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.