Colgate University Living Writers Discussion On Bill Barich


[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. And welcome to Living
Writers online. I’m Jennifer Brice. Today I’m speaking with my
colleague, David McCabe, a professor of philosophy
here at Colgate and also director of
the Division of Arts and Humanities. Welcome. Thanks for having me. We’re talking about Bill
Barich’s book, Laughing in the Hills, which was
serialized in The New Yorker then published
in book form in 1980, 15 years after he
graduated from Colgate. It was his first book. It made his reputation. He went on to become a staff
writer for The New Yorker and to publish many other books
of fiction and nonfiction, some of which I have here
beside me, most recently An Angle on the World,
a wonderfully titled collection of magazine
writing over the decades. One reviewer calls the book that
we picked for Living Writers, Laughing in the Hills, “a work
of superb track journalism.” It seems to me more
than that, though. What do you think? Yeah, I mean. It’s telling us a lot about
the world of the racetrack in great detail and
clearly and carefully. But this connects to an
issue you and I were just talking about, about who
would be interested in reading this book, right? Because to describe
it as track journalism suggests it’s got this audience. And those are the
people it’s written for. And it’s not seeking
to go beyond them. So I was thinking a little bit
about this, reading this book. My sense is that there are maybe
like three potential groups of people who might
pick this book up. One is the group of people
who’s just totally fascinated with horse racing
and race tracks and follows it very closely,
those kinds of people. I’m not that kind of person. There are some of those people. But I think that’s like not
a huge amount of people. Then there’s the kind of person
like me, who likes the horses, follows the Triple Crown when
it comes around in the spring, occasionally goes
to watch them run, knows a little bit about some
famous jockeys, et cetera. And so we’re like already have
taken a step into this world that he’s describing and
ready to learn more about it. But even that’s still like
not a huge amount of people. I think the big audience that
I think this book could appeal to, should appeal to, is
people who are willing to sort of follow this guy’s– I don’t know, spiritual journey
might sound too ambitious, but to follow the
journey that he’s making through the quotidian
aspects of the race track and the mucking out of
the stalls and the meeting with trainers and the
meeting with the race caller and the people who are on
the board of the whole place. So at the end of
it, although there’s a lot about horses and the
race track in the book, what’s going on, I think, in
the book is not primarily about horses and
about race tracks. But it’s about what’s happening
to him over the course of the narrative, I think. I think you’re so right. And we should talk in
a minute about what’s happening with him in
the course of the book. But it’s a book
that fits squarely in the tradition of the
literary journalist. So the idea behind
that is that there are journalists that are sort
of straightforward, plodding journalists, who are just kind
of doing what they have to do. And then there’s
another group who are attentive to more
artistic sort of aspects of what they’re up to. Is that the idea? Yeah. They are also called
immersion journalists. They usually write
book-length pieces. Think of John McPhee,
Coming Into the Country or– I know you’re interested
in tennis as well as horse racing– John McPhee’s book on Arthur
Ashe, Levels of the Game. That is a great book. I’m probably one of the 10
people in this village who’s read that. I’m one of them, too That book is a
great, great book. That’s a great book. Right. And that’s, again, a book
which is about tennis but also about a lot more. It’s about a lot
more than tennis. Susan Orlean has
sort of wonderfully said that the literary
journalists are interested in the
dignity of dailiness. Others have described the
radiance of the ordinary. They often look in real depth
at events or trends or tribes. They’re almost working
enthnographically sometimes, trying to bring back
information about the language, the rituals, the characters
who do those things. And this feels to me like
a book that fits squarely in that tradition. You know, you and I
talked a little bit about what’s going on
from start to finish over the course of this book. What are the threads
that are– obviously, the guy is at the racetrack. And it’s, I don’t know, six
weeks or something like that during spring season
of a racetrack. And so what are the
threads that are going on that unite
from start to finish? And one of them is obviously
the issue of cancer, right, and is this the time to sort
of talk a little bit about. The book begins. And we learn that Barich’s
mother has cancer. And then soon after we learn
that, we learn that she’s died. And as this, I
guess, a metaphor, it surfaces throughout
the course of the book. The cancer in a way
