Writers, in groups, have a reputation for displaying certain behaviors: incestuousness, alcoholism, competitiveness, eccentricity, and pretentions. They have earned this reputation fairly.
If you want first-hand evidence of the basis for this reputation, look no farther than John Skoyles’s “A Moveable Famine.’’ The autobiographical novel by the Emerson College professor and Ploughshares poetry editor follows Skoyles from his New York City youth to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown to Yaddo to academia.
Skoyles, by his own admission, has invented certain characters and blended certain events, but this reads much like a memoir. It is a work of fiction as much as the Hemingway memoir the book honors in its title might be considered (according to Hemingway’s own label) “fiction.”
Imagination is used here where necessary, but novelistic trappings are hung on Skoyles’s own life story. The book strives for accuracy in describing an era and its author’s state of mind, and it succeeds.
It’s impressive to watch Skoyles mature as he moves across the American literary landscape of the 1970s, beginning to process his surroundings rather than being processed by them. In New York, the young poet takes classes at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, rubbing shoulders with Anne Waldman, Dick Gallup, and others; Skoyles is impressed by these poets’ comfort with pop culture, adopting it briefly in his own work.
He then describes entering the Iowa workshop, that bastion of intellectual ferment in the prairie. Skoyles depicts Iowa as place of intensity beyond intensity, in which whatever topics emerge in poetry workshops, athletic drinking sessions, or even relatively casual conversations are Important and about Art.
This chatter gets a bit too heady for its own good at times, but luckily the reportage/narrative moves so deftly that any momentary preciousness can be forgiven. Of course, there’s other conversation, as well.
In Skoyles’ telling, the men at Iowa are testosterone-crazed and the women tough-mouthed and engaging; when one poet writes a piece describing a female fellow student’s body in detail, the concern is less about objectification than about the relationship implied.
The professors are intellectual den masters, the students energetic acolytes, in search of sex or better financial aid or both. Depictions of literary celebrities add to this rigorously kaleidoscopic portrait: There’s the young Denis Johnson, walking barefoot through the hallways; or John Cheever, who took taxicabs everywhere and had a discerning eye for
At Provincetown, Skoyles has more of the same experience, though perhaps with more wounds involved. He’s more grown up, at this point, as are his relationships with others.
Alan Dugan and Stanley Kunitz reign over the program like monarchs, indelibly portrayed here as, by turns, a wizened and begrudging chain smoker and an unpredictable master of ceremonies. The drinking is intense and hardened; Skoyles describes one drinking party that lasts all night and well into the following afternoon.
Skoyles paints Provincetown as an isolated, moody place, where you struggle until you’ve figured out how you’d like to progress, artistically. To Skoyles’s credit, he does not make the colony sound like paradise; its slings and arrows are depicted in sharp focus.
The last portion of the book, taking Skoyles from Yaddo to a succession of teaching jobs, moves fairly quickly but wittily: Skoyles chooses what details to give us to sum up an experience, such as a writer at Yaddo who keeps self-consciously casually referring to “m’editor” at The New Yorker.
The delirium pervading the rest of the book tapers off here, as Skoyles shows us how he has come into his own.
When he sympathizes with poet Jack Myers, who goes out for lunch with fellow faculty member Skoyles when he has neither the money nor time to spare, we get a sense of empathy we did not see in the brash younger student. All the deep talk, competition, and moments of pretension come to shape our hero, then, ultimately make him stronger, capable of writing this book with a firm, humane, and always genial hand.