Death and So Forth: Stories by Gordon Lish

The writer and editor Gordon Lish, who sometimes goes by the sporty nickname “Gordo” in his autobiographical short stories, was also known way back when as “Captain Fiction.”

I knew him during that time. He worked then, beginning in the 1970s, as an editor at Esquire and later at Knopf, where he was famous for spotting talent and bolstering it. He published a great gang of writers’ early works this way—Raymond Carver’s, Barry Hannah’s, Amy Hempel’s—including my own first book of stories.

I still have some of the manuscripts he edited. They are covered in cross-outs, some whole pages long, and copious handwritten changes and additions. An uncannily gifted literary psychologist, Lish saw through my youthful scribblings to my incipient alter ego, my equivalent of his wily Gordo, and he helped me find a style, a persona, that sounded even more like me than I did.

The writer and editor published the early work of Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, and others.

Now, at 87, feeling closer to his end than to his beginning and thrilled by the morbid drama of it all, Lish has written Death and So Forth, a new book of stories about Gordo that drops the curtain on his long performance. Or so the old vaudevillian would have us think. When a legendary rascal such as Lish puts death in the title of a book about a super-rascal such as Gordo, you can be sure he intends to live forever and is engaged in a Tom Sawyer–like prank, attending his own funeral in disguise.

A Pitchman and His Spiel

The book kicks off as its leading man, its star, seated at his trusty Underwood typewriter, launches into a jazzy song-and-dance that’s part Neal Cassady, part Damon Runyon, part Borscht Belt comic on a late-night roll. He’s a salesman, he tells us, a “pitchman” with a “spiel,” and the stories to come are the restless overflow of a washed-up seducer who can’t give up the chase, a rusty motormouth who can’t shut up.

Addressing us from “the gatherment of shadow,” better known as death’s door (cue the tiny violins!), old Gordo begs our pity and understanding for the amusements he’s about to offer, about which even he has doubts—he claims.

The reader should not believe him. Not now, not ever. Some of the old scamp’s best stories are ahead, as he well knows, which explains the undersell.

He begs our pity and understanding for the amusements he’s about to offer, about which even he has doubts—he claims. The reader should not believe him.

“Naugahyde” is a tale, done nearly all in dialogue, of a passionate undercover romance between a charming pair of sparring narcissists, both of whom seem at least as interested in language as in romance. While laboring to remember and relive their intense covert couplings on a certain armchair, they repeatedly veer off into fine points of grammar and usage. The liveliness of their verbal intercourse suggests in an indirect yet vivid way the pace and character and rhythms of their physical encounters.

“Oh, please,” she said. “Can’t you grow up?” she said.

He said, “You know how old I am?”

She said, “It’s hopeless.” She said, “You’re hopeless.”

“That’s not how you felt on the chair,” he said.

“You want to know what I felt on the chair?” she said.

He said, “Make it good and hard and tough and mean and as callous as you can. Show me your stuff,” he said. “Do unto me as you did unto me on the chair,” he said.

Lish and his writings, photographed by Bill Hayward.

Gordo, who once made himself unpopular by proving to the world, with documentation, that “the great Raymond Carver,” without his editing, might have been “the quite good Raymond Carver,” knows that a lot of his readers are also writers, eager to glean from him insights into the craft.

In “Grief-2nd Pass,” he caters to their interests by turning a depressing anecdote about an injury to his late wife into a self-conscious literary spiral of revisions, reflections, and remembrances. On a literal level, his wife is bleeding, her head cracked open from a fall, but such is Gordo’s artistic self-absorption that the grim scene is forgotten while we attend to his struggles to put it into words. A ghoulish man! But aren’t all writers ghoulish, turning blood into ink and describing pain for pleasure? Like Gordo perched on his stool at his old Underwood, they turn their backs to the world and face the page, to which they are more loyal than they are to their own kin.

“Look, for my money, it’s all show business,” Gordo declares in a piece on Harold Bloom, the fabled Yale literary critic and one of the author’s late, lamented pals. He’s outlived a lot of them, and he’s happy to let us know it—Ken Kesey and Denis Johnson, to name a couple—because that’s what it means to be a man of letters of Lish’s still-consciously manly generation: you toast the ones who go before in the hopes that the ones who survive you will toast you.

And so, from an old disciple, an old student: Here’s to Gordo!

He’ll outlast us all.

Walter Kirn is the author of the novel Up in the Air, which was adapted into a movie starring George Clooney. His latest book is Blood Will Out