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The Tunnel – William H. Gass

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Publisher: The Dalkey Archive

Darkness is made of disgraced light, and the deepest fell on the first day, even as the sound of Lu-ci-fer—the first word—faded.

The roof of the bandstand looks like the thorny crown for a nuns corpse.

Meet William Kohler, the founding and sole member of the Party of Disappointed People. A historian, he has completed his magnum opus, a monumental study on Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, and has but the introduction to write. Instead, from the basement of his home, he digs a tunnel, and turns his pen on himself.

…Lord, as the poem said, it was time: time: time not to write about Germany or German guilt or anything I had assigned myself, but about bare basins and a shuffling in the street of feet and leaves and other litter, and of empty parks, the sad late light, the yellow trees, on the plodding woman’s hat a color my mother looked good in maybe, maybe not.

Enter the frame:

William Kohler is an angry man. He rises early, before his wife and boys, and after coffee and a meditative moment disappears down to his basement where he remembers and he writes. His morning begins well if he does not see his family. He is a bigot. His father was a bigot, a man with a boiler brewing inside, married to a woman who drank and a son whose only aim in life was to confound him. He hates his father:

Happier times. I contrived to stroll by the doorway where my father had subsided. I pretended to look down at his angry helpless eyes, eyes whose anger had dampened mine so often . . . I managed to be in no hurry, and register no dismay. This is the harvest time, I thought. This is the store of grain that will get me through. Love has its limits, but hatred is boundless.

Growing up in the dustbowl, amongst the …“disease, this dust, a plague, a fall of evil, one of the many punishments God had placed upon the people” … everything was a question of morality. “We have not lived the right life, the Methodist minister said, and I agreed.” However, a moral compass is easily turned and he soon saw that “the grasshoppers were worse, for they were their own wind, and a living dust, a dust winged, each grain with a chewing mouth… a monster of chaos, Führerless…” and “…I’d recently returned from my first visit to Germany then, in a thoroughly Nazi mood… and I clearly remember reflecting, as I watched the hoppers browse: there are more of these grass-chewing jaws in Iowa than there are Jews in Germany.”

The story spins on the night of Kristallnacht, an event in which he participates:

I got rid of my burden, heaving it overhand the way a goalie returns a soccer ball upfield, and it did seem to hang quite a long time and seem to fall from a a great height, although I could never have seen its flight only heard it hit and the glass implode, fragments like sleet flying everywhere, sheets shattering inside the shop, fewer on the street. There was more pitter than patter, I think. Now, if I wished, I could steal perhaps a cabbage or a big beet.

He makes light of the event.

It was a youthful prank, our smashing the windows of the Jews. We mimicked, for a moment, the manner of the mob…

and…

I remember my relief when my paving block broke the pane of that second shop, the shop of a goy. You see, I said to my cold soul. For my part, it wasn’t just Jews.

He returns home, and resuming his career takes tenure as a historian. He marries Martha, and they live the first year of married life “in a slum near the edge of the Wabash”. It’s not long before his wife resembles a “stew congealing in its grease. The bitch didn’t even weep.”

He has nothing nice to say of anyone, not his colleagues: the timid Herschel; the creepily limerick rhyming Culp; the supercilious Planmantee, “who cultivated his mannerisms as if he were made of them;” Governali is “the wop”. He is a misanthrope and a loathsome man, a fact he seems to acknowledge:

So I hit upon honesty as the best revenge. I purchased a ladder to put up high principles. Now if I don’t like mothers, flags, or apple pies, I say so. Or Jews or Japs or gypsies. I bank race hatred like blood money. Any country that’s been a colony has got to look out for me. The rug grovelers and the wafer suckers—they stay clear…. There are plenty of reasons for any prejudice. History is a gold mine of excuses. So I collect racial slurs instead of stamps…. Culp my crackwise colleague, thinks I’d make a million selling kikescoon caps to the KKK…

And yet, he is human, he is hurt, and hurt badly… And he is struggling, at times even delirious, his feverous rantings pouring maddeningly incoherent sentences:

How does water float upon the soul when you drown? As for myself, I was with the First Army, and I, together with the rest of the boys, killed many Germans. We never saw them, of course; they were nicely out of face-range; and Ruth’s hands were, weren’t they? stubby; but a baby did no worse or better, except that a baby can get its entire fist in its mouth (I could inhale the whole of one of Marth’s soft spongy tits until she put on weight, it was like swallowing a balloon), and since Ruth was continually leaving me notes on gray paper like a spy, her fingers were streaked with such stains as come from overmuch writing.

