Stephen F. Austin University Press
October 24, 2023
ISBN 978-1-62288-244-1; 250 pages
“A novelist is a failed short story writer,” Faulkner warns readers, “and a short story writer is a failed poet.” Award-winning poet David Biespiel, however, has engineered a trifecta of all three forms in his clever, amusing new release, A Self-Portrait in the Year of the High Commission on Love. Biespiel stakes out the no-man’s land between the short story, novella, and novel with a beautifully poetic narrative of two youthful friends, polar opposites, rambling through a bumpy passage into adulthood.
Biespiel writes with warmth and genuine clarity in a poetic aesthetic that’s at once comfortable, inhabitable, and rewarding for the reader. Told in the first person, this Reagan-era retrospective is a tightly woven tapestry of opposites, from the main characters to the narrative viewpoint: Salazar is Hispanic, of a charismatic Christian family tradition, while Wain is the youngest male in a family line of rabbinical leaders. Salazar is gay, while Wain is hetero. Transcending all, they are the best of teenage friends, living out a summer of momentous discovery that the older Wain, narrating the story from adulthood, turns over in his hand like cut glass in sunlight, examining the split hues in the color spectrum of remembrance. The touchstone of Nolan Ryan’s momentous fifth no-hitter adds a unifying cohesion in the boys’ coming of age which remains extraordinary and unsurpassed in teenage-Wain’s mind, yet disquieting in the older Wain’s contemporary perspective from which the story is told.
And there’s the central conundrum, adult Wain gazing back, perhaps a bit perplexed, at the fierce young self he was, certain, on the teenage precipice of adulthood, that every choice was earth-shattering, every passage substantial. Nonetheless, through adult eyes, Wain concedes that the newness of transcendent freedom in teenage Wain’s and Salazar’s road trip isn’t uniquely groundbreaking in the context of a lifetime. In fact, it’s just another story of friendship that adult Wain still can’t completely resolve. And yet, the timelessness of Nolan Ryan’s pitching feat really is, was, momentous and unsurpassed both in Wain’s youth and adulthood alike.
Introspection, especially through recalled dialogue, is very thin ice on which to skate. The technique requires the writer to respect the membrane-thin line between narration and author intrusion. This is the one dimension in which Biespiel sometimes bogs down, particularly in the heavy-handed sociopolitical ranting of the Vietnam veteran which dangles on the brink of burlesque, relegating the characters of Duke, Manolo, and Caroline to set decoration. Of course, the harsh, damaged older man represents the very dutiful life both boys justifiably run from. But the older Wain seems to be less certain.
David Biespiel is at his strongest writing the ordinary in visceral terms that create a palpable humanism in poetic prose. For example:
There were wet streaks on her face. She wiped them with a flat palm, and considered something I might only guess at after she eyed the cab of Salazar’s pickup, frowning, tilting her mouth. A frail melancholy descended. We sat at the edge of the endless tide, our hair flapping softly, and waited for the sun to come dripping out of the horizon, but we didn’t move.
The gorgeously crafted poesy of Biespiel’s narration is the well-worthwhile payoff of A Self-Portrait in the Year of the High Commission on Love. The reader comes away prompted to interrogate the notions of friendship, growth, and the bumptious timeline of life itself against the lush palate of Biespiel’s prose. It’s a good read.
David Biespiel is an American poet, critic, memoirist, and novelist born in 1964 and raised in the Meyerland section of Houston, Texas. He is the founder of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters in Portland, Oregon and Poet-in-Residence at Oregon State University.