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Little House in the Suburbs

John O'Brien's Dalkey Archive Press has put Elmwood Park and Lisle on the literary map.



There were few novels, indeed few books of any kind beyond the Bible and an occasional western or detective potboiler, in young John O'Brien's middle-class, Irish Catholic home in suburban Elmwood Park. Despite a rich Irish literary tradition that includes James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Sean O'Casey, O'Brien insists that the Chicago Irish have always feared the written word, avoiding even approved theology in favor of direct priestly authority.

Certainly his parents were fearful when, carrying a recommended-reading list prepared by a much-loved English literature teacher, the 15-year-old O'Brien took $50 in Christmas money and headed downtown to Kroch's & Brentano's. There, in what he now regards as low-key teenage rebellion against the comfortable but antiintellectual life of his stockbroker father's family, he stocked up on paperback classics, including books by writers such as Joyce, Faulkner, and George Bernard Shaw.

Suspicious of the strange intruders their son had brought into their home, his parents made a list of young John's purchases and took them to the parish priest, who confirmed their worst fears: several of the books were on the Catholic church's index of prohibited reading. His parents seized the cache--even the works by Catholic writers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman--but that only spurred John's interest. He started bringing home armloads of books from the Chicago Public Library, as many as 20 at a time. His defeated parents decided to trust their son's soul to God and returned his books.

Thirty years later, O'Brien still lives in the same Elmwood Park house. The town, it used to be said, was just like neighboring Oak Park except that its streets and minds were narrower. Now O'Brien is helping to redress that slight. As the birthplace of his Dalkey Archive Press, his hometown has become something of a landmark: a recent New Yorker article concluded with a cultural-hipness test that included the item "Elmwood Park."

Dalkey Archive may not be Simon & Schuster; O'Brien's all-time blockbuster has sold only about 6,300 copies. But Dalkey Archive's Chromos, a resurrected 40-year-old manuscript by Spanish emigre Felipe Alfau, was one of five novels nominated for the 1990 National Book Award. Another novel due out this year by Nicholas Mosley recently won Great Britain's prestigious Whitbread fiction award. While Dalkey's list of published works, a mix of modern classics rescued from out-of-print obscurity and contemporary adventures on the frontier of fiction, includes few household names, its writers are a well-respected lot: Harry Mathews, Raymond Queneau, Gilbert Sorrentino, Louis Zukofsky, Djuna Barnes, and Ronald Firbank, to name a few. Increasingly the books are reviewed in major journals, from Washington Post Book World to the New Yorker. And last year judges awarded Dalkey Archive a Carey-Thomas Award (sponsored by Publishers Weekly) for its discovery (and rediscovery) of experimental writers.

Dalkey Archive Press--the name is borrowed from the title of a novel by the wonderfully inventive comic Irish writer Flann O'Brien--publishes what is loosely called "avant-garde" or "experimental" fiction. But terms like that can be misleading: in their play with both language and form Dalkey's writers are heirs to a tradition of fiction as old as the novel itself. Readers who enjoy Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, William Gass, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, Jorge Luis Borges, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez might find the Dalkey Archive a congenial corner. The books often require the reader to work, but in return they offer the rich pleasures of the imagination.

One might expect such a publisher to have an address in lower Manhattan. But Dalkey Archive thrives both in spite of and because of its location on Chicago's suburban fringe. Chicago may lose the press, however, despite O'Brien's attachment to the area, as institutions in other areas woo him with offers of support he doesn't receive here. For instance, Illinois State University, which already houses a publishing venture called the Fiction Collective, has been trying to lure Dalkey Archive to Bloomington.

The story of the press is somewhat more straightforward than the plots of some of its novels.

John O'Brien survived suburban captivity (the teacher who helped him along the path to literary enlightenment was later fired for his good taste in books) and studied literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Later, at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, he wrote a dissertation about black American writers. He had been interested mainly in contemporary fiction, which usually meant writers like John Updike and Saul Bellow. But his dissertation work, particularly encounters with Leroi Jones (later Imamu Amiri Baraka) and Ishmael Reed, led him to discover "a whole different view of literature and what it was supposed to be doing," he said. "It was just mind-opening. Many of the novels I didn't know how to read."