This is William Kohler, a man of high passions and small crimes, a disappointed man, an angry man, an honest man, remembering…

The Tunnel is an astounding book, an undoubted masterpiece, but it might be one I hate. I would unreservedly give it any number of stars it might be theoretically possible to give, but I cannot say I would ever recommend this book. William Kohler is a real man. The detail, the observation, the tedious detailing of the minutiae of this mans life gives breath to his lungs, and strength to his knees. He’s the cantankerous old f”£$er who says very little but when he does it’s to cut you. He knows what he is. He’s a bigot … “anathema because—like the Jew—he is a reminder of history’s crimes…” But he’s also a stunning achievement by William H. Gass, a literary golem created before your eyes.

What is utterly superb about The Tunnel is the skill with which it was written. It is a monument to prose. Sentence by sentence, can render honey dripping horror, or caustic evocations of love. It is a text that has been poured over, read and re-read, the consistency of tone a testament to decades of craftsmanship. It is a woven text, each thread run expertly through the loom, the stitch work imperceptible, the seams folded with care. And yet, at present, the dominant emotion I have from reading this book is hate.

One of the salient features of Kristallnacht was its intention to create culpability. An organized pogrom, that was to be a spontaneous demonstration of the anti-semitism of the German populace, it was to be the beginning of the holocaust, the road down which the German people would walk together. Whilst it did mark the beginning of that road, it was not, however, with everyone’s consent. But William Kohler participated. He consented.

Gass, knows what he is doing. He sets the reader up. The first 200 pages are a trial, full of all sorts of experimental forms. Are you literary enough to read this? he appears to ask. Equally, in these early pages it is at its most offensive. Are you willing enough? he seems to ask. Afterwards it settles into a semblance of order, of beautiful and poignant prose that streams from one page to the next, its fashion circular, its bounty rich for it is the mood suffused outpourings of a life unfolding, the consciousness of a small incorrigible creature. Can we judge such a man? His crimes are of thought, not action.

And yet, that is the apparent aim of the book—at least to this readers eyes. We are not so much reading The Tunnel, but Guilt and Innocence in Hitlers Germany. We are being asked to judge this character as proxy. The writing of Guilt and Innocence in Hitlers Germany is difficult to complete, not because…

I have written a book I cannot bear to read… because I see slime as our world’s most triumphant substance… more whinny people, more filthy thoughts, crummy plans, cruddy things, contemptible actions—multiplying like evil spores…

but because it is a judgement also on his own life. The introduction that he writes must by necessity be an accounting for himself. That he is not in fact German, means little, other than as a device, and if wishing to be read in such a manner, a warning.

…but Herschel holds out a quieting hand to me, grasps my arm halfway up its sleeve: Complete your book, he says, but have more sympathy for the man who wasn’t in the street; who watched with bewilderment while the world growled on and hunted its prey; who peered past a curtain and bit his tongue; who feared for his family and expected
the worst; who merely wanted to get on; who couldn’t cope with high principle or low company either; who hurt his fellow man out of his own hurt and not out of his heart—who is that, I ask Herschel, have you found such a jelly-centred villain?—…

Read this book. Do not read this book. Feel no shame if you do not, or for any reason feel that you cannot. I would however recommend that if you do pick it up, and cannot get through the first two hundred pages, let it rest. I took the opening stretch a bite at a time. Many will have walked away. Who can blame them?

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