Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


God’s Gym by John Edgar Wideman


Rating: (Recommended)




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The ten stories in God’s Gym, the latest collection from John Edgar Wideman, showcase this fine writer’s talents, proving a range of skill from very good through great. Some sentences defy diagramming, yet assemble perfectly. A theme running throughout this collection concerns faith and strength, hence the perfect title from one of the stories. Some readers will encounter such brilliance on certain pages that it becomes a joy to reread a page or two to savor the quality of Wideman’s writing. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the story titled, “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence,” pp. 93-96:


I have a friend with a son in prison. About once a year he visits his son. Since the prison is in Arizona and my friend lives here on the East Coast, visiting isn’t easy. He’s told me the planning, the expense, the long day spent flying there and longer day flying back are the least of it. The moment that’s not easy, that’s impossible, he said, is after three days, six hours each, of visiting are over and he passes through the sliding gate of the steel-fenced outdoor holding pen between the prison vis­itation compound and the visitors’ parking lot and steps onto the asphalt that squirms beneath your feet, oozing hot like it just might burn through your shoe soles before you reach the rental car and fling open its doors and blast the air conditioner so the car’s interior won’t fry your skin, it’s then, he said, taking your first steps away from the prison, first steps back into the world, when you almost come apart, almost lose it completely out there in the desert, emptiness stretching as far as the eye can see, very far usually, ahead to a horizon ironed flat by the weight of blue sky, to the right and left zigzag mountain peaks marking the edges of the earth, nothing moving but hot air wiggling above the highway, the scrub brush and sand, then, for an un­ending instant, it’s very hard to be alive, he says, and thinks he doesn’t want to live a minute longer and would not make it to the car, the airport, back to this city if he didn’t pause and re­mind himself it’s worse, far worse for the son behind him still trapped inside the prison, so for the son’s sake he manages a first step away, then another and another. In these faltering mo­ments he must prepare himself for the turnaround, the jarring transition into a world where he has no access to his son except for rare ten-minute phone calls, a blighted world he must make sense of again, beginning with the first step away and back through the boiling caldron of parking lot, first step of the trip that will return him in a year to the desert prison.

Now he won’t have it to worry about anymore. When I learned of the friend’s death, I’d just finished fixing a peanut butter sandwich. Living alone means you tend to let yourself run out of things. Milk, dishwasher detergent, napkins, tooth­paste staples you must regularly replace. At least it happens to me. In this late bachelorhood with no live-in partner who shares responsibility for remembering to stock up on needful things. Peanut butter a choice I didn’t relish, but probably my only choice that evening, so I’d fixed one, or two, more likely, since they’d be serving as dinner. In the day’s mail I’d ignored till I sat down to my sorry-assed meal, a letter from a lawyer an­nouncing the death of the friend with a son in prison, and in­side the legal-sized manila envelope a sealed white envelope the friend had addressed to me.

I was surprised on numerous counts. First, to learn the friend was gone. Second, to find he’d considered me significant enough to have me informed of his passing. Third, the personal note. Fourth, and now it’s time to stop numbering, no point since you could say every event following the lawyer’s letter both a surprise and no surprise, so numbering them as arbitrary as including the sluggish detail of peanut butter sandwiches, “sluggish” because I’d become intrigued by the contents of the manila envelope and stopped masticating the wad in my jaw until I recalled the friend’s description of exiting prison, and the sludge became a mouthful of scalding tar.

What’s surprising about death anyway, unless you count the details of when and how, the precise violence stopping the heart, the volume of spilled blood, those unedifying, uninfor­mative details the media relentlessly flog as news. Nothing re­ally surprising about death except how doggedly we insist on being surprised by what we know very well’s inevitable, and of course, after a while, this insistence itself unsurprising. So I was (a) surprised and (b) not surprised by the death of a friend who wasn’t much of a friend, after all, more acquaintance than inti­mate cut-buddy, a guy I’d met somewhere through someone and weeks later we’d recognized each other in a line at a movie or a bank and nodded and then ran into each other again one morning in a busy coffeeshop and since I’m partial to the coffee there, I did something I never do, asked if it was okay to share his table and he smiled and said sure so we became in this sense friends. I never knew very much about him and hadn’t known him very long. He never visited my apartment nor I his. A cou­ple years of casual bump-ins, tables shared for coffee while we read our newspapers, a meal, a movie or two, a playoff game in a bar once, two middle-aged men who live alone and inhabit a small, self-sufficient corner of a large city and take time-outs here and there from living alone so being alone at this stage in our careers doesn’t feel too depressingly like loneliness. The same motivation, same pattern governing my relationships with the occasional woman who consents to share my bed or if she doesn’t consent to sleep with me entertains the option long enough, seriously enough, with attitudes interesting enough to keep us distracted by each other for a while.

Reconsidering the evening I received notice of the friend’s death, going over my reactions again, putting words to them, I realize I’m underplaying my emotions. Not about the shock or sadness of losing the friend. He’s the kind of person you could see occasionally, enjoy his company more or less, and walk away with no further expectations, no plan to meet again. If he’d moved to another city, months might have passed before I’d notice him missing. If we’d lost contact for good, I’m sure I wouldn’t have regretted not seeing him. A smidgen of curiosity, perhaps. Perhaps a slight bit of vexation, as when I discover I haven’t restocked paper towels or Tabasco sauce. Less, since his absence wouldn’t leave a gap I’d be obliged to fill. My usual flat response at this stage in my life to losing things I have no power to hold on to. Most of the world fits into this category now, so what I’m trying to say is that something about the ma­nila envelope and its contents bothered me more than I’m used to allowing things to bother me, though I’m not sure why. Was it the son in prison. The friend had told me no one else visited. The son’s mother dead of cancer. Her people, like the friend’s, like mine, old, scattered, gone. Another son, whereabouts un­known, who’d disowned his father and half-brother, started a new life somewhere else. I wondered if the lawyer who wrote me had been instructed to inform the son in prison of his fa­ther’s passing. How were such matters handled. A phone call. A registered letter. Maybe a visit from the prison chaplain. I hoped my friend had arranged things to run smoothly, with as little distress as possible for the son. Any alternatives I imagined seemed cruel. Cruel for different reasons, but equally difficult for the son. Was he even now opening his manila envelope, a second envelope tucked inside with its personal message. I guess I do know why I was upset the death of the man who’d been my acquaintance for nearly two years moved me not a bit, but I grieved to the point of tears for a son I’d never seen, never spoken to, who probably wasn’t aware my grief or I existed.

Empathy for the son not surprising, even logical, under the circumstances, you might say. Why worry about the father. He’s gone. No more tiptoeing across burning coals. Why not sympa­thize with a young man suddenly severed from his last living contact with the world this side of prison bars. Did he know his father wouldn’t be visiting. Had the son phoned. Listened to it ring-ring-ring and ring. How would he find out. How would he bear the news.


The rhythm of Wideman’s writing can seem like a jazz riff on occasion in some of the stories in God’s Gym. At times, reading a story can be a workout for the reader, and one that prepares a reader for even more difficult reading workouts.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2005 issue of Executive Times


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