O'Brien, now a soft-spoken, amiable 45-year-old, was hired in 1975 to teach literature at Illinois Benedictine College in southwest-suburban Lisle. The school's aging three-story main building has become home to Dalkey Archive Press as well. When it opened, the school catered mostly to the upwardly mobile children of Eastern European Catholic immigrants to Chicago. As a professor, O'Brien rebelled against what he saw as the dominant canon of academia and pursued instead the linguistically experimental tradition associated with Joyce, whose hermetic Finnegans Wake, he had been taught, marked the end of avant-garde writing. But practitioners of this formalist "experimental" strain live on, and O'Brien sought them out. In the spring of 1980 he met novelist and essayist Paul Metcalf at O'Hare, as Metcalf passed through town. Together they bemoaned how many books they both liked that were out of print and how little critical attention their favorite authors got.

Inspired by his conversation with Metcalf, O'Brien decided to start a magazine. "I assumed [it] would last five years, and I'd cover 25 to 30 authors and then stop it. I thought we might print up to 150 copies, and ten years later people would look back and say 'What happened to that magazine?'" But O'Brien's Review of Contemporary Fiction, a fairly academic journal about mainly living authors ignored by the academy, has hung on since its first issue in 1981. Now each book-sized issue sells about 2,400 to 3,000 copies, most of which highlight one or two authors with bits of unpublished work, critical comments, and reminiscences. Nearly half the subjects are European or Latin American writers. O'Brien says he wants to challenge what he sees as the parochialism of American readers and the reluctance of major publishers to issue translations (with the exception of the continuing boomlet in Latin American fiction).

But when he started, O'Brien found that many works by the authors he was celebrating were out of print. So in 1984 he arranged to reprint Gilbert Sorrentino's Splendide-Hotel, followed by about ten other paperback reprints. Then in 1985 Metcalf suggested a book of his own collected essays, and the same year an unsolicited translation of a French novel arrived--Yves Navarre's Our Share of Time. This novel of a tortured gay love affair, published in 1986, was Dalkey Archive's first original novel.

Slowly more manuscripts arrived, at first on the recommendation of writers O'Brien knew or of contributors to The Review. As the list grew, more unsolicited manuscripts arrived, but "there aren't a lot of hidden gems out there," O'Brien says. "It's a hard problem finding new 'new writing,' not imitators of the minimalism of the 80s," he says, referring to writers such as Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. "After the beats and the New York School, there hasn't been any recognizable new movement of writers. But we read everything we receive." All of each manuscript? "No," he says, in horror at the prospect, "God, no."

O'Brien's most dramatic success story is a romantic tale that's bound to give comfort to every discouraged writer who ever attempted a novel. In 1988 Steven Moore, a 37-year-old who had recently received a PhD in literature from Rutgers, joined the press as senior editor. Browsing in a used bookstore in a converted barn in western Massachusetts, Moore spotted a title he remembered from a casual reference made in a magazine article years earlier by one of his favorite novelists, Chandler Brossard. It was Locos: A Comedy of Gestures, by Felipe Alfau, published in New York in 1936 in a limited subscription edition of 1,750. Although it received some rave reviews at the time, from critics as distinguished as Mary McCarthy, the book quickly sank into obscurity. Moore bought the old book for $10, and less than ten pages into it, he says, he "knew this was a book Dalkey Archive should publish."

O'Brien and Moore assumed Alfau was dead; they searched libraries and reference books but could find nothing about him. Then someone suggested checking the New York phone book. Moore found his name listed, called, and reached the author, now 88 and retired from his longtime job as a translator at Morgan Bank. Moore asked if they could publish his book. "He said fine, but he seemed disinterested," Moore says. "He didn't want to have anything to do with it. I tried to explain about standard advance royalties, and he said to let it go." But despite his diffidence, Alfau privately must have had stronger feelings. "If it fails this time," he told O'Brien, "it's my fault."

When the book came out Alfau seemed pleased, but there was no critical response. O'Brien wrote and called, pleading with critics, and the book finally received several reviews, including glowing ones in the Washington Post and the New Yorker. Penguin picked up the paperback rights, adding to its edition an afterword by Mary McCarthy. Meanwhile, Chandler Brossard had mentioned that Alfau had written another novel, which had never been published. Alfau refused to discuss it until the success of Locos persuaded him to haul it out of a dresser drawer.

