Photo: young William Gaddis
I'M SHARING TODAY a previously unpublished — indeed previously undiscovered — personal memoir about novelist William Gaddis, written by a woman who saw him almost daily during his teenage years. Marilyn Weir knew the author well, and may even have had a schoolgirl crush on him. Her 3,000-word memoir, which came to light a few months ago, offers a very different vision of Gaddis than we have from other sources, and also provides details of biographical incidents that may have influenced his later writing.
Gaddis’s best-known book, The Recognitions, met with critical indifference and incomprehension upon its release in 1955, but is increasingly acknowledged as one of the most significant works of American fiction from the middle years of the 20th century. Gaddis would only publish four more novels (one posthumously), but two of them, JR (1975) and A Frolic of His Own (1994), would win the National Book Award.
These works still have the power to bedevil and enchant. In an oft-quoted essay from 2002, Jonathan Franzen praised Gaddis as a “literary hero” even as he admitted that The Recognitions was “the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read in its entirety.” David Foster Wallace also included Gaddis on the short list of authors whose work he admired. Thomas Pynchon hasn’t offered personal opinions on Gaddis, but the similarity between the two writers is marked enough that some speculated, for a time, that Pynchon was merely a pen name used by Gaddis.
The anecdotes shared by the late Weir give us a sense of the playful and mischievous side of Gaddis, traits that occasionally surface in the dark humor of his writings, but rarely get mentioned in discussions of this author. He is typically dealt with as (to borrow one of Gaddis’s own favorite terms) an éminence grise, sober and perhaps too cynical. Yet these newly discovered details depict a young rebel, more in the mold of Kesey and Kerouac. We also see, in this account, how far the young William Gaddis would go to pull off a grand, even illegal, prank.
This memoir came into my hands through an unexpected path. I have long known the son of the woman who wrote down these recollections, a former colleague named Andy Weir. He mentioned to me, some years ago, that he owned an autographed copy of The Recognitions that had belonged to his mother, Marilyn Anne Parke Weir, who passed away in 1993.
A few months ago, I asked Andy for more details on his mother’s relationship to Gaddis. I was embarking on a study of Gaddis’s works, and wondered how his mother had received her inscribed book. He replied that Gaddis had been his uncle Henry’s best friend during their high school years. His mother had also known the writer very well at that time. According to Andy, she “had a schoolgirl crush on big brother's best friend, but it was evident that Gaddis was fond of her, though not interested in romance.”
Spurred by my query, my friend started digging through family papers. In a file of documents belonging to his mother, he found a typewritten memoir, entitled “Bill Gaddis,” mixed in with other papers left behind at the time of her death. “Bill Gaddis was my brother’s best friend,” she explains in the opening sentence. “When he first met him, Bill was rather undersized and scrawny — I secretly thought he resembled Freddie Bartholomew [a well known child actor of the 1930s][…]. I kept this thought strictly to myself.”
The friendship between Gaddis and Henry Parke was a peculiar one. “Perhaps they drew together because of a mutual shyness,” she speculates.
Being undersized and a new pupil to public school, Bill was immediately at a disadvantage — and the fact that he was intellectual by nature would have been enough alone to make him “different” and thus put him in for some little persecution […]. I believe that both he and Bill recognized things in each other that they admired.
The new friend also could serve as a protector.
For one thing, Henry could swing a mean punch — Bill could not, but had great need of such a capability. Bill could think of funny things to do and say, whereas Henry didn’t attract much attention with his savoir faire and wit. So they complemented each other remarkably well. When Bill was menaced by a bully, Henry was there to menace right back — when girls were around, Bill could be the gay sophisticated wit and Henry profited by just being with him.
Gaddis lived a considerable distance from school, and when he missed the bus home, he would stay overnight with the Parkes. By Marilyn’s admission, her parents “soon became a second father and mother to Bill.” So much so, her father was forced to intervene when a Gaddis prank caught the attention of the local police.
A “small, preening, strutting” local businessman — a character type that appears frequently in Gaddis’s writing, especially in JR — set this incident in motion. “It all began with Mr. Christie,” she writes. “He was a new haberdasher in town who had a vision of becoming the Brooks Bros. of Farmingdale.” When this business owner put up a large billboard, dominated by his own portrait, overlooking the local highway, Gaddis and his friend Henry decided to strike back.
“They felt J.I. Christie was a blot on the countryside,” she continues,
and something should be done about it. So they did it. They painted glasses, mustache, cigar, etc. on the sign one dark night and the first thing the next day people began to stroll past Christie in his doorway with a more than ordinary interest in him. Finally someone mentioned something about his new sign and he oozed with good will until he was told that the picture really didn’t seem to resemble him at all.
When Christie saw his defaced portrait, he went to the police. The local cop found out the names of the culprits after a very short investigation. Gaddis had not done a good job of hiding incriminating evidence. The police officer went to the local five-and-dime store and asked if any boys had recently purchased paint. The clerk immediately told him their names. “That’s how easy it is to sleuth in a small town,” Weir comments in her memoir.
I note with interest that a defaced portrait plays a prominent role in Gaddis’s The Recognitions. In the fictional account, the pompous, preening owner of the work (perhaps influenced by J.I. Christie?) tries to restore the damaged painting himself — thus incurring the ridicule of his acquaintances. This same character, Basil Valentine, also owns a prepossessing portrait of himself that may also have its origins in the billboard defaced by Gaddis in this act of creative vandalism.
In the real-life incident, Gaddis got a reprieve, but only because his friend’s father paid for the damages incurred. But Mr. Parke expected the future author to repay his share of the expenses — with the result that Gaddis was forced to take on a menial job. Our next glimpse of Gaddis, in the Weir memoir, finds the youngster, typically a “dapper dresser,” now wearing “faded overalls, dirty old shoes and a big, floppy straw hat.” Working at a roadside stand selling produce for a local farmer, Gaddis added to the authenticity of the customer experience by adopting “an assumed hick accent.” Most of the shoppers were city people, and Gaddis proved adept at selling old corn as though it were fresh and peddling bruised tomatoes and other less-than-choice items — so much so, that he earned a promotion.
Many of these details anticipate other elements of Gaddis’s major works. His distaste for advertising shows up again and again in his books, as does Gaddis’s complex relationship with the business world, which he both scorned yet also understood at a deep level — check out JR for ample evidence of both. He mimics countrified voices in his books just as he did at the farmer’s roadside stand. Above all, the skeptical tone of much of Gaddis’s writing, the notion that some sort of con job is always happening in most spheres of American public life, stands revealed as one of the author’s core beliefs even during this teenage years.
The account ends with Gaddis unleashing crates of pigeons at his high school graduation. “So Bill went on to Harvard and glory, became president of the Lampoon and later wrote a book that sold for $8.50 a copy (he’d rather have one that didn’t sell at $8.50 than a bestseller at $2.95 he said),” Weir concludes. She must have maintained some contact with Gaddis in later years. In addition to her signed copy of The Recognitions, her file also contained a short note from the author, on stationery from The New Yorker, from November 1945, and another letter from 1975.
The complete draft of the memoir can be read here.