"Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Man: Brian Rogers' The Whole of the Moon"
by Andrew Tonkovich
Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Man
I barely knew the late novelist, playwright, teacher and one-time stand-up comic Brian Rogers, author of a defining, arguably redefining 2017 Southern California novel titled The Whole of the Moon. Rogers died in February 2021, a year after being diagnosed with brain cancer. I spent all of two hours in real-life, in-person, pre-COVID, non-virtual actual human time with Rogers but I’d read and reread the novel, interviewed him, communicated a bit via email. Last summer I attended his memorial service. There I’d hoped for literary appreciation of Brian Rogers the novelist, foolishly anticipating vigorous lauding of the book, gleefully ironic esteeming of his passionate purchase on both disappointment and something like redemption, and knowingly, fondly offered testimonials from devoted readers and fans of the book. And perhaps even from other writers who’d attest to Rogers’s perversely steadfast devotion to literature and the life of the creative artist. I was of course disappointed. To tweak the old funeral joke, I would definitely not have wished he’d been there. Although a copy of The Whole of the Moon was on display, attendees were not, as I’d hoped, walking around with it as testimony or witness, something like characters in Fahrenheit 451.
The Land and the Idea
No, the memorial, appreciation, or “celebration of life” didn’t live up to my kooky, unrealistic, absurd expectations. Go figure. That’s because it was held for Brian Rogers the man and not, it seems, only or mostly the author. And because I am a fool who adores books, writers, artists, and am disappointed by occasions not reflecting my own foolish devotion. The otherwise terrific memorial crowd affirmed the life of an outstanding teacher, loving husband, devoted father, and friend while I had come to celebrate the literary and civic achievement of The Whole of the Moon.
I was there to tout the beauty and bravery of the novel-in-biographies’ quiet elaboration, however indirectly, on themes of that singularly ur-American literary-civics text, The Great Gatsby, upon which the novel’s plot, mood, and Rogers’s expectations of readers depend. I had hoped to advance my thesis that Rogers had made an important contribution to a conversation lately initiated, and moderated by, critic Greil Marcus. His gorgeously polemical Under the Red White and Blue, a book of essays, reasserts The Great Gatsby’s role in apprehending America, both “the land and the idea.” I was there to testify to the pedagogical and social ambitions of The Whole of the Moon, and to elaborate on how in writing it a Southern California prep school teacher had insisted on reaffirming the place of The Great Gatsby in our national imagination, on our shared civic reading list or bookshelf or book club choice.And to assert, gently, myself, that a teacher as Brian who’d taught it, facilitated classroom discussions on the novel, read hundreds of essays on The Great Gatsby, was a singularly qualified creative writer to respond to it, to riff on it, to use it to frame his own book. I also wanted to say --- or, better, hear somebody else say, please! --- that the affection of one middle-aged reader for a book he’d read as a youngster (me, for instance) could as a result of reading a novel by another middle-aged teacher-reader (Rogers) cause him to reread The Great Gatsby with new, further appreciation. There was more, of course, with which I will burden you here, since I did not offer a eulogy or testimonial or review of the novel at the memorial service.
I am a local, born and raised in the Southern California basin, so recognized a faithful --- to embrace the most loaded but clumsily appropriate adjective --- depiction of the region. The Whole of the Moon is full of both affection for and despair at this place. As am I.It’s the same affection and despair --- affectionate despair? --- found most famously in the work of D.J. Waldie, whose nonfiction depiction of one Southland city, Lakewood, California offers a similarly stark, dichotomous portrait: phony, sun-kissed faith and realistic, smog-ridden dubiety, class and racial segregation, and the impossible tension of pretending that we are living in either a paradise or a hellscape, depending on the political season or season of the year.
At that memorial I had hoped to opine to anybody who might listen that Rogers’s novel should be considered favorably alongside Waldie, and recent Southern California fictions by Dana Johnson (In the Not Quite Dark), Michelle Latiolais (She), and Jim Gavin (Middle Men), not only for its dialectic, darkness, and honesty but its ambitious expectations of readers, of community and of civic literacy. Even its quiet insistence on them. A big idea, indeed, if not about our beautiful and benighted land, then perhaps about that part of it in which Rogers set his story.
