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Friday, February 23, 2018

Omensetter's Luck (1966) by William H. Gass


Book Review
Omensetter's Luck (1966)
 by William H. Gass

  William Howard Gass died on December 7th of last year.  As for all artists, death provides an opportunity to re-evaluate (or evaluate for the first time) the published works of the dead artist. It's macabre, if you stop to think about it, but it is also very true.  Gass is typically grouped among the first generation of American post-modernist writers of fiction.  He wasn't just a novelist- he held down a professorship in philosophy at Washington University for several decades, and he only published three novels and two collections of shorter works of fiction.  He was more verbose when it came to non fiction, putting out a dozen more academic works, ranging from literary criticism to philosophy.

  He never really found mainstream acceptance, in terms of a celebrity level media profile or a single book that broke out to a broad, general audience.  Of what is there, Omensetter's Luck, Gass' first novel, is generally considered his most readable- which is saying something about the other two- because Omensetter's Luck is hardly readable.  Literary reputation as a post-modernist aside, it was hard for me to grasp, what exactly, was post modern about Omensetter's Luck, vs. the high modernism that it actually appears to be.

  High modernism in the sense that Gass employs a very strict stream of consciousness technique for the middle hundred pages of a three hundred page book.  High modernism in the sense that nothing is explained to the reader.  There is none of the humor or mischievousness of post-modernism here, only strict historical (meta?) fiction. Gass, writing a half century after high modernism's hey day, was plugging into an aesthetic that would have been appreciated by the critical audience of the mid 1960's, but high modernism, even in it's own day, rarely had what one would call a popular audience.

  Omensetter's Luck is "about" the eponymous Brackett Omensetter, who moves down the river in 19th century Ohio.  After a brief introduction, the main part is the stream of consciousness of Jethro Furber, the local priest, who become obsessed with Omensetter's "luck" and gradually disintegrates mentally as a result of the strength of his hatred.

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