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The Red Truck – Rudy Wilson

When D.T. Max’ article, “The Carver Cronicles,” came out in the New York Times Magazine, Rudy Wilson spoke up, claiming he had first hand experience with the Lish hand that cuts and re-arranges:

Gordon Lish was my editor […] Early on, he said to me about my work, ”Never explain or apologize in the writing.” That is probably what accounted for the serious cuts he made in my first novel, ”The Red Truck,” published by Knopf in 1987. He took my novel to France for a month and mowed it down from 440 pages to a final 178. He said to me when it was done, ”I wish I could put my name on it.” I thought, ”You may as well.”

At first, I was in shock at the final outcome of his editing. Not only had he cut the book in half, but he had taken a line out of context from the middle of the book and put it in as the final sentence. It made no sense to me on any level of the work. He informed me that if the original manuscript were to be published, it would receive no notice and would be read only by the ”lunatic fringe.” We eventually agreed on a version we both liked. There is not one word of his in the book. His main task had been to cut, and cut it he did. He wants to get to the meat of the work and display it in its honest reality, and I believe he is a genius at it.

Rudy Wilson

Fairfield, Iowa

Doris Grumbach writes in her memoir, The Pleasure of Their Company, that she was

astonished to read in the glossy Times Sunday magazine section last week that the  effect famed editor Gordon Lish on the early work [of Carver]. Whole sentences and paragraphs were excised, or sentences transferred to other places in the story […]   Lish is known as a difficult man,  highly opinionated about fiction, and usually treating with scorn any prose style except his own pared-down, less-is-far-better  preference […] At the Iowa workshop I had a student whose first novel was edited by Gordon Lish.  The prose of Rudy Wilson’s The Red Truck bears a close resemblance to Carver’s. [One can] see the slashing hand of Gordon Lish through [Wilson’s] sentences.  (pp. 38-39)

Grumbach also wonders what Lish would have done to Moby-Dick had he been Melville’s editor:

“”I can see Lish making the narrator an unnamed figure throughout the book so he could conclude the manuscript with the stark sentence ‘Call Me Ishmael.'” (p. 39)

What was that final sentence that Wilson said was taken from the middle of the manuscript and placed at the end? “Sometimes, I raised my head to look out the window at the sea” (178). The novel is elegant and gothic about growing up in the south, told in terse, titled chapters from a child:

Ned was dead a year; his bed was cold and silent. Mama K died after he did.  She was my grandmother.  Her face always reminded me of corn.  She lived in the pink room.  My parents were far away in the new room, at the back of the house.  We were all there, by ourselves, with everybody else in the world.(p. 3)

It is a novel rich in beautiful and grotesque detail: “She had two arms, two legs, and two hanging breasts that remembered the babies, and now, still full, they pulled the triangle closer, all the way to her” (47). The Red Truck was published virtually unnoticed in 1987.

In 1988, we found it in the remainder bin at Crown Books for $1.99. We felt sorry for the beauty of the language.  This is an injustice, we thought, sabres! we read most of the novel one night while riding the trolley home from downtown San Diego.  An elderly man, inebriated and smelling like the bottom of a bottle of Jim Beam, sat across from us. We came to the last page, that last sentence, “I raised my head to look out the window at the sea.” We closed the book and raised our noggin to gaze a gander out the dirty window, seeing a cemetery the trolley was passing by.

“Excuse me,” the drunk man said, hitting our knee with his hand.

We turned to him.

“So, you read that book,” he said.

“Yes,” we said.

“Did you understand it?” he said. “Did you get it?  Did you understand the philosophy in it?”

That could have been construed as an insult—what did we look like, an idiot?  But he was drunk, and we were calm (and tiny and sincere), having just finished a damn good book.

“Yes,” we replied, “yes, I did.”

“Good,” he said, nodding with approval, “good for you,” and then he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Over at HTML Giant, Peter Markus states that he found The Red Truck as a remainder as well (as did Gary Lutz):

The Red Truck is one of those late-80s Knopf books edited by Lish that I found remaindered one day in some TV appliance-warehouse-turned-bookshop that is now a place that sells tires. I took it home and immediately could feel the sensation of something new running through my hands. I think it’s a brilliant book, a one of a kind book, a book that wouldn’t have been made into a book had it not found its way into Gordon’s hands. I think the story goes behind it that Lish cut the manuscript in half (sort of what he did to Barry Hannah’s revved up Ray). I suspect what Lish did was find the core of Rudy’s Red Truck and cut away much of what a much younger Wilson thought was needed to hold the story together. For me it’s a novel that is pure hallucination and is the kind of book that I return to again and again in order to recapture that initial rush that language in its purest, most musical form can offer to us. Each time that I do Rudy’s sentences unglue me and then put me back together in new ways. I let my sister read The Red Truck, some years ago, and when she did she ended up having a major seizure. The effect that the book had on my sis is what we all want from our work: sentences that take hold of the brain and seize it up, unhinge us from the world around us, and make the body of us do some fucked-up sort of pogo to a music that Wilson’s song makes us hear inside our own heads. The Red Truck by Rudy Wilson is the realest of deals. You can get it now from Ravenna Press along with a brand new book of short fiction by Wilson called Sonja’s Blues. And while you’re loitering around at the Ravenna website, do yourself a third favor and nab Norman Lock’s The Long Rowing Unto Morning, an equally dreamy and necessary book…

Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the novel thus:

Wilson’s daring but overly ambitious first novel is written in the voices of Billy-Billy Jump and Teddianne Sayers, two mentally scarred protagonists who, through reincarnation, have connected with each other in several violence-fraught lifetimes. They share a keen love of Christ; Teddianne envisions Christ, who also “goes on forever,” as a red truck. Staccato sentences often evoke powerful images and emotions, such as Billy-Billy’s description of his near-death by suffocation inside a locked refrigerator at age seven, an incident that claimed his brother’s life. But many teasing paragraphs withhold their secrets from the reader who can only wonder what to make of the convoluted concepts: “Then the yellow started coming . . . . There were hundreds of yellows. . . . I put back my head and opened my mouth to let some out. Then I saw how yellows weren’t yellow at all, but were made out of no-color, then only later they changed to become their colorness, yellow.” Even those who share the author’s powerful belief in the transmigration of souls may need a road map to follow Billy-Billy and Teddianne through their various mutations.

Library Journal said:

Wilson makes his debut as a novelist with a disturbing tale of religion, death, and reincarnation that upon first reading may seem plotless and purposely bizarre. Upon reflection, however, the intricacies of the lives of its protagonists becomes clear. Billy-Billy Jump and Teddianne are two unusual children whose experience of death at an early age bring them together as adults. Wilson skillfully intertwines their present with their past lives through the use of recurrent symbols. This novel is not for those seeking light fiction, and a second reading may be required to fully appreciate this short but painstakingly executed novel, but many will enjoy Wilson’s wild flight of imagination.

The Red Truck has been reissued in a paperback edition.


2 responses »

  1. I love this blog–thank you for it. I had some sense of the number of authors that Lish worked with, but I had no idea it was this many. This gives a whole new meaning to Michele Foucault’s “What is an Author?” The deeply collaborative (that’s close to the right word, but not quite) relationship between some editors and authors is so often overlooked. It’s fascinating how you’re illuminating it here.


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