It’s called I Hear the Train: Reflections, Inventions, Refractions (2001). It’s a book of collected non-fiction and fiction by the late and much missed Louis Owens (1948-2002), who was a scholar of Steinbeck, a novelist, and most importantly to me, and from a purely selfish point of view, my professor at The University of California Santa Cruz. I loved him. Even though it was only one class at some point between 1988 and 1990, I believed he walked on water. He glows in my memory. I wish I could say that we had a special connection of some kind (we did not.) I was one of a handful of students in his class who gave a damn about reading and who was not afraid to engage. (Which is a euphemism for talking a lot.) Anyway, he noticed me, he acknowledged me, he let me know that he believed in me, and then I was gone, graduated, and when I came looking for him after becoming a professor, he was not with us anymore. Soon I’ll be the same age he was when I was his student, which is very strange.
I’ve labeled this an “incomplete” review because I Hear the Train is a book that I am reading in stops and starts. I am most immediately drawn to the non-fiction in the book because I want to know more about who Louis Owens was, and where he came from, literally speaking (as opposed to literarily speaking). After reading several of his essays, I think anyone would be fascinated by his life. He grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma and California and came to identify as a mixblood because he was Cherokee and Irish. He was also firefighter and a lumberjack, a knower of literary theory and literatures, a novelist, a husband, a father, and a professor.
At the center of I Hear the Train is the life-affirming value of story-telling as survival and as self-identification. The stories we tell about who we are never scientific or certain, much less the stories we inherit from family members and through which we hope to find a foreshadowing of who we are. Owens writes:
“My inheritance, it leaves in the air a trace out of which I will construct history, mirroring consciousness…Like that dollop of sourdough left behind in the bowl to double infinitely into another loaf, it becomes stories that birth others…We make stories in order to find ourselves at home in a chaos made familiar and comforting through the stories we make, searching frantically for patterns in the flux of randomly recorded events, a world in which endings stalk us and we can only keep inventing ways to both explain and forestall closure” (xiii). For him, the self is a “hybrid monster…the ultimate cannibal to which all stories lead” (xiv).
In the essay “Finding Gene,” Owens recalls a reunion with the big brother he idolized and that had disappeared after Vietnam. The experience of reuniting with a witness from his childhood is powerful because it awakens dormant memories and nourishes self-knowledge. Chapters like “Bracero Summer,” “Mushroom Nights,” and “In the Service of Forests,” are tales of labor and intercultural male companionship; in them we learn about how Chicanos, African Americans, poor whites, and even an Asian American, are thrown together to work the farmfields, fight fires, or grow mushrooms in hothouses full of manure. (You’ll never think of mushrooms the same after reading “Mushroom Nights,” I guarantee it.) Owens is there, the Cherokee-Irish young hombre, working hard, getting into a fistfight, listening to the confidences, staring into the flames. The chapter “My Criminal Youth,” about his childhood experiences as a burglar, uses the metaphor of being in a locked house in the dark, feeling scared, to indicate his (and our) deepest existential fears of being trapped, of finding no release, of perishing. He writes about vividly recalling how he groped “…toward a door that must exist somewhere” (89). The literal experience takes on a deep, existential tone; maybe Louis was always a burglar of some kind, fighting the demons of fear while searching for a way out. “And just as it was during my brief burglarly days, I have tried my best to take nothing, exulting instead in the thrill of stealth, the craft of cunning, the successful escape, the knowledge that all is never lost…One could do worse” (89).
The essay about his experiences teaching American literature in Pisa, Italy in 1981 is titled “Roman Fervor, or Travels in Hypercarnavale.” He writes about the students not having access to the books he’s teaching, and about typing and mimeographing poems and stories to share with them. He says that no one read what he assigned and passed out, and that he settled into acting out and retelling what was in the great classics of American Literature. Then the students won’t discuss or engage because they expect him to pour information and summaries into them. We’re supposed to chuckle over these situations which are so alien to what we do in the United States, but actually, it’s precisely how I teach nowadays, because students don’t read, don’t get the books, don’t discuss, and expect the same monkey business that Owens describes. In this case, it’s an issue of the web, social media, the tyranny of powerpoint, and a general confusion about what college is and why words exist in the world. Making this connection between my experiences and his is liking stumbling on a lost, beautiful echo.
That chapter about Italy, to some small degree, made me see myself in Louis, for the first time. I can think of a hundred ways in which I will never see myself in him, but in that one chapter, and in those tales about how he tried to teach, I saw a glimmer of something related to myself. And isn’t that the kind of story everyone wants to tell about themselves? That in some way we reflect back the mentors we loved? I don’t know. That’s saying a lot, maybe it’s silly thinking, but I’ll leave it there anyway as food for thought, and maybe come back later to explore the fiction in I Hear the Train.