A biology classroom. An elderly nun stands before a class of semi-attentive pre-adolescent school children, who are dressed in the traditional desert garb. She points with her ruler at charts of the male and female reproductive systems.
Nun: . . . And in the female, the ovum, which is the Latin word for egg, passes from the ovary, which is this round thing here, into the fallopian tube . . . this thing here, which is almost as ugly as this naughty thing on the male chart . . .
A boy raises his hand.
Nun: Yes, Adam?
Boy: What’s the naughty thing called, in Latin?
Nun:(Quickly) God only knows, next question?
One of the main attractions at those reunions, right behind the orchard and Snake and the ghosts, was Onkel Abe himself.
The first thing you noticed about Abe Hamm, besides the fact that he’d show up in church sporting a bright orange tie under his striped bib overalls and hadn’t gotten around to shaving that morning, was that he was a lover of life. It’s not that he wasn’t religious; it’s just that he could hardly wait to get up in the morning and spread some joy around the place.This would sometimes get him in Dutch with Tante Anna, who could easily be embarrassed, being a Reisender born and bred. He’d say something a little bit out of the orthodox, like,“If Jesus was around, I bet you anything he’d be the life of the party.”
She’d tut-tut and sigh and shake her head and say,“Abe,Abe.”
He’d grin like a little kid out from under that ring of electric reddish- grey hair and repeat,“Yessir, the life of the party.”
Then she’d whisper something to him in German and he’d turn on the twinkles in his little green eyes and say,“That’s what I love about you, Sweetheart, you always keep me on the straight and narrow.” Which was an exaggeration, because as Aunt Lena had the habit of remarking, the only road Abe Hamm could ever keep on was the one that was paved with good intentions.
It would not be easy to pin down either the matter or the style of all my novels.
The matter is in each one different. One might say that some of it is autobiographical, but that holds only for Crazy Were We in the Head, and even there, few of my characters are based on real persons: the descriptions of Onkel Abe Hamm, for example, are clearly of my father’s eccentric uncle. One might say that much of my writing concerns matters religious, and here I would plead guilty as charged. Everything from Crazy to Just Another Dead White Male to The Church of the Comic Spirit to Benedict XVI (soon to become The First American Pope) to Sacred Books & Sky Hooks shows the influence of my days as a professor of comparative religion. Dancing Over the Rays of Light is something of an exception, though the main character’s search for his true self could be said to be a pilgrimage.
As for the style, there is not much holding my works together, with the exception of the fact that they are all written in the comic mode. But I could never write a series of novels with a main character, or a set of characters, appearing throughout. I write for the challenge, and the challenge is to find another and different style for each single piece. In Crazy, for example, the challenge was to emulate the voice and style of a boy in different stages of his growth, from the first grade to his high school graduation. In The Church of the Comic Spirit, the challenge was to retell the old biblical stories in a variety of genres, from short story to greeting card to diary to screenplay. In Just Another Dead White Male, the challenge was to tell a common story from two perspectives, then to shift the tale into a virgin area. And so on.
George Orwell famously wrote that prose writers write for four reasons: from sheer egoism, out of aesthetic enthusiasm, from historical enthusiasm, and for a political purpose. He said that these motives exist in various degrees in every writer, which seems to be an accurate observation.
In my own case I would say that the first two impulses are strongest, the third was in play only in the days I wrote nonfiction pieces about comparative religion, and the fourth has always been nonexistent.
Writing, for me, is a selfish act. It has kept me from spending my hours being charitable, as is my wife, who is so charitable to me that she allows me my vanity without repercussions. For me also, there is a strong aesthetic impulse; I seem to have been placed on this earth to write. The writing habit has been with me from an early age. In the box containing some of the chief moments of my life is a letter I wrote when I was about five years old; it was to a missionary aunt, and emulated the style of her letters to our family, including a Bible verse. The next memory I have was from the seventh grade. My teacher had meted out a punishment to me and to several of my partners in some petty crime we had committed; we were to stay in after school to perform some minor chore. My aesthetic impulse came to the fore and led me to write a petition asking the teacher to rescind this punishment. It worked, and I was, for a short time, a hero to my pals.
Another of my memories is from the eighth grade, when everyone in my class was assigned to give a brief speech on the general topic How To, which led me to imagine how one goes about writing and publishing a book. I don’t recall what I said on the subject, but I can only imagine that I must have utterly misdiagnosed the efforts it takes to perform such a task.
Orwell also wrote that he liked the look of his own words on paper, and on this point he was again right on the money.
Several months into Corky Ra's meditative regimen, he says, “I began to notice a ‘ringing’ in my ears.” Then, on October 28, 1975, it happened. The noise in his ears “became very intense.” His body began to vibrate; he opened his eyes and found himself alongside “an enormous pyramid,” made of something like graphite, half a mile long at the base but without doors. Everything was quiet and perfect. Then he noticed another structure, with “a round, convex shape, like a flattened ball” and a hundred yards in diameter. He walked through its wall and found himself in a large room full of beautiful, elegant, divine humanoids of both genders. “They established a high-level telepathic link with my mind,” he said, “and instantaneously I understood them.” These Beings were what he came to call the “Summa Individuals,” meaning, he informs his Latin-deficient readers, the “Highest Individuals.”