A Mouth Like Yours by Daniel Duane. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005; 195 pages; $24.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
A brutally honest novel about love and illusion from the author of Caught Inside. Cassius Harper, ambivalent child of the Seventies, is leading a modest and respectable life in San Francisco's flush Nineties: he has a promising doctoral thesis, a doting new lover, the company of old friends and adoring parents, even a rent-controlled apartment by the beach where he's surfed all his life. So why the upwelling of nameless dread? Why the regret after cocktail parties and the road rage and, worst of all, the certainty that he is somehow a stranger to himself? Harper has always seen transformative love as the heart's salvation; but he's found his elusive ideal only twice, with miserable consequences. A Mouth Like Yours tells of a third and grand collision, with the vulnerable, volatile, and addictive Joanie Artois.
So quickly does Harper lose himself in Joanie, so thoroughly does she colonize his heart, that he sets out to understand why, exactly, love always unmans him this way. Exploring what carnal love can do for us and what it cannot, A Mouth Like Yours is a poignant statement about the growing pains of a generation.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
The New York Times: Cassius Harper, a Berkeley graduate student, delivers a throe-by-throe account of his painful subjection to Joan Artois, daughter of a vague California aristocracy and flakier than a mille-feuille. She seemingly rolls up together every wild and witchy heroine in modern fiction, from Hemingway's Brett Ashley to Capote's Holly Golightly.
Publisher's Weekly: Duane tracks the emotional meanderings of Berkeley grad student Cassius Harper in this meticulous study of the ambivalence and romantic bewilderment of privileged American 20-somethings.... Duane offers moments of keen observation and emotional lucidity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Daniel Duane is the author of Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast (NPP, 1996) and Looking For Mo (FSG, 1998). He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two young daughters.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
In a year's time I read perhaps 50 novels and leaf through many more. Of new novels I've read in 2005, I cannot think of one that moved me more deeply than A Mouth Like Yours. The novel reads as if the reader were playing and re-playing an old and favorite love song, a song perhaps popular when the reader herself were younger and in love. With each replay the text reveals some new aspect of a lover's character or a view across water or a night when too much wine was drunk. The story is fraught with gawky tenderness and pain and told in sentences that dig into the memory the way worms dig into compost. Duane knows what hurts and he knows how to get that pain onto paper. I asked about Mr. Duane's title and said how much I liked it.
The title, of course, is from Joni Mitchell's song "A Case of You," from which comes the line, "She had a mouth like yours."
"I'm glad you like it. I like it too," Mr. Duane said, "and I like saying it. I'm a big Joni Mitchell fan, and so was the Joan character until I confronted the fact that you have to pay an arm and a leg to reprint even a line or two of a Joni Mitchell song. Several Joni Mitchell songs seemed to me to capture the Joan character, or the character of women like her -- like the song 'Cactus Tree.' But the title came to mind while listening to 'A Case of You,' as in 'I could drink a case of you darling,/Still I'd be on my feet.'
"Once I'd picked the title it had a life for me separate from the song. I liked the various possible meanings -- I liked the sense of people echoed through other people, lives echoed through other lives. I liked the hint of Joanie's sharp tongue being bound up with her erotic allure, the hint of reprimand."
Daniel Duane was born in Washington, D.C., in 1967, to a lawyer father and housewife mother. Mr. Duane grew up in Berkeley and went to public schools. He graduated from Berkeley High in the class of 1985. He graduated from Cornell in 1989, where he fell under the spell of A.R. (Archie) Ammons (1926--2001).
As a child Mr. Duane was a reader of pulp. "My mother really didn't approve of all the things I read. I devoured science fiction and fantasy novels and Tarzan; I read the entire Tarzan series. John Carter of Mars and all that stuff. Anyway, my mother used to raise her nose at it and tell me how when she was my age she was reading, I don't know..."
"War and Peace?"
"Yup, that's what it was actually. 'A great Russian novel,' that's actually what she said.
"But at some point in high school, in 10th grade, somebody asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said I wanted to be a writer. I didn't have any sense that I would actively pursue that. So I had that idea. But as far as reading, I did, in my junior and senior years of high school, have English teachers I liked a lot. I got -- this is embarrassing -- but I was completely swept away by Fitzgerald.
"I read Fitzgerald all the way through in high school. This Side of Paradise, I was knocked out by it. I actually badly wanted to go to Princeton because of the fantasy of what that would be."
