By YVONNE FRENCH
Novelist John Barth spoke entertainingly from unpublished new work to about 75 people in the Montpelier Room the evening of Nov. 6.
His prose was read at breakneck speed in an Eastern Shore accent and punctuated with cardboard signs he held up over his head.
"It was a dazzling demonstration of his inventive style, verbal wit and satirically apocalyptic commentary on the end-of-the-century American culture," said Alice L. Birney, American literature manuscript historian in the Manuscript Division.
A Maryland native, Mr. Barth is a sailor whose enjoyment of the Chesapeake Bay is often a theme in his work. Introducing him, Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, which sponsored the program, said: "The shallow southeastern Chesapeake is ringed by swamps, bogs, fens and marshes, and these play through John Barth's writing as musical strands through a symphony." He noted Mr. Barth's "exuberant proliferation of the options of every day."
The title of the reading was "Coming Soon -- Readings from a Book in Progress." The book is ostensibly about a former Navy vessel now afloat on the bay while being restored to serve as a showboat. What Mr. Barth read, however, was a writing exercise and preamble in which the author tortures himself at length (but with exquisite wordplay) about what he is going to write.
"For the how-manyth time I opened [the notebook] to the virgin page ... uncapped my faithful fountain pen, and -- " Here he held up a blank sheet of paper. He said writer's block was like "impotence or constipation" and called his muse "dilatory."
Later he said the prologue probably wouldn't appear in the book and went on to read a narrative by a "foul-mouthed marsh rat of uncertain gender" in salty vernacular. "Male or femme, I've attained an age where what's between my legs matters less than what's in my mind or what's 'twixt you 'n' me."
The character enjoys poking around the Chesapeake Bay, or "proguing," which, Mr. Barth said, is derived from the French and Spanish pirogue, or dugout canoe. The term was popularized in the Hank Williams song "Jambalaya," which says: 'Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh./Me gotta go, pole the pirogue down the bayou.'
Said Mr. Barth: "To progue is to pick and poke around, to scavenge, to beachcomb where no beach is, to paddle along the lee shore of the bay in leisurely but sharp-eyed pursuit of whatever. ... Progue ye for whatever's out there. You may turn up, to cite a few choice items from my own life list, an entire summer tuxedo fetchingly entwined with a strapless ball gown, a former CIA clandestine services officer with 40 pounds of scuba weights around his waist and a 9mm bullet hole abaft his left ear, a ship in a bottle, the latter uncorked and one-fourth full of mucky black water, the former a miniature square rigger, storm battered but still bravely afloat inside, and a bottle in a ship: a grounded and abandoned 35-foot cruising sloop, lunch one-half eaten on the dinette table, course plotted on the Nav station chart, an unpopped bottle of Dom Perignon in the wine locker along with sundry inferior vintages, all of which I liberated -- finders keepers."
It is through proguing that his character knows the bottom of the bay as well as many seasoned sailors know the top, Mr. Barth said. The piroguer progues endlessly in her skiff, Nameless. Sometimes she takes along her friend, Earl, so-called because the acronym for Earth Air Reconnaissance Laboratory is emblazoned all-caps on his baseball hat. He calls her Name, short for Nameless. They wind up finding a lot of stuff churned up by the storm Zulu II in the "hick fen" that they call the Chesapeake.
After one "particularly fruitful progue" of Earl's "half-dismantled aquacultural establishment," Earl "set me up proper for a different type of proguing, I mean proguing through your warped woofs of your World Wide Web ... a high-tech dreck catcher if ever there was ... with its own menus of www-dot-menus."
The book is tentatively titled Coming Soon!!! after the sign placed on the Navy vessel: "Adams Original Floating Theater II -- Coming Soon!!!" Mr. Barth at times held up a photograph of the barge itself. He also held up a giant asterisk (often when describing the physical features of the bay in sort of mental footnotes, such as the fact that the bay is "300-plus kilometers north-south, a mere measly average three dipsy depths deep top-bottom, as tall and slim and shallow as the female lead in a dumb-blonde joke,") and the words "COMING SOON" at opportune and fairly explicit moments in the narrative and to the mirth of many in the audience.
At the end, Mr. Gifford said, "as you see, that was a pirogram."
Mr. Barth was born May 27, 1930, in Cambridge, Md., and studied at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he graduated with an M.A. in 1952. He taught at Penn State from 1953 to 1965, at SUNY Buffalo from 1965 to 1973, and from 1973 to 1991 at Johns Hopkins as professor of creative writing, where he is currently professor emeritus. Mr. Barth is author of numerous works of fiction, beginning with The Floating Opera (1956) to his most recent On with the Story (1996). His book of novellas, Chimera, won the National Book Award for fiction in 1973.
Mr. Barth has been depositing his manuscripts, typescripts and galleys with the Manuscript Division since 1968. Before the reading, Mr. Gifford escorted the writer to meet with Dr. Billington and then Ms. Birney. After the reading, a book-signing and reception were held in the Mumford Room.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office. Alice Birney contributed to this report.