Alfau, a Spanish emigre who wrote some music criticism but had little knowledge of literature, had written Locos in New York in the late 20s when he was unemployed, hoping to earn some money to help support his wife and young child. "He said he thought he could write something different, and the novelty would help sell it," Moore says. It took Alfau eight years to find a publisher. In the meantime he had published a book of children's stories, Old Tales From Spain (1929). Over the years he also wrote some poems in Spanish, which he titled "Poemas Cursi," or "corny poems," which remain unpublished.

A flop as a commercial writer and, having secured a job as a translator, no longer desperate for money, Alfau gave up writing until 1946, when he began a new novel for his own amusement--"like building a ship in a bottle," Moore says. Two years later he and Brossard, who was one of Alfau's few literary friends, shopped the manuscript around, but no New York publisher was interested. Alfau put the novel away.

After the success of Locos, Alfau consented to publish Chromos. He wanted nothing to do with the editing of the heavily marked-up manuscript; he also refused to sign a contract and wanted no money: any earnings should go toward publishing other writers like himself.

Chromos is the convoluted tale of a group of "Americaniards," Spanish emigres in New York who are obsessed with Spain and Spanishness; with their culture's odd location on the peripheries of Europe, Africa, and Asia; and with the unsettling encounter between Spaniards and the Americas, especially the United States. They gather in apartments and cafes, debating life and literature, as the narrator reads bits and pieces of two manuscripts by his friend Garcia, which are interwoven with the text of the story itself.

As they eat tapitas and sip sherry and Spanish brandy the Americaniards relate memories of their native land that often resemble faded and stained chromos, or romantic calendar images of an idealized Spain. Seeing some of these chromos, the narrator fades into the reveries that constitute the bulk of the novel, with descriptions of the Americaniards' lives, Garcia's literary fragments, and other asides, including fantastic daydreams.

Having crossed the divide into a world of English, the Americaniard finds that his new language, "far from increasing his understanding of life, if this were possible, only renders it hopelessly muddled and obscure. . . . He gradually loses his capacity to see and think straight until he emerges with all other English-speaking persons in complete incapacity to understand the obvious." Befuddled by America, he is consumed with that which is castizo, or pure, Spanish--from proper genealogies to drinking straight from the bottle.

The narrator is often torn between two friends, representing two souls of Spain. One is the infidel Moor, the proprietor of the cafe. He is a man of great energy and passion who pushes the narrator into his exploration of the confusing world of the Americaniard. The other is a cool rationalist with a spiritual, Catholic dimension, who wants to lead the narrator to a meditative acceptance of life. In the end, the narrator cannot resolve the dilemmas explored in his journey with the Moor.

At some times confusing and others a bit slow, Chromos nevertheless quickly establishes and then maintains an intriguing sense of mystery. It builds to a powerful climax, a wild party in which the world turns inside out, fantasies of death and suppressed sexuality explode, and the Americaniards' quest for meaning in their expatriate experience reaches a fever pitch. Alfau's language is sometimes arch and circumlocutious, at other times straightforward and emotionally vivid. As the book's reception demonstrates, it would have been a loss had it simply remained in that dresser drawer. At the initiative of the judges (Dalkey hadn't submitted the book) it was nominated for the 1990 National Book Award.

Alfau now lives in a Queens nursing home; his second wife is dead, his only daughter lives in California. He avoids interviews and most people, spending much of his time watching television. In his old apartment he would discourage callers by saying he was Alfau's friend or a relative, explaining that Alfau was on a long trip to the south or Spain. Now there are only five people who can be admitted to see him, including his doctor, Moore, and O'Brien. He professes no interest in his books or in life.

"The first time I saw him he was just out of the hospital," O'Brien says. "I said 'You're looking quite good.' He said 'Please don't say that. I just want to die.' He says he wakes up every day and is dismayed he's alive. He has no reason for going on. But he's still quite witty, funny in a macabre way. After his National Book Award nomination, he said 'What do they know?' He thought the whole thing rather funny."

That nomination increased demands on the limited staff of Dalkey Archive Press. There was a second printing--now a total of 5,000--and a contract for paperback rights with Vintage. Success, however, is a mixed blessing for a small press like Dalkey Archive.