Under the Red White and Blue
By now you’d like a synopsis, a review. Briefly, The Whole of the Moon is a novel constructed of unconnected if related stories. They are unsparingly honest, sad stories of failed, disappointed if ostensibly somehow redeemed fictional lives. These lives are connected by geography and, underneath, almost as palimpsest, a shared cultural assumption about what Americans read together, or once read. At least one book is almost always at the top of the list of the high school literature canon, The Great Gatsby, whose author argued, unsuccessfully, for the alternative (and perhaps better!) title Under the Red White and Blue.
The characters of The Whole of the Moon are Southern Californians young and old, their lives lived through and across four decades, from the early Sixties until the “present.” All reside in working or middle-class cultural, geographic, and civic proximity to old Route 66, now of course Interstate 10, living and working and teaching as far east as Fontana, up against the Inland Empire, and as far west as West Hollywood, near the one-time residence of gossip columnist Sheilah Graham at 1443 N. Hayworth Avenue, in whose company Fitzgerald died of a heart attack. The main and peripheral characters of The Whole of the Moon never actually meet, and certainly never explicitly acknowledge each other. Neither do they much discuss the classic novel or actively engage the singular premise (more on that, momentarily) of The Whole of the Moon, its title taken from a melancholic 1985 anthem by The Waterboys, a popular Scots-Irish folk rock “Big Music” outfit advancing a spiritually affirming agenda: “I pictured a rainbow. You held it in your hand…I saw the crescent. You saw the whole of the moon.” It’s a song about contrasting visions and perspectives, of courage and regret. One key character of the novel, experimenting with escape from the Southland, drives the much-travelled palimpsest highway east to the desert with the song playing loud on an old cassette: “…she deserved something uplifting, even as the lyrics were regretful and melancholy…”
Studies in everyday disappointment and varieties of loss and failure, the book’s diverse dramatis personae include that failed Latina single-mother scholar who deserves musical uplift but gets regret and melancholy, the fates also constructed for a failed Black athlete, a failed white composer and music teacher, a struggling and mostly untalented actor, two lost early Sixties-era public school suburban teenagers (Stacy and Bobby, no kidding), and a reliably sadder if wiser contemporary stand-in for the author himself. A teacher at a prep school, he relates the story of a lost, possibly murdered or murdering cousin, a death likely the result of a hustle gone wrong. That prep school seems pretty clearly the elite Webb School in Claremont, where Brian Rogers himself taught.
This group of strangers (to each other, if not us) is ethnically diverse and economically precarious, brown, Black, white, both gay and straight, young and old. They have been educated in public schools, are drop-outs or college grads or teachers. To our unnamed sometime narrator falls the responsibility of reconsidering, forgiving and, yes, memorializing the subjects of these case studies or human object lessons. Of course, there is no happy ending to The Whole of the Moon, or to any of their individual stories. There is, finally, no ending at all. The novel’s theme does not require an ending, and perhaps even rejects one. Its structure certainly doesn’t demand or anticipate one. Its episodic parallelisms, resonances, and ensemble collage style suggest less a choice of endings, beginnings or middles than the happenstance of the moment or, in this novel, multiple moments, usually of missed opportunity. Indeed, Rogers excerpts as his novel’s epigraph Auden’s lines (from “Musee des Beaux Arts”) about suffering as a phenomenological crapshoot, of indifference and empathy in context.
“the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The novel’s documentary pacing-meets-short chapter narrative fade-in/fade-out technique surely evokes this starkly scenic ekphrastic poetic portrait. None of the human failures here are important. Most are not noticed, including the disappeared sketchy cousin. The novel’s next chapter will deliver yet another failure, after all. Ultimately, this seems as much a cinematic as novelistic strategy. The book’s ensemble biographies and circling-around time and place chronology recall the films of Robert Altman, where correspondence, influence, and intersection are just plain assumed. They are often surprising in deadpan, desperate or revelatory ways. Not to overstate the ultimate artistic success of the novel, but one sees the ethos and style of Nashville in particular and, in contemporary literature, the connected, unconnected, disconnected casts of ensemble fictions by E.L. Doctorow, Penelope Lively and, lately, Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings, where the reader is one step ahead of the characters, or only believes, imagines themselves to be. We are empowered to experience their lives, if powerless to explain them. We identify with their mistakes, struggles, and failure. Quiet sadness is the norm.
