McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Volume 7 (edited by the irrepressible Dave Eggers) is made up of several booklets, each containing it's own piece of fiction or non-fiction and cover art by a different artist, all held together in a hardcover shell by a very large rubber band. The production of this volume is as individual as we have come to expect from the series, as are the booklets it contains. Hidden amongst work by now well recognised writers such as Michael Chabon and A M Homes is a short story by Allan Seager called This Town and Salamanaca.
Allan Seager died in 1968. Since 1935 he had taught creative writing at the University of Michigan (where Arthur Miller had passed through as a student) and had published five novels, two collections of short stories and three books of non-fiction. Yet as he was dying of lung cancer his novels were out of print and he was well aware that his place in literature was far from established. His career had been dogged by bad luck; a scholarship to Oxford was curtailed by TB, sales of his first novel Equinox were hampered by wartime restrictions on paper usage, his final novel was only just released before the publisher was declared bankrupt and his first wife Barbara was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1948 putting them both under tremendous strain.
The front cover of the short story in McSweeney's shows the picture of Seager above and the cigarette is all you need to know that this is a publicity shot from a different era. The story itself deals with John Baldwin, a man who has travelled, who returns home to 'this town' and in this simple act exposes so much about the small town and its inhabitants. Seager once said 'I hated the people I came from and I wanted to find out why' and I found myself wanting to read more of a writer whose talents may have been obscured by circumstance.
AbeBooks was invented for such a challenge and over time I was able to locate copies of the five novels. They are far from consistent but the best Amos Berry is a cracker. The title character is a successful man, with a beautiful wife and house and fine son whose only failing is perhaps his wish to avoid the path his father has prepared for him and to become a poet. What leads Amos to commit a seemingly motiveless crime is the novels concern and it is nothing less than the dissection of small town America.
His short story collection The Old Man of the Mountain is a great example of the work that had him compared with Hemingway and Faulkner but it is his 'memoir as fiction' A Frieze of Girls which gives you an idea of the man. As unreliable as memoir can be the stories are filled with humour and vitality and capture the energy that Seager must have had before life began to exert its influence and he suffered his first misfortune. I can only thank my fortune in stumbling upon a writer of such skill and insight. Thanks Mr Eggers.
A Frieze of Girls is available here
Copies of Seager's other work are best found here
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