; and a concluding essay by Fred himself. Poet, essayist and critic, novelist, teacher -- Chappell has had a rich and varied career. His seems a quiet life, one which Chappell gently mocks in his poem "Rimbaud Fire Letter to Jim Applewhite," in interviews, and, here, in "Too Many Freds." ("I must think that any reader who would pursue the eluctable Fred through so many combinations and permutations must be in dire need of recreation.")

Chappell's early novels were grotesques of a sort. In "It Is Time, Lord" (1963), James Christopher quits his job to sit about reading, drinking, and despairing, pretending to write the story of his life while recognizing that "there is no story to tell, there is only a story to look for," and while another James struggles to wake within. "The Inkling" (1965) pairs a brother who represents will and a retarded sister who embraces all experience ("let it come down") in a Southern Gothic tale of transgression, seduction, and murder. Peter Leland in "Dagon" (1973) is a preacher repulsed by the material world; in the novel's course he loses his faith, kills his wife, and finally abandons his very humanity. With "The Gaudy Place" (1973) and its tale of a 14-year-old street hustler, the young prostitute he loves, her politically ambitious pimp, an idealistic teenager, and that youth's uncle, a gangster and political boss, Chappell turned away from the wrought interiors of earlier novels to look at Appalachian society head on.

Chappell himself isn't overly fond of those first novels, noting their "claustrophic feeling" and an air of determinism he couldn't shake. They are novels, as Hovis herein accedes, "dominated by a fascination with alienation, social disintegration, and degenerating states of the self." Yet they are, for all that -- make no mistake of it -- fine, well-fashioned novels.

Lines from "Rimbaud Fire Letter to Jim Applewhite" echo the change in Chappell's work:

I watched the mountains until the mountains touchedMy mind and partly tore away my fire-redVision of a universe be- smirched

Wherewith Fred Chappell becomes the voice of his beloved Appalachia, giving full witness to its people, its living language, its richness and poverty, its community. Tapping into the magical qualities of the folk tales around which he grew up. Mixing the tragic and comic as Faulkner did, as fellow Southerner Donald Harington does. In one story a man goes everywhere with the coffin he has built for himself, and will sleep only inside it. Elsewhere whiskers, freed from beneath bib overalls, fill the bedroom and take to the stairs. The letter announcing another's death in the Army reappears again and again, no matter what is done to it.

Chappell's major work is an octet of volumes including the Bollingen Prize-winning "Midquest" and the four novels of the Kirkman tetralogy. The former gathers four collections published from 1975 to '80 by LSU Press: "River," "Bloodfire," "Wind Mountain," and "Earthsleep." The Kirkman novels are "I Am One of You Forever" (1985), "Brighten the Corner Where You Are" (1989), "Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You" (1996), and "Look Back All the Green Valley" (1999), the first published by LSU Press, the remainder by St. Martin's/Picador.

Rooted deeply in Appalachian culture, these books give the whole of the arc of a man's life: his growth from child to adulthood, those he grew up among (who find voice both in the novels' characters and as narrators of poems), the larger community, his slow knowledge of the world outside. What we have, finally, is the fullest, richest possible portrait of a very particular place and time -- and of one particular heart, its compass, its girth and grace.

James Sallis's collection of recent stories, "A City Equal to My Desire," and a "James Sallis Reader" containing novels, stories, essays, and poems will be out late this year.

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