Increasingly the big publishers aim for blockbusters that may cost millions of dollars, and may earn as much, or more, in paperback sales and movie rights. Increasingly they ignore more serious, demanding books that may or may not make modest amounts of money.

"Commercial consideration is one of the last [concerns] for us," O'Brien says. "But we're not happy our books appeal to such a small group." The press, whose operating budget for 1991 is $300,000, survives by keeping overhead very low. There are four paid full-time employees. O'Brien, who still teaches full-time at Illinois Benedictine, takes no salary for the 40 or more hours a week he spends on the press. The staffers have done their own typesetting in an overcrowded office at the college, but they're now planning to move to new offices in a rehabbed building in downtown Naperville. The printing has been done by a new complex of specialists in small-press-run books that has emerged in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A New York publisher may need to sell 7,500 to 10,000 copies of a book to break even; Dalkey Archive can manage with sales of 1,000 to 2,000. Its biggest seller (6,300 copies), David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress (described as "the story of a woman who is convinced she is the only person left on earth"), was rejected by 25 New York publishers.

Other little presses have emerged to help fill the void left by New York, such as Grey Wolf, Coffeehouse, and Milkweed presses, all in Minneapolis, and most prominently North Point, based in Berkeley, California. North Point, which plans to shut down in June, had several very big hits (including Evan S. Connell's Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, recently made into a movie with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). But surprisingly O'Brien does not envy that success: "It's really one of the worst things that can happen to a small press to have a book that takes off. The National Book Award thing was terrific for us--but it was scary." Unfamiliar questions must be resolved for such a book, for instance whether to have press runs of 3,000 or 80,000. Guessing wrong can bankrupt a small press. Aiming for high sales can distort the editorial process, leading editors to consider manuscripts more for their commercial possibilities than for their literary qualities. Maintaining a larger staff raises overhead. North Point's success may have, in these ways, ironically contributed to its demise.

Publishing serious fiction has passed out of the commercial realm and into that zone inhabited by other endangered cultural species such as classical music and ballet, which must receive donations in order to survive. Recently Dalkey was one of nine literary presses awarded a multi-year grant by the Mellon Foundation. Yet Dalkey gets no help from local foundations. By contrast, Minneapolis has become a thriving publishing center--with the spin-off benefits of a richer cultural life and a variety of good bookstores--in part because local foundations have given the three small presses located there hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants. Though Dalkey must make do as a shoestring enterprise, it remains productive. This year the press plans to publish 15 new original titles and three reprints, adding to nearly 60 titles already in print.

O'Brien imagines his press in the model of the Grove Press of the 1960s or James Laughlin's New Directions. Like New Directions, all his jackets are black-and-white, not only because it's cheaper, O'Brien says, but because he likes the look and the sense of continuity it produces. He hopes that as the identity takes hold, reviewers will give Dalkey Archive books more attention. Now, he says, "if you want to see Garcia Marquez not get widely reviewed, let us do his next book." O'Brien says that if he moved from Chicago to New York, he'd be in a better position to hobnob in the publishing world, and he might be taken more seriously. "Being from Chicago outside of Chicago is fine," he says. "It's only in Chicago that it's a problem."

As Dalkey Archive's identity grows stronger, more writers may seek it out. "We see New York as the farm system," O'Brien says. "They'll find some writers, publish a few books, but not stick with them. Then we pick them up. In the next few years appearing on our list will mean a lot to some writers." Dalkey Archive's decision to keep all of its titles in print will mean a lot to both writers and future readers.

The Dalkey list already means a lot to Nicholas Mosley, an English novelist whose latest work, Hopeful Monsters, won the 1990 Whitbread award for novel of the year. Mosley, whose earlier novel Accident was made into a film by Joseph Losey in 1967, could have turned to a big New York publisher for this work. But he stuck with Dalkey Archive, which has published six of his novels, the most recent being Judith, about the chaotic life of a young woman drawn at times into the worlds of cults, the arts, and drugs. Dalkey is also bringing out Mosley's critical biography of his father, Oswald, an infamous British fascist.