Yes, readers, this is one extremely sad book, melancholy, relentless in its stark and hopeless beauty. There’s more blue, finally, than red and white in this portrait of our nation, here of frequently ignored, unimportant failures.
Yet in its blue, or blues, The Whole of the Moon offers an all too accurate portrait of life in our republic of domestic disappointment and alienation, of unrealistic and unrealized dreams, of being trapped, ignored, of collectively missing the flying (falling) boy or the magnificent ship because one has to get to work, to their day job, to waiting. If it weren’t for bad luck, these characters wouldn’t have any luck at all.
Relentless disappointment, estrangement and failure might be enough for any sincere reader, especially one who’s lived or even grown up in the often deadening suburban sprawl which itself grew up along the highway and the freeway and the interstate and the flat, duplicative topography of the Los Angeles basin. What makes it all so resonant, consonant, true and affecting is the promise of settling for so little, and then, well, getting it. The simultaneously shared atmospherics of failure and the experience of it are powerful and perverse. To say that the novel is a whole lot of nothing is extremely high praise. It’s like staring at billboards on the 10, stuck in traffic, during the best fall orange-sky golden hour sunset ever. Those billboards might be for plastic surgery or Indian casinos or weed or, indeed, a local optometrist as per the all-seeing eye of a certain Dr. Eckleberg. One can choose to see them, see through them, but can’t abandon the car.
Rogers sets up the mechanics of drama but, like the ploughman who misses the fallen, drowned Icarus and the ship and the sea, his characters are stuck on the freeway, or have to get back to work, to life.
Not McGuffin. Not Meta-Fiction
Here’s the best part. The enviably clever, sincere if also polemical conceit of The Whole of the Moon is its assumption of everybody’s familiarity with not only everyday resignation combined with distractions of beauty but a sense that this is our shared, doomed heritage. And where have so many of us been introduced to this credo? In a short, idiomatic, perfect, noirish literary American novel typically taught in tenth grade, AP English or perhaps in a freshman college writing class. “Everybody” here means both characters in and readers of The Whole of the Moon.
Rogers soft sells this premise, though the book’s publisher helpfully features a graphic of the old-school library check-out stamp card on his cover. The author expects we will get it, or pretend to. He asks that we buy in to this inherently democratic, affirming if perhaps nostalgic ultimate hypothetical of the story: that the six main characters of this novel have, over forty years, each checked out the very same public library copy of The Great Gatsby, Dewey Decimal catalog number 813.52 FIT.
If you can’t or won’t embrace and admire that backstory, the novel is not for you, friend. But you should. Our political and cultural moment is lately characterized by an assumption of everyday alienation and estrangement, of nearly banal class warfare and extremes of wealth and poverty, as well as an organized rightist assault on Blacks and people of color, not to mention labor, science, government, history, civic literacy and more. That’s why I believe this novel is for you, and now. Against our blind nightmare of estrangement Rogers offers life stories, inter-informing fictional biographies and autobiographies with the quietly implied curation of the calm civic poet who sees for us the man-god fall into the sea, who apprehends the ship, who observes the ploughman, who esteems the painter, and who will do the work of telling the story despite it all.
What a moment indeed, to present individual failures and disappointments as, finally, everyone’s failures and disappointments: “USA, USA, USA.” And to make the project of the novel also depend on the project of thinking about reading itself as a still-viable expectation of civic life. And, finally, to stress-test that expectation as likely revealing yet another likely collective failure! The backstory of the shared physical library book is not a cute plot device or easy cheerleading or nostalgia, and it is certainly not a MacGuffin. The book is a totem, just out of reach. It is a guide, a foundational document. It’s The Great Gatsby, after all. In The Whole of the Moon there is not a book within a book, or a clever riddle or an easy reveal. The Fitzgerald is never situated center stage. In fact, I suppose it is possible, finally, that the novel might be read, appreciated without Gatsby at all. But armed with the conceit, one only further appreciates the kinship, shared citizenship, unspoken acknowledgement of a near-spiritual text, catechism, devotional. This might be embarrassing were not the powerful emptiness of both books so ecstatic. It approaches the mystical, echoing the plea for a kind of pagan romantic doomed solidarity sung by that Scottish Irish musical ensemble on the cassette deck.
