Dallas Wiebe's Long Novel

Toby Olson








In Nathaniel West’s turn at the Horatio Alger story, A Cool Million, Lemuel Pitkin reaches a version of the American Dream at the cost of various body parts, eye, teeth, thumb, scalp, and leg, all lost or mangled in noble enterprise and heroic deed. The boy’s a fool after all, and he keeps his innocence right through to the end, lionized only after his death. There’s a similar story in Dallas Wiebe’s Going To The Mountain, a tale in which a would be literary figure, Professor Meyric Casaubon, sells body parts to gain sound criticism and thus fame through publication, reviews and prizes. Casaubon is no fool however and thus a cynic. He succeeds, but he’s left without mobility and very little in the way of senses. The story’s called “Night Flight to Stockholm.” You can look it up. It’s a very good one, and though less sweet than your average Wiebe adventure, like “The Light of the Republic” heading the previous issue of Golden Handcuffs Review, its exuberance even in light of such dismemberment is characteristic.

            Reading all of Dallas Wiebe’s writings, at least the short stories which are the bulk of it, can bring you to a place in which the variety in these fictions is experienced as chapters in one long novel (albeit one in which there are occasional digressions). Characters come and go over time. They mature, grow older and die. They speak in catalogues; of family connections; of towns and streets with those curiously comic Dallas Wiebe names, real places and invented ones, a geography in which most of these stories take place; of a great variety of political and social issues, and what emerges, even in the most disparate tales, is a kind of world view. It’s the literal view of Skyblue, but in the way it is articulated in the voices and actions of other recurring figures it can be taken to be Wiebe’s view as well. The satire is Swiftian. It loves the madness it attacks, the literary world in “Night Flight to Stockholm” and “The Light of the Republic.” And it’s a view that ultimately values Kansas ways: “There seems to be something garrulousness in Kansas. It is a state of terseness, of succinctness. It is not a state that calls forth epics, sagas, long disquisitions. Nor is it a state of sonnets, villanelles, ballades. The state demands brevity. Kansans don’t believe in wasting words (The Kansas Poems, 1987).” But Wiebe and his characters often waste them, because they take such pleasure in the sheer nuttiness to be found there. This from Ratchet’s account books (“Night Flight to Stockholm”): “July 16, 1984: Right Hand. To Elaby Gathen of Hackpen, MI. Correct spelling of “existence,” “separate” and “pursue.” No redundancy in nouns and verbs and their modifiers. Play games with readers. No slobbering on pages. Book of short stories: The Blue Hag of Winter, Random House. Gold on black cover. Red title pages. Right arm also: O’Henry Award, St. Lawrence Award for Fiction and Chair at Columbia. Done.”

            Short stories are usually printed without guidance to the reader and thus each offering can be approached as a piece of chocolate in a Whitman Sampler. Anthologies of short stories are such samplers. But does it make sense to read “The Dead” beyond the context of the grouping of Dublin stories preceeding it? Does one then “understand” it? Maybe there are authors writing stories that belong in such a sampler box. Maybe novels too are only long short stories when it comes to this. A curious cynicism in Wiebe’s “Night Flight to Stockholm” can be found in the way Casaubon’s fictions are fashioned into saleable commodities, one having nothing to do with the other beyond marketability.  What is bartered, Casaubon’s body parts, are presented as unintegrated products as well. Neither the body nor the American literary marketplace has the stable integrity of a book of related short stories.

            This idea that stories are chapters in a larger book and it is there that their real interest lies becomes obvious in the case of Dallas Wiebe with the publication of The Vox Populi Street Stories in 2003, for here the goofy detective Dallasandro Vibini and his narrator Watson, Gottlieb Otto Liebgott, are present in each story. Episodes in a life then, a novel, culminating in the really quite magnificent birth narrative, “In Excelsis Deo,” that ends the collection.

            Speaking to people about the curious, comic sensibility that seems to be Dallas Wiebe’s uniqueness, the talk is invariably about the short stories, which might be called his genre, which term is a waste of words, because “short story” is only a packaging term when it comes to Wiebe’s writing. It’s true that the wit is condensed in this shorter form, but it’s also true that the stories tend to be “open,” in that arising issues can always wait for the next one to be addressed.

            The next one is not a short story or a book of them however, but Wiebe’s truly monumental work, Our Asian Journey. Published in 1997, this close to 500 page novel is recent; only The Vox Populi Street Stories follow, and one might be tempted to think of it as the work of a writer who has “come into his own,” “found his specific genius,” or some other such nonsense. What is found here, what sets this work apart however, is the nature of its subject matter. Here’s a book rooted in Mennonite history, the journey of a group of pilgrims from Russia to Central Asia in the 1880s, and unlike the short stories, the humor, wit and occasional craziness in Our Asian Journey devolve from circumstances and the behaviors of characters that seem all too real. There’s nothing of allegory or parody, as in the stories, and the many long recorded dreams (quite often a bore in fiction) are here presented as visionary and have such power, as strong as that of characters in the often surreal waking state. The novel is like the stories, however, in tone, in Wiebe’s particular way of celebrating these worlds he places before us. It’s a light tone, bright and crisp, with a weight given always to pleasures to be found in sentences, occasional quirky figures, just language and the ways attending to it can bring forth wonders.

            Our Asian Journey is a wonder. It’s hard to imagine that any event in history has been given such careful and imaginative articulation. Finally, it’s a joyful and dignified adventure, as are Dallas Wiebe’s short stories and poems. All proceed from a loving sensibility and a clear and certain moral sense. The celebration is in the often hilarious humor, and the pleasure is in the unfolding, in the reading, of Dallas Wiebe’s unique sensibility.