In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

by William H. Gass
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In “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” Gass not only makes short lists of names and objects, but he also creates the very structure of the tale from his ingrained habit of list-making. The story, in brief, becomes a list of lists. There is no regular story line or even normal paragraphing but rather a series of journal-like entries, each one with its appropriate subtitle such as “People,” “Weather,” or “Place.” There is only one voice, that of the unidentified poet-narrator, who is living in the dismally boring town of B. . . , Indiana (identified in the preface to the whole volume, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, as Brookston, Indiana).

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As in Omensetter’s Luck, the texture of the world is composed of words and, particularly, of words turned into poem-like lists. There is again the preoccupation with names, including Mr. Tick, the narrator’s cat, and such hilarious names as “Gladiolus, Callow Bladder, Prince and Princess Oleo, Hieronymous, Cardinal Mummum, Mr. Fitchew, Spot.” The narrator also lists all the possessions of an old man in Brookston, a kind of pack rat who has saved everything, even the steering tiller from the first, old-fashioned car he owned.

The narrator is a saver of things, too, a poet without a lover or a job who painfully plods through each day, examining the minutest details of his environment (clouds, trees, buildings) until they become a kind of poetry. This process of saving things through documentation is especially evident in the entries marked “Data,” which culminate with a magnificent list of all the social clubs and civic organizations in Brookston, from the Modern Homemakers to the Merry-go-round Club. One theme that emerges clearly in this story is the idea that something can be so boring that it actually becomes interesting—if one has the artist’s eye and the ability to have “intercourse by eye.” Another theme is the loneliness and isolation (often self-imposed) of the American artist. In the preface, Gass observes, “The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene.”

Thus this famous story, for all of its well-articulated pain and loneliness, is ultimately a celebration of the power of art to elevate and transform even the plainest elements of a little Midwestern hamlet. “In the spring the lawns are green, the forsythia is singing, and even the railroad that guts the town has straight bright rails which hum when the train is coming,” the narrator says.

Summary

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Following the modernist tradition of elimination of traditional narrative line, this story could be loosely described as a series of thirty-six prose poems, repetitious in subject and title, connected only by two devices—the setting (a small midwestern town) and the first-person narrator. The shorter titles within the story at first glance seem quite straightforward: abstract, factual, almost guidebook dull. The longer titles tend to emphasize possessions of the narrator: “My House, This Place and Body.”

Closer inspection, however, reveals that the content of a given section may have only a tenuous connection with the title. In the “Politics” section, only five lines refer to the Cuban Revolution; the rest of the section attempts an extended and overstrained comparison of love and politics, which veers entirely out of control. At one time, the narrator may have only a sentence or two to say about his ostensible subject of the moment; at another, several paragraphs or pages. Nor do the topics recur in any definite pattern, but in an almost obsessively arbitrary one. In addition, the narrator’s implied objectivity often slips away, giving the reader several different versions of a place or a character. In short, if the reader does not fairly quickly grasp that the real story is the...

(The entire section contains 966 words.)

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