How to write a story. Take a lesson from John Hassler

I am reading The Dean’s List by John Hassler and loving it.   The voice of a college professor, Leland Edward,  turned dean of Rockery State College fills my ears.  The story is related to Edward’s aging mother, Lolly, and their life together. After his father’s death when he was a teen, the relationship between the mother and her young son became symbiotic. His mother is still the focus of his life as he turns 60.   They share the family house where Edwards was raised.  A broken marriage and the death of a child has not changed this.  As a result of the relationship with his mother, he has managed to bridge the gap between his age and that of his mother.  He spends a great deal of time with her age mates in an assisted living facility she visits frequently called The High Rise.  The conversation of the residents, all the age of his mother, fill his ears and mind.  He has become a tolerant by stander and an ardent listener.  The book is set on the college campus and the college community in Minnesota.

I loved a passage relating a conversation between the residents of the High Rise.  Lolly and her friends are gathered around a table.  Dean Edwards is sitting against the wall and participating when he is asked.   They are talking about their investments.  (If you are old you know that older people do this A LOT!) Hildegarde, Lolly’s friend,  has set herself up as the expert…she is against it all…well almost it all.  The two page dialogue is ended with a punchline that had me rolling.  Here it is:

[CDs] …aren’t taxed.  Horace always hated paying taxes.”  (Nettie Firehammer)

“Who doesn’t,” says Mother, “but that’s no reason to settle for three percent.  Leland, what is Angelo (a fellow college professor) saying these days about Procter and Gamble?”

“I’ll ask him.”

“Stay away from Procter and Gamble,,” orders Hildegard.  “You can’t trust corporations anymore, what with takeover and insider trading.  I’d give my money to gypsies before I’d give it to Procter and Gamble.”  

 “Horace always liked a bar of Ivory in the tub, the way it floats.”

“Ask Angelo about treasury notes too, would you, Leland?”

“No good,” declares Hildegard.  “Treasury notes are worthless.  I’d  keep my cash in a sock before I’d put it in treasury notes.”

“The worst thing is commodities,” says Nettie.  “Horace said to his dying day, never get into commodities.”  Mother laughs.  “We learned our lesson about commodities, remember Leland?”.

I nod, regretting the bundle we lost on pork bellies.  It cured me of dabbling in the market.  The more ignorant I’ve remained since, the better off we have become.

“It was so sad and touching, how he died,” says Nettie of her beloved Horace.  “He’d been unconscious since midnight, and about noon he opened his eyes.  The doctor was there in the room, and all my sisters.  So was our brother-in-law, Les.  So was our dog.  Horace was lying there, looking me straight in the eye—I’ll never forget it.  He said, ‘Nettie, never get into commodities‘ and then he died.”

We fall silent for a moment, out of respect for Horace in his wisdom.

“Commodities will make you some money,” Hildegard says, her eyes fastened on mine, “if you have the brains for it.”

Timing is everything don’t you think.  I read my first Hassler novel many years ago.  Staggerford was a touching book with a tragic ending.  It was one I asked my son, the teacher, to read.  He liked the book but the ending did not suit him.  Subsequent books probable all have a little bit of that tragic undertone, much like an Anne Tyler book. An interviewer said:

Jon Hassler enjoys a devoted word-of-mouth following. The soulful “Staggerford” (published, at last, in 1977, when he was 42 years old) is, Hassler admits, “a cult book among English teachers, at least around Minnesota.” His seven subsequent novels are recommended by knowledgeable librarians and thoughtful booksellers all over the country.

So there you have it.  As a byline, I was giving a stack of his books by a friend last fall.  I will read them all.  I love the man’s writing.  And blogging is the ultimate “word of mouth”.  The age of a book does not matter.


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