Thursday, July 20, 2006
A.D. Winans reviews "Way, Way Off the Road" a memoir by Hugh Fox.
(Photo of: A.D. Winans.)
Way, Way Off The Road by Hugh Fox.
288 pages. Paperback. $l6.50
Ibbetson Street Press. Somerville, Massachusetts
I reluctantly agreed to review this book because Hugh Fox is a friend of mine, and perhaps more importantly because I’m mentioned in the book.
One of the back page blurbs says that Whitman in “Song of Myself only grazes the surfaces that Fox penetrates,” and goes on to say that Henry Miller “is demure compared to Fox.” Fox is no Whitman or Henry Miller. He is Fox, and that in it self should be enough without exaggerated hype.
I have known Fox for over thirty years and there is no denying that he has a certain charm and zaniness about him, which will no doubt appeal to many readers of the book. The book more or less begins with Fox (who was then a Professor of bonehead English at Michigan State University) discovering the works of Charles Bukowski (Hank) and learning that one can say in direct and clear language what academics clothe in words that all too often demand a trip to a dictionary. Fox pays Hank a visit and later writes a critical book on his work. Fox leaves the reader with the impression that Hank felt a certain kinship towards him. I knew and exchanged letters with Hank for eighteen years. Here is what Hank said in a letter to me about his meeting with Fox.
“Hugh Fox, as usual uses opportunity to advertise himself. That’s all right, if you have the talent to back up your words. Fox has traveled from universities in South America to here in the U.S. I went to his place one night. He taught at Loyola. “A Jew teaching at Loyola.” He took the money and hardly looked like he’d been living on tootsie rolls. If he ever took a physical beating, it must have been from his wife in the bedroom. Fox is a dreamer. He’s never known a physical beating. I looked at his face. He still hasn’t had one. I can tell by the way he writes.”
Pretty harsh stuff, but that was Hank. The book is filled with portraits (frequently unflattering) of friends, lovers and spouses of close friends Fox has met during his extensive travels. Some of the recollections are gems and others quite comical. We also get glimpses of the other side of Fox (Connie) who dresses up in black latex and walks the streets of San Francisco as a drag queen. Fox has said that he tells it like it is, but I know (or knew) many of the people in the book, and there are stories in the book that are reported as factual, which in fact are fiction.
A novelist can say what he or she wants to about a person while concealing there true identify under a pseudo name, but this is a memoir, and there are certain literary rules that apply to a memoir. The question that arises is a question of what is a memoir? It is by definition a means of expressing one’s memories. It is also an expression of one’s feelings. Its origin goes as far back as St. Augustine’s Confessions. Real life of course occurs on the streets and not on the pages of a book, which becomes the recalling of events in the author’s life. It is to be expected that not every event in the author’s life will be recalled with 100 % accuracy, but what is demanded of the author is that he not invent occurrences that did not happen, or embellish on them in such a way as to make the reporting of events more fiction than fact.
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Playing fast and loose with the truth is borderline dishonesty. The author also has an obligation to research his material.
On Page 37 Fox says this about Len Randolph: “Somehow he got to be head of CCLM (Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines), the National Endowment of the Arts’ agency for funding little magazines and small presses.” In fact, Randolph was the Literature Director of the NEA, and had no direct ties to CCLM.
Getting back to an author’s obligation to tell the truth. Let’s look at page 165, where Fox reports on a meeting with me at Vesuvio’s Bar in North Beach sometime in the late eighties or early nineties: “He walks in with a cane.” (I have never used a cane). He goes on to report that he asked me what happened to me, and I supposedly replied, “I was an orderly for years in this mental hospital. And finally one of the kooks got me. My back, you know.” The truth is that I have never worked at a mental hospital, was never an orderly, and do not have back problems. The only truth to the recollection is that I met him and Richard Morris at Vesuvio’s Bar. You begin to see where Fox plays fast and loose with events that took place during his travels. Then there is the “imaginary” ride across the Brooklyn Bridge where several COSMEP friends (including me) are engaged in what can only be described as a “juvenile” conversation over the merits of Hank’s writing. This fictional event never happened. Perhaps perfect subject matter for a novel, but not a memoir.
In another section of the book, he relates an incident that allegedly took place at a mutual friend’s home. I asked the person about this, and she wrote back and said she has no recollection of the event. If this were the only instance in the book, I might write it off as a lapse of memory, but there are too many other instances.
Fox devotes a long section in the book to Harry Smith, a poet friend, and one of the original founders of COSMEP. He talks in detail about Harry’s former wife (Marion) who at the time was dying from brain cancer. She later winds up in a nursing home with Harry described as taking up with a “controlling” woman who can’t get enough sex. Harry later marries the woman (Zerlina) whom Fox goes on to describe in extremely negative terms. Fox subsequently returns later to further slam Zerlina, with more unflattering words about Harry, who was at the time Fox’s closest friend. I believe these slams were made because Fox blames Zerlina for his (Fox) no longer being the number one person in Harry’s life. Fox sees himself as Mother Universe, with the rest of us a cast of characters revolving around him.
And here is where the problem lies. Putting aside the inaccurate portrayals of many events, we have to ask why Fox finds it necessary to demean people he calls his friends. Not only is he cruel to Harry Smith and his wife, but also to Blythe Ayne, who allowed Hugh to dress up and play the role of Connie at her San Francisco apartment. Fox’s own wife recently warned Fox not to visit Blyhe on his planned 2006 visit to the West Coast after what Fox’s wife termed the “horrible things” he said about Blythe in his book.
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Fox sees himself as being on the “outside” while revealing the “inside” of every person he comes into contact with. I admire his stamina and prolific output over the years, and I do believe he wants to be close to the people he claims he loves, but he has a strange way of showing it.
The book also suffers from loose editing, and is often disjointed and repetitive. A writer is responsible for sending out his best work and can’t rely on others to edit it for him. I found myself all too often grazing over passages as I headed towards the end of the book. Fox’s true talent (at least in this book) lies in his being “a character” and not a prose writer. He nails down the subject matter, but fails to put it all together in a coherent manner.
The book is aimed more towards the small press poet and writer who knew the old days Fox writes about. Days long gone! New readers not familiar with the time period fox writes about, and, not familiar with COSMEP, might find it of some interest.
A.D. Winans/ Ibbetson Update