was less critical for me making sense of the
book than just the grief that that engendered. So it’s almost like this maybe. He’s so undone by the
death of his mother. And he sees that
in terms of cancer, because that’s what
kills her, that he then sees metastases everywhere. And I don’t know how we’re
supposed to take those similes. I mean, maybe we can ask
Bill this when he comes. Maybe he really
means them sincerely, that there’s a great
deal of critique of modern American life that’s
going on in this book and some of the excesses of it. And sometimes he
puts those critiques in terms of a kind of
spreading cancerous– Metastasis, yeah. –growth and development. And I wonder if that’s
what’s he really– I’d really like to ask
him this, if that’s what he really thinks. Or if instead,
what’s going on is there is someone who himself
is suffering terrible grief, projecting this
metaphor of cancer out on to the times
in which he’s living. But I don’t know how
central that remains to what bugs him about the world
he’s inhabiting, you know? It’s such a good question. I think the Barich you encounter
at the beginning of this piece is profoundly depressed. He’s trying to find ways
to deal with his grief. There’s his mother’s death. There are also allusions to
miscarriages, apparently. Yes. His wife had two miscarriages
during this period. He doesn’t say it
directly in the book. She’s operated on
for a brain tumor that turns out not to exist. There are also hints that all
is not well in the marriage. He says, I could have
moved in with friends. But instead, he left. He’s depressed. And he’s grieving. And the notion that
you suggest that he might be projecting that
onto the larger world makes a kind of sense. He goes to thrift shops
and buys these objects– Objects– these interesting– – Of nostalgia, yeah. Yeah. “In Cloverdale, I found ashtrays
shaped like oranges and lemons, in Hopland, part
of a grape press.” So I’d like to stay on
this theme a little bit. Because what’s totally
fascinating to me about this book–
and you know, I’ve been through it now
a few times, and it becomes more and
more fascinating– is the twin tracks of
extraordinary personal revelation at the
same time that there is this profound
withholding of the personal. So like the passage you
were just talking about, so we know his mother
has this cancer. And he’s spending time with her. He says she’s a
very good patient. And she’s chipper and
doesn’t dwell too much on it. And then he talks
about the track. Early on, he says, “I
thought my mother heard in the track announcer’s
call a little pulse of life at the heart of the
cancer,” you know? But then the very next section
of the book, he says this. “Back home in California, I
fell into a lingering sadness. There were miscarriages and
more cancers among relatives. And then my wife was operated
on for a brain tumor, which proved not to exist, except as
a dark spot on the x-ray plate.” It’s just– what a
weird description. There were miscarriages
and then more– so what you just said– No, he’s got these three
things he wants squarely in our sights. And there are moments when he
says, don’t look over there. Don’t look at my brother. Don’t look at my mother. Don’t look at what’s
going on with my marriage. He doesn’t name Colgate,
a place that he is filled with ambivalence about. So sometimes he seems
to lift the veil, only to drop it back down. Right. Right. So the book, I
think, kind of really works beautifully to defy
your expectations of what’s going on. So early on, his mother dies. And then we don’t get lots of– we just don’t get
reflections really on his life with his family,
reflections on his mother. And then the marriage– you know, you
could put together. It’s interesting. You can put together how old
he is if you pay attention to the dates, right? We know that this book is
chronicling the spring of 1978. And we know that because
the famous Triple Crown battles between Affirmed
and Alydar are going on. So that lets us know it’s 1978. He tells us that in 1963, he
was 19 years old, I think. So you can do the math. And so then you realize, OK,
so that means he’s born in ’44. So it’s in ’70. So he’s about like– About 30 . – Yeah, mid 30s– the marriage is just– the marriage, it’s not really
in this story in some weird way. No. No. “Winter came. The money was running out. The things I wanted
to write about remained just out of reach. I argued with my wife. And she argued with me. We were older and childless
and knee-deep in ruin.” And then he just
decides, I’m going to go live at the racetrack. I mean, it’s crazy, right? And so you’re reading the book. And I keep waiting for,
like, OK, when’s the wife’s going to come back in it? When is he going to–
and you know what? He’s on a different
kind of journey. And so that’s the
sense in which you’ve got to go along with him. And it’s doing something that
I think is pretty unexpected. And for that reason, just
you keep reading along. And at the end–
we’ll talk about that. There’s the question of what
