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An Owner's Manual
I’ve long entertained the fancy that someday I would see all my favorite stories artfully assembled—by me, of course—in a single volume, but that pipe-dream took on new urgency when I realized that my book A Congress of Wonders—comprised of three novella-length stories including “Finch’s Song,” the story I want to be represented by when I stand before that Great Literary Panel in the Sky—had gone completely and permanently out of print. Eek!
That’s when Counterpoint—in the person of Jack Shoemaker—leaped into the breach with the opportunity to put together this collection, allowing me not only to salvage the Congress stories but also to showcase them in company with my other personal-best choices. I Just Hitched In from the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader is a gathering of fourteen previously published stories, an admixture of fiction and non-fiction, memoir and imagination. The three Congress of Wonders stories—which are inter-connected, especially by the presence in all three of my favorite character, Rev./Prof./Dr. Philander Cosmo Rexroat—provide a sort of narrative backbone for this assemblage of otherwise pretty disparate pieces, written as they were over a span of more than forty years.
But in fact there’s an intricate web of connective tissue betwixt and amongst the other stories, too: There’s a coming-of-age subtext, a Sixties subtext, a rock-n-roll subtext, a country & western subtext, an academia subtext, and other subtexts too numerous to mention, subtexts I probably haven’t even thought of yet myself.
William Maxwell (in the epigraph to the book) says, "I would be content to stick to the facts, if there were any." If I were granted my fondest wish for this collection, it would be that my readers (if there are any) would read the book straight through, cover to cover, almost as though it were an autobiographical novel, which is by definition an indissoluble admixture of fact and fiction.
Even for me, I confess, it's often pretty hard to tell which is which. My writing more or less lives in the interface between experience and imagination; I like to say that my fiction is largely a re-imagined version of things that really happened in my life, whereas my non-fiction is to a considerable extent a pack of lies—because sometimes, as my friend Chuck Kinder says, "you just have to go where the story takes you."
While Tom Marksbury and I were deciding which pieces to include in the collection, we were also giving a great deal of thought to the order in which we wanted to present them. Tom and I have a good deal of experience in this line of work; we’ve already officially collaborated on two collections—one a gathering of my own work titled My Vita, If You Will (Counterpoint, 1998), the other a tribute issue of the late Ken Kesey’s self-published magazine, Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Kesey (Penguin, 2003)—and Tom also plays the ineffable Bodiless Head in The Congress of Wonders film, so we like to think we’ve learned a thing or three about how collaboration’s done.
Life may well be lahk a box of chawklits, but a book has to have its own raison d’être, or (better yet) several raisons. I realize that readers tend to cherry-pick their way through anthologies and collections like this one, but listen, folks, the reason a book has a front cover and a back cover is just so you’ll know where to start and when it’s over. Hey, it's a story, not a grab-bag of miscellaneous loose ends. And because it’s a story—and a long one at that—, it has, again by definition, a narrative arc, within which are many lesser narrative arcs, stories within stories within stories, leitmotifs and through-lines and back-stories crisscrossing each other like the fiery trails of far-away roman candles in the evening sky.
Moreover, although the stories aren’t presented in anything remotely resembling chronological order, chronology was nonetheless a major consideration in the selection and sequencing of the contents—because, for instance, sometimes a story or a portion of a story will turn up again as a sort of footnote (an afterthought, perhaps, or a parenthetical, or a lingering memory, or an echo) in a different story altogether. And of course one doesn’t want to let the footnote get ahead of the horse, thereby treading all over one’s own best lines. So that was another thing we had to bear in mind.
Then too, there are all those emotional peaks and valleys (some of which are of a precipitous description) in these fourteen stories, all those tonal crescendos and diminuendos, all those disparate, dissonant, sometimes discordant voices and extraneous noises to be orchestrated into a single coherent, purposeful composition, in the hope that, subliminally, those distant fireworks will be accompanied by a tiny celestial symphony.
Yes, you can go all higgledy-piggledy on us and read these stories piecemeal, in no particular order at all, and I’d like to think you’ll still find them rewarding. They’re pretty goddamn good stories, if I do say so myself (and I do, I do!), and of course I fervently hope you think so too. But the real rewards—if there are any—are in reading the book straight through, because if you listen very carefully as you read, you’ll hear the entire libretto of that aforementioned autobiographical novel, operatically rendered by a teensy-weensy Mormon Tabernacle Choir (I sing soprano and Tom is a basso profundo) backed by an itty-bitty New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Distant fireworks an extra added attraction.
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