Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Michael Dahlie, and "The Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living"

Last night Butler hosted its first author of 2011, Michael Dahlie. Dahlie, a PEN/Hemingway and Whiting Award winner, is Butler's first Booth Tarkington Writer-in-Residence, has published short fiction in prestigious literary journals such as The Kenyon Review, and has written several young adult novels.

Last night's reading was unique. Although I've attended most of the author lectures at Butler over the past year or two, this was the first time I've ever had occasion to meet the author beforehand. Dahlie was my teacher last semester, in a prose workshop. I could recall times in class when Michael, (am I showing off by casually calling him by his first name?), touched upon certain parts of his novel in making a point about a student's writing, so I approached his reading last night with curiosity, wondering what might lie behind those brief remarks.

One of the parts of "The Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living" Dahlie read from last night was the section that recounted Arthur Camden's childhood. The restaurant scene in which boy-Arthur insists on ordering Lobster Newburg only to realize that, despite its disgusting appearance, he would have to eat it in order to save face, was so poignant and vivid I couldn't help but recall a time from my own childhood when my brother found himself trapped in the same unfortunate circumstance.

In the Q & A portion of the evening I asked Michael if the plot of "The Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living" came to him in bits and pieces as he wrote the story, or if it came to him as a whole, even before he began writing it. He answered that the seed of the book was the first section, or quarter, in which Arthur accidentally burns down his fishing lodge. He originally wrote this as a short story, (which he claimed was unpublishable), and then decided to take the story further by adding three additional sections.

Dahlie was asked how he felt about the protagonist, Arthur Camden. (There was a buzz, both in the audience last night and in the Visiting Writers class I'm now taking, that Arthur's character is, for some readers, a challenge to embrace. Arthur tries to do the right thing but is ineffectual, and those around him use him as a punching bag.) It was clear Dahlie has a lot of affection for this character, and he explained that Arthur's struggles and missteps were a reflection of his own struggles as an adolescent. When Michael was twelve his family moved from London to New Jersey. That first year in America, trying to bridge the culture gap, proved to be a challenge. It was from that experience of eating lunch by himself everyday, from that geeky feeling of otherness, that Arthur emerged. Dahlie described Arthur as "an agent of his own misery," although in the end Arthur shows his essential goodness by nobly taking the higher road and not exacting revenge on those who have shunned him.

There was some discussion about the novel's title. Dahlie remarked that many books are published only to fade into obscurity, and that this catchy title was chosen in an attempt to bypass that potential pitfall. Even so, he said he has remorse about this title because it is somewhat misleading.

One of the English professors in the audience asked whether or not the book was a statement about class and politics, as the world Arthur and his cohorts inhabit is one wealth and privilege. Dahlie remarked that, because of the book, people often assume he is of that world, but that's not the case. Still, despite this, Dahlie pointed out that no one goes through life problem free, regardless of his or her socioeconomic status. Just because someone comes from a privileged background doesn't mean his or her life's challenges aren't interesting.

There's a thick layer of ice covering the streets today. School is cancelled. I had hoped to ask Michael more questions as he was due to come to my Visiting Writers class today. Let's hope for a thaw so I can post Part Two of Michael Dahlie.

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