Publishers Weekly: Starred Review, and Pick of the Week: May 19, 2014
Sag Harbor: The Permanent Press, 2014
A Moveable Famine is a quick, sly, outrageously funny novel about poets and poetry. I laughed out loud more times than I could count. John Skoyles writes with great humility and wicked wicked wicked wit. I love this book.
— Robert Boswell, author of Tumbledown.
In this rangy, beautiful memoir, John Skoyles—page by page, word by word, paying close attention to the particulars of this world—becomes a poet before our eyes.
— Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
Holden Caulfield in an MFA program? John Skoyles’ A Moveable Famine is a picaresque and hilarious tale of youth regarded from a distance, a novel of romantic, literary and social misadventure and initiation. I think it would be impossible for any writer to read this book without breaking into frequent fits of laughter, as I did, at the cluelessness of our narrator, learning the ropes. It is also one of the best accounts that I know of writerly culture in the time of the seventies and eighties. Did I mention that A Moveable Famine is hilarious?
— Tony Hoagland, author of What Narcissism Means to Me and Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft.
In his autobiographical novel, A Moveable Famine, John Skoyles recounts an anecdote about a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who rates stories by their number of laughs. It’s a method I’d employ in rating Skoyles’ novel except that I lost count of the laughter long before I was halfway through the book. In his personal account of the collision between life and art, Skoyles writes with candor, energy, irreverence, and the high spirits that remind me of a trilogy I have long considered the standard for American comic fiction—Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion.
— Stuart Dybek, author of I Sailed With Magellan
To John Skoyles, his improbable life among poets, would-be poets, and ex-poets may have been a famine, but for the reader his memoir is a rich and delicious banquet. Those of us who write non-fiction are so much more boring (and somewhat more sober) than the poets in Skoyles’s world — but I wish Skoyles would write about us, too. This book is funny, revealing, wise… and did I say funny?
— Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
For anyone who’s interested in the process of becoming a writer—not to mention that of becoming a man—John Skoyles’ A Moveable Famine will be a must read. I wish it’d been around when I was young and still trying to figure out how to do both.
— Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Empire Falls
Review from Dan’s Papers —
A Moveable Famine (The Permanent Press) by John Skoyles is a finely observed and sometimes uproarious “autobiographical novel” about writers that captures, without moral judgment or sentimentality, the manic force behind many ambitious writers and wannabes in the latter half of 20th-century America.
If the story in part pays homage to Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—a memoir of the wild, expat Lost Generation artists and writers Hemingway hung out with in Paris in the ’20s—Skoyles provides a cool look at a generation that was not “lost” but driven, fueled by a passion for poetry (and also alcohol and serial fornication). Skoyles’ subject is writers he met half a century after Hemingway’s novel was published, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; and Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs.
Thanks to Skoyles’ sharp eye and ear, as well as his ability to see himself on occasion as a poseur or an “idiot,” A Moveable Famine makes for an authentic, entertaining and telling account of the pursuit of the creative life—the camaraderie and the competition. The subject matter could not be more timely or relevant for the East End, where writing groups, literary conferences, essay contests and MFA programs are constantly expanding.
Skoyles, who teaches at Emerson College in Boston and is the poetry editor of Ploughshares, the college’s literary magazine, takes on both mentors and students.
Many stars from the heady days are invoked with their own names—Raymond Carver, Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, John Cheever (64, ruddy, grim, frail, thin, “who exuded a strong fragrance” as though he had been “slapped with cologne”). Most prominent is Stanley Kunitz (d. 2006), a two-time Poetry Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress and a respected, straight-taking professional. Other figures are composites or real characters given made-up names, such as Iowa Workshop guru “Mitch Lawson.” Critical and feared, Lawson appears as a man “who loved so little that I hated to see him lose the one thing [an ugly dog] that seemed to fill his trim, well-metered world with a cockeyed delight.”
Skoyles, 65, a working-class parochial-school kid from Queens, was as committed to poetry as his student peers, but (to judge from A Moveable Famine) more sober-minded, in more senses than one. The book’s opening line is also its theme: “We were hell-bent to become poets, and all poets stood in our way.” Skoyles remembers a lot—lines, conversations, situations—from workshop days to barroom and bedroom encounters. One participant offers a poem with the note that it’s “a tiny thing of six lines,” each describing the leg of a spider. But “spiders have eight legs,” it’s pointed out, to which the author replies, “Then I’ll add a couple of lines.”
Students strain to dress and sound like personalities, such as Elliot Darmody, “wearing a duster coat that reached the floor,” who recently had his name changed to “Post-Elliot.” Through it all, Skoyles offers his own trenchant prose: “We drank and smoked and f—ed as much as we could while bemoaning our middle-class upbringing and the wasted lives of everyone who did not see the world through the lens of poetry, a lens cloudy…which we called suffering.”
An oddity—each chapter begins with prose summary phrases, as though, like Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, A Moveable Famine needs a clarifying argument. A Moveable Famine may prove a bit much for those who skirted writing workshops or English departments, but as a cultural document, the memoir presents a reliable and engaging account of a time when poetry mattered.
On the day I write this last sentence, the Style section of The New York Times has a front-page headline on popular apps and career choices: “Statisticians 10, Poets 0.”
A MOVEABLE FAMINE
- 2014 INDIES Finalist
- Finalist, Literary (Adult Fiction)
Skoyles presents a sharp snapshot of an era while employing thoughtful themes of self-doubt and the search for mentorship.
Poet John Skoyles’s autobiographical novel, A Moveable Famine, reveals his coming of age as a writer, from his days at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to his fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and at the Yaddo mansion in Saratoga Springs. Brushes with literary icons, including Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Carver, seamy anecdotes from the early 1970s and ’80s, and everyday collegiality and rivalry merge to create an episodic tale of ambition. Through the stories of real and composite characters, poetry, which Skoyles once felt “was invisible,” becomes a viable art.
As graduate students in awe of multiple talents, Skoyles and his companions encountered plenty of hijinks. The author recounts the infidelities of a professor, meetings with women who moonlighted as amateur strippers, outings at the neighborhood bar, surprising readings given by visiting writers, and the comedy found at the Iowa poetry workshop. Amid the competitive nature of the program, the band of aspiring poets began finding a measure of success.
The most poignant thread involves Skoyles’s Iowa professor, poet Mitch Lawson, a formalist with a slim output whose intimidating demeanor belied a complex figure. Skoyles’s time as Lawson’s research assistant reveals his own growth as a writer who shed his New York influences to forge his own style. His transformation from a beginner who learned “by stumbling” to a writer whose work was published in journals is presented as a series of gradual shifts.
Chapters set in Provincetown take a leisurely, slice-of-life approach. Skoyles emphasizes social gatherings rife with non sequiturs, along with sexual misadventures. Scenes with writers such as Alan Dugan, Gregory Corso, and Robert Creeley underscore the work center’s high-spirited environment. Stanley Kunitz in particular emerges as a well-drawn guide given to making wise remarks, including the advice that the ending of a poem “should be a door and a window” and that poets should “live in the layers / not on the litter.”
The book’s focus on the inner sanctum of a masters-in-fine-arts program and on the wilder side of elite residencies may seem narrow, but Skoyles seldom preaches to the choir. With a narrator who is seemingly shepherded along by luck, A Moveable Famine offers a gently satirical take on a world marked by eccentricity.
Reviewed by Karen Rigby