"Isn't it amazing when you come up on those first books and they take over your life?"
"Yeah. Yeah, yeah. In graduate school, where I did a Ph.D. in English at Santa Cruz, I was doing 19th-century American prose in critical theory. While I was there I had great experiences reading Joyce and Yeats. But I was reading all of this obscure 19th-century stuff. I had big experiences, you know, the big obvious 19th-century novels and Twain, especially Twain. But at some point in graduate school it occurred to me that I was on my way to getting a Ph.D. in English without having read any novels by Hemingway. So all of the 20th-century fiction that I read was as a result of that.
"One of the best reading experiences I had in college was when I took a seminar on Patrick White. I remember being transported and having that ache to imitate. 'The ache to imitate' has been really strong for me always, and yet I never really feel like I can do it. This novel I set out to write a very different book than I ended up writing. I had big ideas of copying various books that I admired, or emulating them I should say, and I put this book through so many forms trying to emulate one thing or another, and the form it ended up in was just the only form it would finally work in, and it wasn't anything like how..."
"How it started?"
"Yes, it really wasn't. It wasn't anything like what I dreamed of doing, formally speaking. The book it came closest to is Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, a very short French novel, written in 1816, one of these just beautifully compressed little, totally interior products. I also read books like Silk, and Duras's The Lover. Also, The Good Soldier, the Ford Madox Ford thing, excited me."
In 1994, Mr. Duane's first book was published. I asked how he happened to start publishing so early.
"Tom Farber. He just was a guy off the street from my parents' street and my parents knew him from the neighborhood. Berkeley is like that. What a great town. My parents must have told him at some point that I wanted to be a writer. You know what it was like, I was skateboarding up and down the street in front of his house, and he one day stuck out a bony claw and said, 'Come inside.'"
"He said, 'I'll give you a book.'"
"Yeah, he did. And he gave me a book. I mean, he gave me my first book in that he held my hand through the whole thing. I was 21. I was rock climbing a lot at the time, and he gave me marching orders. He said, 'Look, there's a book right in front of you and here's how you do it. Just for the next few months do X and then report back to me.' So I did that ferociously and reported back. And then he said, 'Okay, now do Y,' and then I did that ferociously and reported back.
"I came back home from Cornell in '89. And I lived in Berkeley for a year. Then I got into graduate school at Santa Cruz. I lived in Berkeley for two years and commuted to Santa Cruz while I did my coursework there. My life then was really all about rock climbing and writing that first book.
"That was a great experience. I moved to Santa Cruz to study for my qualifying exams. Graduate school was never really for me. I'd only applied to graduate schools that were near good surf breaks. I went just to have a flag to fly under for a while. The job market was terrible, and I
didn't know what I wanted to do, and you could get funding and TA-ships, and I could read a lot, and blah, blah.
"But then as the years go by, people get further and further entrenched in what they're doing, and you start to want the thing you're doing to add up to something. So I did eventually want very much to be an English professor, but the truth is I was ill suited to the style of thought and style of life.
"Academia was not a good fit for me. So Caught Inside opened the door to a different way of making a living. When it came out, I had another chapter or two to write on my dissertation. Farrar, Straus & Giroux gave me a contract for another book, and I was asked to write for some magazines. While these wonderful things were happening I couldn't even get a preliminary interview for an assistant professorship at Southern Oregon State University. Life was nudging me one way and not the other way. And there I was. I was 28. It was scary for me. I was really scared, yeah.
"So I took this plunge of moving to San Francisco and seeing if I could make it just writing. I got to working on a novel, and I started writing for surfing magazines. I actually loved it. I was on a boat in the Galapagos Islands with all these loud, young professional surfers, and I had a moment of feeling... I just loved it. I felt like this is the way I want to be in the world more than being a scholar. I wanted to have this crazy engagement with things. I've been living exclusively as a writer since then in one way or another."
Mr. Duane finished his dissertation, titled Dark Carnival . He taught off and on. He lived almost exclusively on book advances. "And that is to say I lived very modestly. I did a little bit of other stuff here and there to supplement, but that was it. Then I got married and our first daughter was born. I was well into working on this novel when that happened. That was quite a while ago. I've been working on this novel for way too long. Seven years."
"This book was really very hard for me to write. At times the manuscript was 550 pages long. And then it would shrink back down again and then it would expand again and shrink again and expand again and..."
"Like an accordion."
