Don Rogers: At the DMZ of fact, fiction
I felt the ghost of Wallace Stegner there in the courtyard of the North Star House.
Not chilly, no icy drafts down my spine. Nor hot with wrath or shame while picked apart Sunday in the play “Fair Use” — every copied word by every copied scene then twisted for dramatic effect, ironically with a Pulitzer in 1972 as reward for this ruse of a novel, “Angle of Repose.”
No, this wraith felt contemplative, maybe even appreciative, long removed now from earthly concerns, taking it in, maybe having reckoned with the other ghosts embodied where it all began. Where I was sitting.
I didn’t notice any similar haunting from the other characters, including a true-to-life Mary Hallock Foote, a fictionalized Oakley Hall, and the Playwright very much alive in Sands Hall, who created her.
But the Playwright is not Sands Hall, only a part of the Sands we know in reality. Much of the Playwright is made up. She’s the mother of a 6-year-old and soon to be the ex-wife of a mostly absent husband, all pure fiction.
Hall also rather devilishly put her Stegner character into a wheelchair just like his narrator on these very grounds in his novel.
Stegner related a true story too close, perhaps, to the real words by a real person, an author about as famous in her time as he was in his.
The ghost didn’t seem to have suffered much, probably because Stegner in life pretty much got a pass. He was widely acclaimed as the dean of Western writers for his teaching at Stanford as much as for his fine books. His students included Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, Thomas McGuane, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, who made big marks of their own.
Oakley Hall was a younger contemporary of Stegner, inheriting his reputation as dean of Western writers like a crown. In addition to his own acclaimed books, he helped nurture Michael Chabon, Richard Ford and Amy Tan, among others. And quite a lineup of stars has come through the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley he co-founded and his daughter Brett Hall Jones leads, mainly from Nevada City.
The play gives us some idea of the, ahem, lively discussions he had with Sands, who unearthed the evidence in Stanford’s historical stores. Wally Stegner was his friend, and Oakley wrote the libretto for an opera based on “Angle of Repose” in 1976.
This element lifted the play to stunning for me, so well layered, so much to think about. I had read “Angle of Repose” shortly after moving here, figuring it for part of the local canon. I knew only vaguely that some of the letters in the novel were word-for-word real. But actually it spools out as only slightly tweaked history until the end, when, as the W.S. character in the play quotes the real Stegner, the story was “warped” for a stronger climax. That is to say it takes a messed-up turn from arguable family legend to a case for libel. At least that’s how surviving family in Grass Valley felt about it, and at least some scholars agree.
It’s enough for the occasional article in the national press and a line or two in biographies recounting a controversy that lingers.
And for a whale of a play.
Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” are good examples of other work straying into the DMZ between fact and fiction.
The novel that made Hemingway famous was mostly true, maybe too true, judging by the outrage among the friends he burned. Some critics panned it as mere journalism. One twist reminded me of “Angle of Repose” and Sands Hall’s play. Hemingway’s narrator — a barely disguised Hemingway himself — was rendered impotent by an old war wound. But all the carousing, down to the dialogue, apparently was real.
“A Million Little Pieces” infamously had the opposite problem. Oprah lifted the story as a memoir to bestseller with her enthusiasm, then bushwhacked Frey for betrayal when key facts were revealed as fictions. Today it sells as a novel, though not so well as when readers bought the story as true.
I recently read “Triangle of Fire,” a novel about a wildland firefighter on my old crew, the Los Prietos Hotshots (now Los Padres), by Joseph Tomlinson. I recognized Bonehead, the Supe, Killer and Lumpy — guys I worked with and knew well in my time on the crew. Other parts tracked closely to my own experiences over five years in the early ’80s: the store where we hung out after work, surfing, bar hopping, punching line, lighting backfires, poison oak, a night in jail, flying to an assignment in Montana, girlfriends sore at missed dates and weeks away, and eventually finding true love. Like I was there. Wait, I was there.
I said as much in a Facebook comment, and added an insight into how Lumpy got his nickname, different than in the novel.
Hah, I got just the right reply: “Thank you for the kind words, Don. Like I said in the author’s note, this is a work of my imagination.”
Indeed. Did I just hear the ghost of Stegner cough?
Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, Lake Wildwood Independent and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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