A behind the scenes look at literary heroes: a review of John Skoyles’ “A Moveable Famine.”
This is a curious, wonderful and deeply entertaining book that is part memoir and part bildungsroman in the vein of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy. Splendidly written, it is a fast read and often laugh-out-loud funny. The eponymous narrator describes his journey toward becoming a poet, beginning with his mother’s nightly bath-time recitation of “the Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde, and follows him onwards through college with the Jesuits to the Iowa Writers Workshop, then through stays at Yaddo and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, then finally into teaching and publication success. The dozens upon dozens of famous writers and poets he encounters along the way–in classrooms, bars and wild drunken parties–reads like a Who’s Who of late twentieth century American literature. Skoyles tends to write with a straight-faced lyricism and an eye for the absurd, as when the narrator gets drunk with Raymond Carver at a restaurant and the two of them skip out on a restaurant bill and Skoyles rides back home with an intoxicated Carver at the wheel and beer cans rattling on the floorboards. One of this book’s pleasures is the voyeuristic sense that we are seeing into the private lives of literary heroes, warts and all–though how much is real and how much fiction is hard to tell. It doesn’t matter, though, because Skoyles–a very fine poet–knows how to make the important things ring true.