is it that he’s learned? What is it that we’ve learned
from sticking with it? But I really appreciate the
sense in which he’s just not giving you what I
think most people are going to be expecting, right? Exactly. You know what? If that first chapter came to
me in a creative writing class, I might say, this is
a bait and switch. You’re not delivering
what you’re promising. Yeah. Yeah. But I would be wrong. That’s right. I have to say this. I would be absolutely wrong. He does pull this off. And part of it has to do with
that voice, that voice of just quiet authority and certainty. He’s talking about a time of
confusion and grief and chaos and the search for orderliness. One of the things that
takes him to the racetrack is a sense that you
can crack that game. If apply yourself and read
the racing form diligently and do your handicapping
homework, you can crack this. But he writes about it with
such a sort of cool, almost detached certainty and
authority that you trust him. And I think in the
end, it’s right. But we haven’t even gotten
to the third thread. He’s got three things he
wants to put before us here. One is the racetrack. One is his mother’s
death and his grief and working through that. And the third one is this
experience he had while at Colgate 15 years earlier. Right. Want to talk about that? How do you read that? Yeah, so that connects to
this running theme of these– I don’t know. I guess their memories
or his retrospection on this kind of magical time
that he has in Florence as a, I guess, a junior study abroad. I mean, there is this– obviously, because
we’re at Colgate. And we know that
Bill is a graduate. I was sort of wondering, is he
going to talk about the school? And he does in this
paragraph, which maybe this is a good time
for me to read this one. Yeah. What page are on? Page 115. So he doesn’t name
Colgate, as you say. He says, “College had
been a disappointment. In my first two years,
I’d learned the meaning of J. Press, how to look as
though I’d gone to Exeter, how to make Fish House
Punch, the quickest route to Skidmore, and a little
about art and literature. This was not what
I had expected. An abiding
disillusionment set in. And I flunked American Ideals
and Institutions, a required course, and drove
my Chevrolet Impala across the frozen lawns of
neighboring fraternities, destroying snow
sculptures in the process. When the snow melted, I went
with friends to a boat house by a lake and drank
beer all night long. At dawn, somebody almost shot
me through the head with his 22. You could say I was confused. I accepted strange
invitations, found myself in taverns in towns
with one stoplight, existed on pickled eggs and
whatever else pitying ladies happened to feed
me, and once woke up on a couch in a
minister’s study somewhere near the Canadian border. Not good, I thought,
not good at all. A friend came to the
rescue by telling me about a study program offered
by another university, a semester abroad in Florence. It’s cheap. And they’ll take almost
anybody, he said. Certainly, I fit the bill.” That’s, I think,
probably maybe one of the most amusing paragraphs
in a book that doesn’t have– it’s got some sly humor. But it’s not a work
of comedy at all. So that is– boy, that’s
a depiction of Colgate in the early ’60s,
much of which– I mean, it doesn’t
sound completely alien to us, the driving the
car across the fraternities with the snow sculptures. So he’s an interesting guy. He is thoughtful enough to
know that something’s wrong and that he needs to
do something, right? And so then Florence,
this trip appears as a lifeline or something. Yeah. There’s another
passage where he says– and this is more of that– this authorial
reticence or whatever. And he said that he goes
to Florence to escape. That’s the word, which is
also a word that he uses describing going to the track. But he doesn’t
really tell us what it is that he’s
escaping from, you know? No. Yeah, so– In both cases, he doesn’t
say very much about it. You know that he loved
his mother deeply. Yes. But he doesn’t
give us his mother, except in images of a frail,
dying woman with large eyes behind her spectacles
who’s enthusiastic briefly about the racing
in her dying days. But he gives us just a
similar, small amount of his time in college
at Colgate, just enough to know that it’s another
moment of sadness and disorder and confusion,
similar to the moment when his mother died and
as with the racetrack after his mother’s death, or
while his mother was dying. He goes to Florence to escape. So there are those
nice parallels. What he finds in Florence
is wonderful, right? He finds philosophy. He finds poetry. He finds architecture. He is happiest wandering through
the galleries of the Uffizi, writing poetry in coffee shops. He falls in love. Sitting on the roof of the
British Library, reading Yeats, you know? Yes. It saves him. It saves him. Yeah. So one of the ways maybe
I read– and maybe I’m too optimistic or
something like that– but in his description of
his time at Colgate and he’s learning
how to make punch and how to dress like J.
