I first encountered the work of David Castleman entirely by chance, when one of his books (more of a pamphlet, really) appeared in my mailbox. Several months earlier, at the suggestion of a friend, I had sent a short story of mine to a small journal called the Mandrake Poetry Review. Although I must have glanced at the editor’s name – D. Castleman – when I addressed my mailing label, I can’t remember doing so.
Having been in the business of sending pieces of prose out into the world for some time, I knew what to expect: a few months of silence and then (most likely) the thinnest possible of reply envelopes bearing a terse form response. So when an enormous package (well, perhaps not enormous but at least large enough to contain more than the worlds “better luck elsewhere”) from Mr. David Castleman arrived in the post, my stomach did a small somersault.
The package contained: 1) a letter, produced on an ancient German typewriter, from D. Castleman offering several insightful comments on my piece; 2) a number of hand-made postcards printed with ominous fragments of poetry; 3) a booklet of some forty-eight pages titled simply Head. Although not an acceptance letter, the world of a literary writer can be pretty slim pickings at times and under the circumstances I decided to chalk up the receipt of these items as a small personal victory.
Of course, context changes everything. Context is what makes our (my) best reading: the way that the circumstances in which a book is read and the contents of its pages can become intertwined is what makes me at heart a reader instead of a watcher. I read Still Life With Woodpecker on a train trip from California to Massachusetts, going to college for the first time, and even though I’ve never been a fan of Tom Robbins’s work that book still holds for me a special meaning, its landscape of pirates and heroes and love part of the America that passed outside those AmTrak windows. Even though I love movies, video never seems to become part of my world as deeply as printed words. Maybe it’s because movies happen in a living room or theater, unlike the book in my backpack which follows me everywhere. (I sneak peaks on the bus, while eating lunch, in parks that I chance upon.) Maybe it’s a temporal thing: the fact that movies are over in a few hours unlike novels which can span vacations, voyages, seasons.
So context changes everything. Certainly context – an unexpected package out of nowhere, the broken letters of the German typewriter – lent a glow to my first experience of Castleman’s novella, which I savored. Since then however, I’ve read two more of David Castleman’s books, corresponded slightly with Mr. Castleman, and in general have gained some measure of critical distance. I’ve also come to deeply admire Castleman’s writing, and to understand that there was something entirely appropriate about our first meeting, by chance.
Although Mr. Castleman himself would probably disapprove, let me pause for a moment to tell you something about the man. According to his book jackets, he was born in 1949 and lives with two cats in a shanty in a redwood grove. For money, he labors in a lumberyard north of San Francisco. From his letters I learned that he has been published in hundreds of small journals, often under a pseudonym; he has written as a Jewish woman, a Chinese lesbian, and a black man among others. He is a self-described pauper and an isolationist.
Perhaps because of this, all of Castleman’s writing bears the indelible stamp of being the work of an outsider; his stories and prose are the words of a loner. There is something about his work that almost begs to be misunderstood: his sentences are almost without exception contorted and painfully erudite, littered with images that strain to turn themselves inside out and subtle meanings that demand a pause after every period. The opening paragraph of Head, for example, reads:
It has been suggested that an accountant is only an historian of recent moneys, and wears only the same mind an historian wears, arranging variously misleading needle-points of data so they may be handled more comfortably. An acquaintance, a friendly acquaintance perhaps but not quite a friend, who was captain of a cargo ship told me he wanted a purser, an accountant, for a voyage from London across the Atlantic and through the Amazon.
The sense of some great thing about to be revealed, an overwhelming truth, suffuses Castleman’s work: the feeling (never quite gratified) that this book may change everything. It’s partly his prosy difficulties, demanding the reader’s concentration, and partly his choice of subject – events unfurling at the fringes of society and the world – that creates this impression, which makes reading Castleman sometimes feel like an agonizingly prolonged foreplay, sans climax.
Castleman’s longer works include: Head, the tale of a Pynchon-esque voyage down the Amazon; Death Is My Shepherd, a picaresque novel chronicling the travels of an outcast youth and his perhaps-insane mentor; and The Wood and the Wildness, a collection of writings that is (as far as I can tell) Castleman’s only commercially available book.
The Wood and the Wildness is the most subdued and orderly of the three books and includes essays on isolation, business, and capital punishment as well as a number of short stories – the best of which are “An Evening With Salvador Dali and Dylan Thomas,” in which the narrator mediates a drunken meeting between the two masters, and “Streams in the Firmament,” a beautiful dark parable in which a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein gives birth to a race of flower children. Although the collection was published in 1998, “Streams in the Firmament” also resonates eerily with the current political climate. Castleman writes:
Washington was conscious of the oppressive skies weighing down. It waited for the terrors which had been promised, terrors which were due. In the mind’s ear were heard the whines of strange motors beyond the high fog, propelling missiles from across the broad Atlantic, and missiles from the warships parked at sea.
While several of the pieces in Wood (this among them) are quite beautiful however, the truth is that Wood may be Castleman’s least effective piece of writing due largely to its restraint. Because Castleman is at his best when he is excessive, when the insistent individualism of his prose is pushed to the limits of sense and beyond and achieves a kind of hypnotic and obsessive rhythm. In these shorter pieces, without the scaffolding and pacing of a long plot, the writing begins to feel at times self-indulgent and its demanding cleverness more an irritant than a joy.
Still, there is something deeply gratifying to me about Castleman’s writing. In part, it’s the way his prose combines sincerity and self-awareness – a knack that too few writers seem to have mastered, resorting instead to the by-now cheap refuge of irony. Even more though, it’s the way in which Castleman uses language. In each line of his writing is evident his love of words and his struggle with them, each sentence a baroque and fascinating effort to say commonplaces in a new way, a Herculean weight. Whatever failings it may have, it is a reminder of the rebellious, painful, vital things that words (and the life of words) ought to be.