Sunday, May 5, 1985
Menu Magazine’s first issue (1985) reviews Richard Grayson’s Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog and I Brake for Delmore Schwartz:
Reading Richard Grayson is like banging your elbow hard on something: the pain is there, but the initial tingling feeling brings an involuntary gasp of laughter. In nearly all of the stories in Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog and I Brake for Delmore Schwartz, Grayson presents painful situations of verying [sic] degrees but equal intensity. Shame, embarrassment, incompetency, greed and grief are the dominant emotions of his works. But that initial tingling feeling—the urge to laugh against what you know is bound to come—is created by Grayson’s uncanny, ironic perception of human nature in the most desparate [sic] of situations.
One is quite tempted to lump Grayson in the contemporary category of “confessional” writer. Most often, the central character in each story seems an extension of Grayson himself. Common themes deal with bisexuality, Judaism and writing. And if the reader lacks knowledge of Grayson’s personal background, the plotlines can seem downright nonsensical. That by the end of each book the reader feels a certain intimacy with the author is no mere coincidence, so completely does Grayson embody each character, theme and incident with shades of his own voice.
Or does he? That is the enigma, the final enigma, of each Grayson story. Each story smacks of “the voice” that so broadly comes forth in “Diarrhea of a Writer,” in which Grayson treats writing as if it were the ultimate indulgence. When the reader encounters a familiar story form in which the characters are active rather than passive, he is apt to read it warily, just waiting for “the voice” to address him directly. In one hilarious piece, “For the Time Being,” “the voice” interrupts a pathetic reminiscence by a pathetic adolescent who measures his worth through a collection of autographed magazine covers. “The voice” stops the action and confirms what the reader already suspects: “The ‘I’ of this story is really me, Richard Grayson, and not some literary device. You can call this fiction if you want to, but it is true.” What follows is an emotional tirade on the repeated rejections the writer must face.
The hook is established. One constantly searches for symbolism, and thanks to Grayson, is easily satisfied. But, thankfully, Grayson is not the Sylvia Plath of contemporary fiction; nor do his stories evoke the whining self-pity confessional writers thrive on. When Grayson recants [sic?] tales of his childhood (“Appearance House”), sexual awakening (“18/X/1969”), the shame of the Holocaust (“Reluctance”), the anguish of writing (“Nice Weather, Aren’t We”), he tempers the barest of human emotions with gentle twists of irony and sharply seasoned satire. Those are his structures, in the confines of which lie much deeper questions the reader must ask himself. In short, the passive technique Grayson so expertly employs invites action on the highest level by the reader. And that, though “the voice” would be hard-pressed to admit it, is what good fiction is about.
That Grayson so openly laughs at himself is what makes the tragedy of his stories so bearable. Through “the voice,” Grayson makes it quite clear that things are not always what they seem. Life is a prism to Grayson, and he sees through its spectrum by satire, siphoning the light colors from the dark, even though the dark may be the most brilliant. By repeatedly returning to adolescence (“Robin, Remontant,” “Only Time Will Tell”), Grayson goes back to a time when what we expect to be and what we are becoming are two different things. The pain that comes in recognizing and accepting that fact are the cornerstone emotions of those pieces. And Grayson’s penchant for history (“The Story of William Henry Harrison’s Cold,” “Summoning Alice Keppel,” “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog”) supremely shows the irony of fate against the sharpest calculations.
Considering Grayson’s skill at presenting the dark side of life so enjoyably, it is somewhat surprising that the story that captured this writer most was “The Smile in the Closet.” Here, Grayson writes of a man so totally alienated from “the voice,” the story seems strangely out of context: “Secretly, you see, he was happy. . . Perhaps, he kept thinking, one day he would go back to normal. But somehow he never did. And: “. . . there was no demarcation line, no DMZ between optimism and pessimism, no date that he could pinpoint the time when he finally decided that the good in life far outweighed the bad.”
Funny, touching and supremely talented, Richard Grayson is an author who draws equally well from the human heart’s strengths . . . and its weaknesses.
—Reviewed by Susan Kurnas