Press and all that stuff, and he says, and a little about
art and literature, right? There’s this really
serious intellectual energy going on in this young man. But at that time
in the early ’60s, Colgate was, I think, a
different kind of place. And he could not express that. And so he goes to Italy, has all
these wonderful things falls, in love– not with an Italian woman,
though, interestingly. No. No. No, an American. With an American woman from
Tennessee or something– but eats this wonderful food. He’s going through the Uffizi,
and there, I feel like, is able to be the sort of
person that he turns out to be, this incredibly lovely
writer and a very sharp and thoughtful
and reflective man. So I don’t know what to take
away from what the resonance is of that for Colgate today. You could say Bill Barich’s
experience at Colgate was unhappy and too bad. And Colgate comes
off looking bad. Or you could say that
in that rub at Colgate, in the rub of grief
at his mother’s early death and the marriage
possibly turning sour, he turned to art, to writing. He became– I know
you studied Freud– the writer became the analyst. And the analyst
became the writer. And he turned to writing and
to the experience of others, to the natural world,
and healed himself. Yeah. So it’s not totally clear. I don’t think it should be. But it’s not totally clear
where the restorative power is coming from. Is it coming from the retrieval
of a certain kind of energy and aspiration that he had
when he was a young person– Maybe. –in Italy. Or is it also or more the
repositioning of himself with in that Florentine culture
that was from the 1480s and ’90s that was so– so I don’t know. I can’t figure that out. I don’t think we have
to figure it out. But it’s just like I think
that filtering, that layering or whatever, makes it both
more powerful and a little bit harder to diagnose
with clear specificity, here’s what did the trick. And I think– I hope you’re not going to ask
me that, what did the trick? It seems like something works. Something happened. Well, let’s talk about
that in a moment. One thought I have in response
to what you were just saying, too, is that in
both these cases, both these moments of crisis,
he did something physically. He took himself out of
his comfortable environs and put himself in an
uncomfortable place physically. I mean, his description
of trying to find a place to stay when he was
at the Golden Gate and leaving the
first place he finds after listening to
the couple next door– Yeah, to this horrible argument. –beat each other. Which expects to end with
gunshots or something. Yeah. Yeah. Yes, exactly– he’s physically
uncomfortable and isolated. But also, these were moments of
a profound intellectual growth. So he was physically
in a strange place and intellectually
in a strange but also really stimulating place. He seems to posit that for him,
transformation– you’re right– is too cheap, but change,
coming to accept change. He uses the word flux. And it’s so interesting to
me that at the beginning of the book, he looks
backward to nostalgia, to the thrift shop. But in the end,
he looks forward. He’s trying throughout this
book to find comfort and solace in change. At the same time that there is a
kind of like description of how the days unfold for
him, there’s also– as you were talking about–
this kind of continuity provided by a few
different items. One is as you said. It’s a six week or
however long race season. It’s going to come to an end. And he talks about,
and you know, now in the middle of the season. Then there’s that one horse
that we follow that we’re not going to say anything about. Peachy. Peachy, yeah, that
races and then disappears for a few chapters
and comes back and then returns to– Yeah, almost a disquisition,
the use of drugs. Here’s an account of
thoroughbreds, the introduction of thoroughbreds. And that that’s all– I don’t want to say
balanced or kept in place by these larger themes. And these things that
are happening in time– again, this is the impulse, too,
of the literary journalists, most of them, many of them. It’s not to go to cover the
Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby, the big race that’s
making big headlines, but at a moment when
America is caught up in horse racing fever, to
this dinky little track– I think dinky little track. Yeah, it’s definitely
not a major– San Francisco. Yeah. Yeah. And you’re right about horse
racing from that perspective. That’s part of the loveliness
of this book, it seems to me. Similarly, he does
make grand claims about his personal story. People’s mothers die. Right. Marriages have difficulty. Marriages founder. He doesn’t make any grand claims
for the heroism of his own life or for the heroism of the people
who are involved in this story. It’s a quiet book. It’s not a book with a
great, big, grand climax. The big horse race is
not right at the end. We should talk
about where he ends. What does he figure out? He’s foundering at the beginning
of the book, foundering in grief, in
uncertainty, in chaos. His mother’s died. His wife is ill. There are the miscarriages,