"Yeah, my editor went through this with me for a long time. And he said it was as if the book was breathing. You know, it would inhale and exhale. I just had the hardest time settling on the very fine parts. It was pretty difficult material for me. I had a hard time deciding what the story meant to me."
"Did you ever decide that?"
"No. I don't mean to say that this was some colossal act of creation. Just that it was hard for me. And a lot of that had to do with material I was very uncomfortable dealing with."
"Which is the best material to work with. It's alive."
"Yeah. I was really afraid of the material a lot of the time."
"One thing I note about this book is that it is your first book in which the narrator is not always a good boy."
"That's right. These are thoughts I have had myself quite recently. But there's a way in which in those earlier books I was, particularly in the first two, I was really being my parents' perfect child."
"There's nothing wrong with that."
"I couldn't have done any better growing up in the Berkeley that I grew up in and the household I grew up in, you know. I was really fulfilling some particular dream of our neighborhood and our family with those earlier books. And this book, imagining it coming out, has felt, to me, relative to that world, a little bit like I imagine coming out of the closet might feel. I finally have to say, 'This is also who I am.'"
"What do you think women will make of Joan?"
"I really don't know. I worry about it."
"I thought she was the kind of girl that intrigues almost every young man."
"She's the kind of person that men do a lot of imagining about."
"She's very Scott Fitzgerald."
"Yeah, and in that way she's a woman who lends herself to becoming a feature of a man's imagination. And I don't know what women will make of her."
"I didn't find the novel funny."
"It wasn't funny for me. That's for sure. Maybe there's a wry line or two here or there."
"There are odd and interesting time shifts in the novel. Can you explain them to me?"
"Let me see if I can. This is what I'm embarrassed to tell you -- one of my favorite books of all time, maybe my favorite book of all time, is Herzog. Anyway, maybe Herzog is doing that. Or the technique of that novel works that way --- the shifts. I guess I was groping for some of the freedom that Bellow claims for himself there.
"The reason the novel kept inflating and contracting as if there was this big net is that there was a pretty wide net of material that felt to me like it belonged in this story. And there were themes about the narrator's mother and the narrator's father and Joan's mother and Joan's father. And the narrator's grandfather and the narrator's past sexual history and other things as well.
"As I tried to pare the book down to what was essential, to what had to be there, which was very hard for me to do, I was left with short threads of many of these different pieces. But some felt to me like they had to be a part of it. So I was trying to find a way to make the argument that all of these things were a part of the same experience. All of these memories somehow informed the same emotional conclusions."
"It's odd to me that a novel like this new one of yours is so interior and private and secretive, almost coded, and yet is such a page-turner."
"It does feel very private to me. I'm actually anxious you know about it coming out.
"There's material in it that's so personal, that's part of what makes me nervous about it. I imagine going to give readings from this thing, which I'm going to do, and standing up in front of groups of people and thinking, 'Oh, my God.' Where in this book can I possibly read without doing an emotional striptease?
"Just to revisit a point I already made which is that when I say I set out to write a different book and that point is that there was just a huge amount of emotional material for me that I wanted to deal with here. I wrote very elaborate, fully realized subplots that were hundreds of pages long that are not a part of this. That aren't here. Whole scenes and parties and characters and all kinds of stuff. It was ultimately humbling for me how the book just kept coming back to something like the form it's in now."
"The book feels entirely finished and perfectly polished."
"I really wanted it to feel finished. I think I tortured my editors with this thing. All the books prior to this one I wrote in a white heat. Caught Inside I wrote in seven months. My first novel I wrote in about a year. They came one after the other, and by the time the first one came out, I was halfway through writing the next one, and I think I assumed it would always be that way for me.
"And then I hit some wall in my life; this story was like a wall for me. Whatever it was, this book wouldn't yield."
"This is an adult book. This is a grownup's book."
"Maybe I had a hard time growing up."
"I would think before I would give this book to a 15-year-old. Whereas the others I would have given to a younger person. This is a very complex book. It also has something de Sadean about it --don't you think?"
"It has that darkness in it. Especially in the New York scenes."
"People were really being bad to each other."
"Also, I think that the narrator shows himself in sections of the book to be such a cad. That's hard to write. No wonder it took all those years. And how old now is your oldest child?"
"She's going to be three in September. And do I want my daughters to read this? Hell no. When they're in their 30s, if they're interested, they can track it down and never tell me that they've done it."
"So what do you do all day?"
"I write. I write all day."
"What do you see out your window?"
"I see a cute little picket fence."