Reserving Judgments, Indeed
Published by University of Nevada Press, The Whole of the Moon received absolutely no reviews in any of the national or local newspapers, literary websites or magazines, journals where you’d think it would have garnered attention, been argued for, or even negatively critiqued. Yet Kirkus described the novel as “ambitious and thoughtful” and further offered: “Infused with subtle, evocative details, each story beautifully, quietly beats on against time’s current.” This short final line is both laudatory and lazy, if a generous gift to readers. Its easy Gatsbyism invites us to feel literate, smart, clued-in, part of somebody or other’s readerly and civic project. It’s also an obvious if perfect potential blurb for a second printing of the book, which of course never happened.
In that blurb even marginally hip readers, of all ages and who must number in the millions, might recognize a reconstruction of the novel’s famous closing line: an anthem, prayer, eulogy, catechism or, indeed, Americanism, that beautiful poetic bit about “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” But who knows, finally, what people remember from their high school English class? What they remember from their civics class, or of Auden? Rogers, maybe, thinking wishfully or wistfully. Or, finally, I argue, willfully.
Those readers might recall other defining lines from The Great Gatsby, including an early one: “Reserving judgments is an act of infinite hope.” That’s Nick Carraway’s self-cautioning advice. Readers invited, compelled, perhaps required to read The Great Gatsby toward composing a short essay or report will, Brian Rogers hopes, have taken from the novel the message, still radical today, that hope, finally, is not infinite, that the “orgiastic future” recedes before us, that embracing the fantasy of an infinite anything --- past, future, material or economic bounty, love --- is just no way to live.
They might have scored well enough on a quiz where a teacher, one like Brian Rogers, asked them to discuss “fundamental decencies,” “moral attention,” and “abortive sorrows and short winded elations of men.” Rogers the writer expected them to at least have passed his class, remembered something, if not of the novel about Nick, Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, Jordan, Myrtle Wilson, Dr. Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, and Meyer Wolfshein, then at least of the experience (!) of reading it and having been promised, assured, perhaps persuaded of its importance and resonance. And of its potential for understanding something of the unfulfillable and unsustainable in a land of veterans and bootleggers and robber barons and excess and its giddy descendants, the dot com billionaires and endless war and Trump. All of which would crash a few years later, then, as it is crashing now.
This, of course, is the argument I had hoped somebody had offered at the memorial book club celebration of a writer: The truly imaginative conceit of the novel The Whole of the Moon is not the sweet if powerful gimmick of that single copy of a public library book read by a multiplicity of citizens over a period of forty years of life in the bluest of blue states (one which nonetheless has delivered to the nation Nixon, Reagan and worse). No, it is the reminder, insistence, imperative that the shared experience of reading that book might be the backdrop or assumption or environment in or upon which is built empathy, civic engagement, and storytelling.
“Might be” is not, of course, must be. The “snobbish” aphoristic advice given by Nick Carraway’s father to his son leads to another American truism from Nick about injustice and struggle and our pretend democracy, that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.” No kidding. And a line, by the way, which Fitzgerald might have cribbed from Tolstoy’s Anna Pavlovna: “I often think how unfairly life’s good fortune is sometimes distributed.”
There’s not much good fortune and little fundamental decency in the lives dramatized in The Whole of the Moon. Yet we are clearly meant to imagine that, despite not knowing each other, the readers of that public library copy of The Great Gatsby can imagine each other. Or at least try. They must, if they are readers, citizens, even characters. Why? Because they have read that novel, or at least been assigned it and should have read it or at least should want, urgently, to read it.
Just Down the Road
"A book sits on a table inside a Los Angeles apartment complex, just down the road from where the author died. Can you see it through the window, like a baby grand piano ready to be played?"
