Saturday, February 21, 2009

Iowa City in Literature: “24,” “The Simpsons” and Richard Yates’ “Easter Parade”

The Press-Citizen was filled a few weeks ago with news that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had made it into the pop cultural prime time – suggesting that being continuously hailed as the nation’s best MFA program and being recently recognized as an UNESCO City of Literature weren’t low enough cultural accomplishments to matter to the average newspaper reader.

The first recent pop cultural nod was the news that the FOX TV show “24” features the character Ethan Kanin, named after Ethan Canin, a Workshop professor and author of “America, America” (“Canin finds place on '24' show,” Jan. 19) . The second came when “The Simpsons” offered a short shout out to the Workshop in an episode in which Lisa and her newest best friend wrote a “Chronicles of Narnia” spoof called “Equalia.” Lisa’s co-author described the novel as, “An ambitious first novel by the two brightest young writers this side of the Iowa Writers' Workshop” (“Iowa Writers’ Workshop gets mention on ‘The Simpsons,’” Jan. 26).

Neither reference is particularly surprising. Canin, who has a memorable name, is friends with some of the producers and writers for “24.” About the only deeper question to ask was why they decided to change the first letter of his last name from a C to a K. The “24” connection, in fact, is far less impressive than how Canin already has had several of his novels and stories adapted for either the silver or the small screen, including: “The Year of Getting to Know Us” (2008), “Beautiful Ohio” (2006), “The Emperor's Club” (2002), “Emperor of the Air” (1996) and “Blue River” (1995).

And “The Simpsons” … well … it’s surprising that the Workshop hadn’t yet been mentioned in swirl of low-, middle- and high-brow cultural references tossed out scatter-shot over the past two decades. I can’t imagine anyone would be surprised to learn that some of the show’s writers had applied – and been turned down – for the Workshop. It wouldn’t even be surprising to learn that the writers were Workshop graduates who haven’t been able to find other work.

No, neither a character’s homonymic relationship to a creative writing professor nor a throwaway line on a comedy show convey much information about the Workshop and its host city. All such references prove is that, when comedy writers need to think of bright and ambitious writing, they think that everyone will think of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Readers looking for more substantial – and highly critical – fictional descriptions of Iowa City have a number of books to choose from. Back in 1991, Earl Rogers wrote up a long list of fiction set in Iowa City, which now is available online at The Web site notes that the list has been updated as recently as May 2008, but it doesn’t include many more recent works, such as:

*Workshop grad Steven Rineheart’s “Built in a Day” (2003), which Rineheart originally wanted to set in New Paltz, N.Y., but figured that would give his anti-hero too much access to a major metropolitan area;

* former Iowa City Councilor Larry Baker’s “Athens, America” (2005), a must-read for anyone everyone interested in Iowa City politics;

* former Press-Citizen staffer Mary Ann Madden’s “A Campus Death” (2008), which tries very hard but ultimately fails to recapture Iowa City in the 1970s; and

* Workshop grad Steven Lovely’s “Irreplaceable” (2009), a heart transplant novel that alternates between Chicago and the fictional Athens, Iowa.

Rogers’ list does include the book with the most scathing fictional description of the Workshop I’ve yet read: Richard Yates’ “Easter Parade” (1976). Yates, who died in 1992, had his share of success as a writer. He was a finalist for the National Book Award for his first novel, “Revolutionary Road” (1961), which has just been adapted into the wonderfully Oscar-nomination-denied film of the same name. And he parlayed his success into teaching gigs at Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, Boston University, Wichita State University, the University of Southern California and, of course, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But his descriptions of Iowa City – printed years after he taught here – transfers his own experience as a fiction writer into that of a middle-aged poet, Jack Flanders, who is shacking up with Yates' main character, Emily Grimes.

After arriving in Iowa City in the second chapter of Part Two, Jack says of his Workshop colleagues, “I don’t mean to depart from my customary boyish modesty, baby, … but I happen to be the best poet they’ve got out here. Maybe the only one. Jesus, you ought to meet these other clowns – you ought to read them.”

The sentiments help define the character of Jack, one of the many less-than-perfect men who become involved with Emily over the course of this short novel. He describes one colleague as, “okay, I guess. He wrote some good stuff twenty years ago, but he’s washed up now.” But such a description ends up falling back on Jack, whose fourth book is every bit as bad as it fears it is.

Yet the criticism of the Midwest doesn’t just come from Jack; it also comes from Emily and the omniscient narrator himself. The chapter begins, “Iowa City was a pleasant town, built in the shadow of the university along a slow river.” Even though Emily comes to appreciate some of the bucolic scenery, she can’t think of any positive comments when she tries to write a magazine piece on “A New Yorker Discovers the Middle West.” Once she finally settles in, she writes, “Was it any wonder that all the famous writers born in the Middle West had fled it as soon as they could? Or they might indulge themselves in sad rhapsodies about it afterward, but that was only nostalgia; you never heard of them going back there to live.”

And the petty bickering that Jack both disdains and participates in doesn’t seem too far off the mark from the drunken, real life teacher-student exchanges Blake Bailey describes in his biography, “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” (2003).

Yates’ bitterness over his experience in shadowy Iowa City thus becomes a necessary part of an amazingly condensed novel in which he narrates 30 years of Emily Grimes’ life in a mere 220 pages – and manages to do so without skimping on any of the important details. The result is a very un-Workshop-like novel – one that tells a story as simply and as quickly as possible.

As a cultural event, the Iowa City chapters in Yates novel are not quite on par with, say, “24” naming a character Richard Yatezz or with Lisa Simpson working in clever paraphrase of Esther Grimes’ final line, “And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.” But in just a few pages, Yates simultaneously invokes the obviousness and the preposterousness of Iowa City being hailed by UNESCO as an International City of Literature.

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