Mar. 28, 1998

Dialing the Wrong Number

by Philip Dacey


Today's Reading: "Dialing the Wrong Number" by Phillip Dacey from THE MAN WITH THE RED SUSPENDERS, published by Milkweed Editions.

It was on this day in 1941 that VIRGINIA WOOLF waded into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex, England, south of London, and drowned herself at the age of 59. Her last novel was published later that year, called Between the Acts.

The Peruvian writer, MARIO VARGAS LLOSA, was born in a village in the south of Peru in 1936. His parents separated right around the time he was born, and he was raised by his grandparents. When he was nine his parents re-married and his father thought the boy had become too soft, so he was sent to military school - an experience that shaped just about every novel, play and short story he'd write. He eventually moved to Paris and in 1963 came out with his first novel, The Time of the Hero, a book about how the military regime in Peru deliberately corrupts children; the Peruvian government confiscated a thousand copies of the book and burned them on the grounds of his old school, but it won Spain's top literary award that same year and was translated into a dozen languages. He returned to Peru and got involved in politics in the 1980s and even ran for president in 1990, but lost. Some of his other books include The Green House, Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, and his most recent, Death in the Andes, which came out last year.

It's the birthday of novelist FREDERICK EXLEY, in Watertown, New York, 1929, author of A Fan's Notes in 1968. Exley's father had been a local sports hero and Exley drifted in and out of alcoholism, failed marriages and mental institutions trying to live up to his father's legend.

It's the birthday in Newton, Massachusetts, 1940, of the novelist and short-story writer, RUSSELL BANKS. He also had a tough time growing up. His family was poor and his father a violent alcoholic who left when Banks was 12. Most of his novels, like the 1985 Continental Drift which won him the Pulitzer Prize, are set in hard-scrabble, blue-collar New England towns. And Banks says, "I can see my life as a kind of obsessive return to the wound. Going back again and again trying to get it right, trying to figure out how it happened and who's to blame and who's to forgive." His other books include Family Life, Hamilton Stark, Affliction, and collections of poetry and short stories.

It's the birthday of NELSON ALGREN, the novelist of Chicago, even though he was born in Detroit on this day in 1909. His family moved to Chicago when he was three, and nearly all his novels celebrate the low-lifes and under-belly of the city. A city, he says..."...that walks with her shoulder bag banging her hip, who gave me gutters and I gave back gold. City I never pretended to love for something you were not, I never told you you smelled of anything but cheap cologne. I never told you you were anything but a loud old bag. Yet you're still the doll of the world and I'm proud to have slept in your tireless arms." His best known books are a collection of 20 short stories called The Neon Wilderness, that he published in 1947; and the 1949 novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, about a professional gambler who's got a lucky arm but a morphine addiction too.

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