Rogers, or the narrator, or both, ask, and then invite us, and his characters, to answer. Seeing is believing. Seeing is also just seeing. There is the Actor, a young, handsome single white guy residing in a cheap apartment complex on Fairfax, not far from where Fitzgerald died. He sees a lot, but apprehends little. He lays out poolside, tanning, and pointedly not reading the book he has checked out in anticipation of being cast in a dumb TV series set in the Jazz Age. He is shallow, ambitious and vain. He doesn’t know a damn thing about the Jazz Age, but because he has been to high school and is an American, whatever that means, he at least knows to start with The Great Gatsby.
There is the music teacher and second-rate composer attempting to write a musical of the novel, inspired in part by his one-time meeting with Richard Rodgers, his idol. There are the charming, goofy teens, lost in the San Gabriels, who have read and studied the required “classic” before ditching school one day to hike the mountains. They nearly freeze to death a few miles from the freeway, just down the road. That’s already half of our lost crew but this is a short, efficient novel (212 pages), with not much more room or need for further disappointment; just the right amount! There’s the talented if insecure baseball player who blows his one chance at pro ball. There’s my favorite, the single mom named, yes, Felicity (for both irony and faith) whose life changes from to latchkey kid to grad student but who departs academia for a more authentic life teaching rich kids at a prep school (like Rogers) with her son named --- wait for it --- Nick. And, finally, there is the Carrawayesque author-type witness himself with whom Felicity works, who explains the disappearance and death of his misfit criminal con artist relation, who can best of all indeed see the book, the piano, the landscape, all of it.
None of these are especially attractive or empathetic characters. They are not heroes. Not anti-heroes. Not iconic cartoons. Not political or existential misfits finding meaning in their wise, hip alienation. Not counter-cultural rebels or dropouts. Not eccentrics or villains. Yet Rogers makes us care about them, giving them full dimensionality and wholeness and inner lives. He asks us to wonder at them, not just about them. I suspect he is asking us to wonder if we can still imagine that we, readers, can also yet and still imagine each other.
Joan Didion, Of Course
"You can leave California. You can."
"So glad we bought that property back in ’82, they say; now we can cash out and move to Oregon or Colorado. But Felicity has no property to cash out, no man in the East beckoning her to come, the reel of Manifest Destiny playing in reverse, the stagecoaches moving backwards, the spikes flying out of the Transcontinental Railroad, the cities shrinking and the Arbella backing out of the harbor, no more City on a Hill, no more nagging notion that you must do better, no more America."
And then, at last, here it is, near the novel’s conclusion, Rogers’s one strident, ecstatic, proud giveaway of the whole beautiful project, his own Fitzgeraldian homage, the writer showing off, the teacher messaging his fellow writers, fellow citizens, perhaps reminding his students again of that book they read together. And of the end of America, thank you.
John Gast, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Whether through our shared civic reading list, her own scholarship or osmosis, the prep school teacher Felicity (and Rogers) tap easily, effortlessly into the tragic, revisionist if necessary hymn of “vast obscurity,” the “dark fields of the republic” seen from the freeway, the “orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,” and the duplicitous promise that “tomorrow we will run faster.” And why not? Fitzgerald is ours. And Felicity’s. He was a California writer, after all, finally and permanently, having been fated to die here after The Crack-Up and The Pat Hobby Stories, after screenplays and alcoholism and so many years after Gatsby but before it actually became our national prayer book.
So that after pages and chapters and years through and in-between the quotidian and the flat affect of sad reality a la Joan Didion --- especially Play It As It Lays --- the novel finds the language of poetry and secular canticle. It offers angry, giddy empowerment in mimicking, joyfully, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is a gorgeous, painful and hard-earned moment, redemptive and honest, and built on, yes, a kind of faith. It is, finally, not the religious faith of D. J. Waldie but faith nonetheless, as expressed in a literary, mystical, and yet honest vision of wholeness, where art illuminates a very difficult reality indeed. It’s a full moon on a very dark night. One so bright you could read by.
Andrew Tonkovich is the founding editor of Citric Acid. His fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, Zyzzyva, Faultline, Juked, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He wrote for both OC Weekly and the Orange County Register. With Lisa Alvarez, he co-edited the landmark Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, and is the author of two fiction collections, The Dairy of Anne Frank and More Wish Fulfillment in the Noughties and Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations.