Monday, September 22, 2008

If you don't know Floyd Skloot, you should

Floyd Skloot is a master craftsman. He's got a new book coming from the University of Nebraska press. You'll never see a book trailer about it and in fact, unless you go looking for the book, you might not run across it.

I'm a long time fan his. I well remember when he was stricken with a terrible illness that left him with a debilitating fatigue. The last reading I attended at Looking Glass Books in Portland was for The Night Side published by Story Line Press. Floyd just casually mentioned that doing the reading meant he'd have to be in bed for a week from the resulting exhaustion. I remember thinking how lucky we all were that he would still do these appearances at all because it was such a pleasure to hear him read and listen to him talk about his work.

Here's Harvey Freedenberg's review of Floyd Skloot's new book The Wink of the Zenith, stolen shamelessly from this morning's Shelf Awareness email:

The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life by Floyd Skloot (University of Nebraska Press, $24.95, 9780803211193/0803211198, September 1, 2008)

This collection of 17 essays is the fourth in a series of memoirs poet and novelist Floyd Skloot has written since he was stricken in 1988 with a rare virus that temporarily devastated his memory and left him unable to write. But it's the first that unearths the roots of his writing life, providing a moving, humorous and thoroughly delightful exposition of that subject.

Skloot's recollections range widely, from his childhood in Brooklyn, through an unlikely stint as an analyst in the Illinois Bureau of the Budget, to an often-comical recent trip to France. There are many highlights in the collection, but two essays that focus on Skloot's college years stand out. The first recounts his work recording books for a blind English professor who became his mentor. "I got an education in how language flowed or failed to flow," he writes, "how breath acted as a hidden punctuation within the rhythm of prose." His description of the challenges and rewards of reading The Sound and the Fury aloud reveals new aspects of Faulkner's work. The other describes how his senior honors thesis required him to read all 14 of Thomas Hardy's novels, in the process gaining a rare appreciation for the arc of a writer's career.

Not all of the essays focus directly on writing. Skloot chronicles the summer he spent pretending to be one of the Hardy Boys, on the lookout for spies and other evildoers at the Lido Hotel on Long Island. Another relives the summer of 1958, when an erroneous diagnosis of leukemia turned out to be nothing more than mononucleosis ("I wasn't in fact fatally ill, just inconveniently ill."). There are reminiscences about his mother's decline and death from Alzheimer's disease, made all the more poignant by the troubled relationship Skloot had endured with her and his own loss of memory.

Skloot is self-deprecating almost to a fault and serves as a companionable guide as he wanders along some of the back roads of his writing recollections. The significance of writing to his identity is clear, which must have made the lengthy impairment he suffered all the more painful: "Great writing . . . could stop time and thereby make time come to life, transporting the reader, as it must have transported the writer, into another dimension."

It's impossible to know whether, with this volume, Skloot finally has reassembled all the "shards of memory" scattered by his illness. If it is, we can be grateful for the hard and sometimes painful work it took to gather them and share them in such an eloquent and affecting form.--Harvey Freedenberg


Barbara Martin said...

This is a touching tribute to an author.

Julie Weathers said...

What a wonderful insight. Truly someone to think about when you feel life is hard.

Nancy said...

I had the good fortune, years ago as a very young author to sit next to Mr. Skloot at a book fair. What a cordial, articulate man. I bought his first and then only novel on the spot.

Belvoir said...

I absolutely love the title and the cover imagery. Very evocative, I'm intrigued by his themes. Thanks for the pointer.

SundaySoup said...

Months later - Janet, I put this on hold at the library (on order) the day you posted this and it finally arrived today! I'm three or four chapters into it. Thank you so much! I don't have the stomach (or balls?) to read a lot of the stuff you recommend, but whenever I do choose something that looks like my cup of tea, it's always an amazing cup of tea.