So what makes a writer fit into the Dalkey list? In many ways, the archetypal Dalkey author is the one who gave the press its name, Flann O'Brien, who wrote several splendidly quirky comic novels, including At-Swim-Two-Birds, that inventively play with words, form, and characters. Some writers more clearly deserve the label "experimental" or "avant-garde": for example, Julian Rios's Larva, a tome in the style of Finnegans Wake, is nearly 600 pages of mainly disconnected snippets and impressions written in a frequently invented vocabulary, which include footnotes and commentary on the text (followed by a long section of "Pillow Notes" and a collection of photos of places referred to in the book). But other Dalkey books, including modern French master Raymond Queneau's The Last Days, are more clearly narrative works.

O'Brien says he wants "something new and different, most often in style and structure but often point of view." For example, he chose to publish June Akers Seese's What Waiting Really Means, a first novel with a conventional plot, because of its attempt to create the point of view of an unliberated housewife living in the 1980s. And he tried--but couldn't afford--to publish a translation of Jean Genet's controversial defense of Palestinians' rights.

Although the press has no political agenda, O'Brien argues that he looks for books that "go to the heart of what literature is supposed to do. It's supposed to be a gadfly, forcing people to look at things." Even wordplay can be subversive, he argues, since it can undermine the political corruption of language that permits manipulation of the public. "In that sense," O'Brien says, "odd, experimental novels are among the most potent political tools we have."

But O'Brien seems more determined to subvert the academic literary establishment and argue that his own favorite authors are the "real mainstream," continuing the outlandish tradition of, for instance, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. "It isn't until the late 19th century that the novel turns into reporting news, telling a story, straining for a kind of lifelikeness," O'Brien says. "If you start with Cervantes and Sterne, then Flann O'Brien is right in the mainstream." But he acknowledges that many of his students find Tristram Shandy as tough as Finnegans Wake. Some innovative writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut, whose work is not forbiddingly difficult, win a large readership, but clearly more accessible narratives will always be more popular.

Given the backgrounds of O'Brien and Moore, it's not surprising that, despite their iconoclasm, Dalkey Archive doesn't have the firebreathing air of the typical avant-garde publishing enterprise. Their project, for all its literary experimentalism, often has a fusty, academic quality about it--for example its publication of a bibliography on Gilbert Sorrentino or the previously unpublished juvenile stories of one of literature's great oddballs, Ronald Firbank.

Moore, at least, is not uncomfortable with the image of producing "mandarin fiction," or literature for the intellectual elite. He says, "That's what they called Joyce, and if it's good enough for Joyce, it's good enough for us. We think there's a larger audience for our books than we're presently reaching, but I'm comfortable with whatever 'mandarin' quality we have."

Moore describes his own taste in writers as "maximalist--long books, extravagant, full of arcane lore, daring linguistically, pushing the limits. I don't like quiet little safe books." Some writers who'd fit this description, such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, maintain a larger audience because they keep a strong narrative even while they experiment with structure. But Moore also enjoys those authors who abandon narrative altogether. When asked why, he responds, "It's like asking what does someone who doesn't like traditional representational painting find in nonrepresentational art. Often it's more like the pleasures of poetry."

In pursuit of those pleasures, Dalkey Archive continues to seek out the new. It plans to publish a manuscript by Chandler Brossard that Moore likens to William Burroughs's Naked Lunch--"weird and extravagant, nothing quite like it. He showed it to various people in New York, and they thought it was too outside the mainstream to make any money. That's the story of many of our authors. They were published in New York, but as they got more daring in their work, they scared off their publishers."

And Dalkey will continue to resurrect the forgotten, such as three "extraordinary" novels written between 1929 and 1934 by Olive Moore, whose rediscovery "might be as big as Alfau," according to Steven Moore. Her works are a little like those of Virginia Woolf, he says, adding that "if T.S. Eliot had written novels, they'd have looked like this."

But even if sales remain small, O'Brien is not discouraged from this labor of passion. "Either you accept that [small audience] as a fact of life and keep doing what you're doing and hope it has some effect, or you give up," he says. "There's a real pleasure in knowing you've brought something into existence like Chromos that otherwise would have disappeared." And that pleasure keeps him going, despite the long, unpaid hours and the stress. As he told a friend who inquired about the press, "If they were paying me for this, I'd have quit long ago."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.

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