to use his language. He’s living in this trailer. He’s driving around with
his beer in the afternoon. He wants to be a writer. What does he figure out? So this is a kind of book,
these books that begin– I don’t want to say with
crisis, but with challenge and unsettledness. And then at the end,
the author pronounces that she or he is now better. It’s just a question
of whether you buy– as a reader, do you buy the
transformation or the kind of the type of peace? This change, yeah. Yeah. Well, I guess I do, even
if it’s a little bit– well, here’s what
I was about to say. I kind of feel like
any account that we could give of it would be
inadequate to what happens. Because I don’t want
this to be a cop out, but it seems like it’s only
by virtue of the experience that he has there that
he’s able to reach this kind of acceptance
and this peace. He’s at peace with his mother’s
dying because somehow, he has a view of how humans
fit into the natural world that he didn’t have before. And I feel like saying
that the horse is the medium of that
understanding that he’s reached or something like that. But I don’t have that
understanding, you know? Because I didn’t go through
that thing with him. So I think he’s describing
it as best he can, even though at the
end of the day– I don’t know. Maybe you disagree with this. I was going to
say, you can’t come to experience that by reading
someone else’s account of it. But maybe you can. I don’t know. We could ask him
whether he would expect the reading
of this to be as therapeutic as the
experience of it appears to have been for him. Be a good question for him. I mean, just one last thing. Go ahead. All right. There’s a really
funny sentence– shoot– that he has
towards the end. And I’m not going
to find it now, where he distinguishes between
the cancer and the dying. Remember that? He’s talking about his mother. And he says, so the
cancer, that was just an organic and natural
process of decay. And the dying– sorry. Sorry. The dying– sorry– the dying
is an organic, natural process of decay. But the cancer is associated
with a whole bunch of cultural trappings and other
parts that it’s picked up. And I think, if I
read that right, he’s trying to separate the two. And he is coming to
peace with the death. Yes. And he’s jettisoning all
the cancer associations that have totally dominated him. I’m sorry I can’t
find that passage. But that’s essentially
what’s going on. They’re gone. The imagery of the
last few pages, the image of the
thoroughbreds running. And I love what you say
about horses and his insight about horses. And he talks about thoroughbreds
being an example of sort of wildness and domesticity. But the image of watching
them, it’s beautiful. And it’s natural. And all that language of
cancer, the televisions, the blue light, the
impoverishment of our lives, is [INAUDIBLE] Yeah, Johnny Carson. He says, “When I was in
touch with the horses, I felt the same way. I felt on the river when
I hooked a steel head and it seemed to fire
every neuron in my body, transforming me into
one long synapse, bits of energy blowing apart.” In some ways as his mind and
spirit have come back together in the sort of physical and
intellectual exercise of going to the racetrack and going back
to the Florentine philosophers and poets, his body and that
imagery of the natural world has become healthier. Right. Right. And the cancer is gone, “all
connections, ever tenuous, living and dying,
winning and losing. I let go of my mother. I was letting go of the sadness,
watching the thoroughbreds, letting go of the sadness,
letting go of my mother.” My favorite line from the book– I love the ending, about
wonder and exploration, that sense that you have to
go out in order to heal, the gesture of letting
Christopher Columbus have the last few words of the
book is so interesting. But my favorite sentence,
“nothing abides. No cause for alarm.” “No cause for alarm,” yeah. It’s so beautiful. Yeah. Yeah. That nothing stays still. And that’s OK. Right. That’s not OK at the
beginning of this book. Yeah. One of the things
in that essay is that that lets him realize that
the grief he had been feeling, that won’t abide, either. And he’ll be restored. The passage I was
thinking of just since I was trying
to quote it, it’s a little bit after what
you’ve read, when he says, “I borrowed a device from the
shield Lorenzo de’ Medici had carried in his betrothal
ceremony, a bay tree, half dead, half green, pictured
above the motto of the spring returns. It was a good spring,
too, rich with promise. In my mind, the
dying and the cancer had become separated,
almost discreet, the one a natural process
of organic decay, the other a cultural
hastening of that process.” And so he’s returning. Somehow he’s getting
to this perspective where the natural world
is sort of our ally or something like that. And it takes the book
to get there, I think. Yeah. That’s really marvelous. Thank you so much
for talking today. Oh, it was great. I look look forward
to the visit. Yeah.

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