Washington Post, Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
Richard Peabody Collection Is A Buffet Of Legendary Editor’s Work, by Michael Lindgren
A romantic poet of breathtaking tenderness. A keen writer of farce and a master of satire. A political activist whose fierce advocacy manifests itself in allegory. A pop-culture explorer. Richard Peabody is all these and more, as is evident in this collection taken from nearly four decades of writing by a national literary hero.
Peabody’s aesthetic is all-embracing. His literary influences — including strands of Punk, Beat, experimental, feminist, and political protest — blend with the purely lyrical to create a body of work that is both profound and pleasing. Whether addressing fatherhood, unjust wars, unrequited love or suburban malaise, Peabody delivers, with both freshness and gravitas, important information about life as we live it now.
A substantive introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda puts Peabody in his rightful place as a great and influential man of letters. The Richard Peabody Reader is an essential collection, an important document of an American literary life, and a perfect introduction to a body of work of great depth and breadth. Welcome to the world according to Peabody!
We may not be able to think of much that suggests that our nation’s capital city has an artistic culture. For years, though, its literary scene has been represented by a bulky, attractive, and irregular magazine of short fiction and poetry. The name of the magazine is Gargoyle.
One of its editors is the energetic Richard Peabody. He is also a talented poet and story writer. A fine-looking collection of some of his more notable stories and poems, picked by fellow editor and sometime collaborator Lucinda Ebersole, will be published in April. The book is called “The Richard Peabody Reader.”
His name may be familiar local residents for a couple of reasons. One is that Peabody has done a public reading of some of his fiction in Aggieville’s Dusty Bookshelf. Another is that he was son-in-law to the parkside Groshes, a couple who were real angels for the Manhattan Arts Center.
But Washington is Peabody’s home and the setting of much of his writing. So it makes sense that Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic of The Washington Post, provided the introduction to Peabody’s retrospective collection.
After that knowing and substantial opening commentary, the book’s contents are divided into six sections. The last is a novella called “Sugar Mountain,” in reference to the great old Neil Young song about the end of childhood. The story is told from the points of view of three characters.
The reader is served up a couple of pages or a few paragraphs from Mona (those always sub-titled with the name of some other Young song), her estranged lover Hal or her daughter Taylor. Even inside the brief sections there are breaks (and lists: “Taylor’s Fave Artists,” “Hal’s Ten Fave Sci Fi Films,” and so on).
These are characteristic features of Peabody’s writing: pop culture references, structural fragmentation, domestic settings and an exclusive reliance on conversational language. Both his poems — which may feature short lines but, as Dirda notes, always seem to be narrative at heart – and his prose rely on these technique choices.
The result is writing that remains separate from the reader and yet intrigues and jars and rewards.
The five sections before “Sugar Mountain” group poems and stories and what we must think of as essays according to larger topics they somehow refer to. “Reading and Writing” begins with “Letters from the Editor,” a compilation of notes sent back with rejected magazine submissions. “Gunpowder Divertimento,” which is fascinating because of an enforced stall in the reading as one considers the motivations of the point of view character, is about a teacher who has two extraordinary experiences at a large and dodgy bookstore.
“Home & Families” includes “Princess Daddy,” a commentary on how a father bends to the whims of his very young daughter. “It’s Always Raining on the Pennsylvania Turnpike” manages to become a commentary on marriage.
The third section, “War & Peace,” gives us “Peppermint Schnapps,” a story close enough to Poe’s “Cast of the Amontillado” that we can easily see Peabody in many of the story treatments. The poem “Empathy Lesson” is where it is in the book because of a reference to Vietnam, but nobody as good as Peabody is going to try to write something where its topic is its primary concern.
The “Pop Culture” section leads off with the title poem from Peabody’s 1979 poetry collection, “I’m in Love With the Morton Salt Girl.” Then it moves on to the story “E is for Elephant,” which is told from the point of view of the aging Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager. One can’t get much deeper into pop culture than that.
It is the first section (“Sex & Love”) that contains the jaw-dropper, though. “Walking on Gilded Splinters” takes its title from a Dr. John song. From its beginning, the story follows a real estate salesman who is having an extramarital affair. As he drives around town, he keeps glimpsing a woman who seems derelict but still has surprising fashion sense. Then she disappears. When she reappears, introduced to him by his lawyer wife, the story suddenly jumps out of the reader’s hand, does a flip, and lands at its end with the newly recovered mental patient taking over the point of view.
Peabody, you see, is more than just the literary arbiter and voice of Washington. He’s more than his own set of techniques. He’s a dare devil who recognizes some pretty large aesthetic issues. This strength is what makes “The Richard Peabody Reader” worth buying and reading.
G.W. Clift is an arts critic for the Mercury.