His 769-page book has thrust Stephen Dixon into a literary spotlight

LEAPFROG TO FAME

November 15, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Everything comes at a price, we are told, and for Stephen Dixon it is no different. Being nominated for the National Book Award in fiction is a welcome honor, but he will have to wear a tuxedo.

Not that he doesn't appreciate being nominated for "Frog," the 769-page work consisting of three interrelated novels, three novels and 15 short stories, all interrelated. Despite having published five novels and close to 300 short stories, Mr. Dixon, a professor of fiction in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars since 1980, has labored in relative anonymity for nearly 30 years. Long content to have his work seen in small publishing houses and often obscure literary houses, he concedes the nomination means a lot: "It would have been nice any time, but obviously 'Frog' is a big and ambitious book -- probably the last big and ambitious book I'll ever do."

Still, he will be reluctantly bedecked in tux when the award is announced Wednesday night at a formal, $500-a-plate dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York. It's a concession to his publisher, said Mr. Dixon, a soft-spoken man whose penchant for casual attire and a low profile is well known on the Hopkins campus.

The last time he wore a tuxedo, he estimated, was 35 years ago, at his sister's wedding. "I wasn't going to wear a tux until I bumped into [author] Taylor Branch, who lives down the block," Mr. Dixon, 55, said in an interview last week. "He said, 'By the way, Steve,' you're going to have to wear a tux.' I said, well, no, I was going to wear the brown suit I got married in 12 years ago. He said, 'Oh no, they won't let you in.' "

Mr. Branch, who was nominated in 1989 for "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963" (it later won the Pulitzer Prize), helped his Mount Washington neighbor. He lent Mr. Dixon the tuxedo, size 42 Long, that he had worn to his National Book Awards dinner.

"I got it wholesale from a guy in the neighborhood," Mr. Branch said.

He said he told Mr. Dixon that the awards ceremony is "the literary world mimicking the Academy Awards -- it's a big gala, formal thing." That's the problem, according to Mr. Dixon.

"The whole thing is too ceremonial," he said, his disdain evident. "And being an emotional person, how can I accept somebody else's winning, which I assume somebody else will? "I don't like being the center of attention.That's one of the reasons I'm a writer." Mr. Dixon may chafe at the sudden burst of celebrity after three decades of quiet toil, but many around him feel it is due. For novelist John Barth, professor emeritus of creative writing at Hopkins, the nomination is most appropriate.

"He's a delightful writer," said Mr. Barth, who won the National Book Award in 1973 for "Chimera."

"Steve's been on the receiving end of an enormous amount of literary neglect. Extraordinary talent tends to cut through the odds, but it doesn't always get there. There's a remarkable amount of caprice in this business."

What has finally moved Stephen Dixon from the shadows is the publication of "Frog." In an autumn in which several massive books have come out -- most notably Norman Mailer's "Harlot's Ghost" and Harold Brodkey's "Runaway Soul" -- "Frog" stands out not only for its length, but for its ambition and complexity.

Composed of 21 chapters -- each with the word "Frog" in the title -- it tells the story of a nondescript, middle-aged man named Howard Tetch and his family, moving back and forth in time countless times, recasting events from different perspectives. A sentence may run for pages; one chapter, "Frog's Sister," consists of one paragraph, which in manuscript form ran to 90 pages. One sees hints of two of Mr. Dixon's favorite writers, James Joyce and Franz Kafka, in "Frog" -- indeed, the opening chapter, "Frog in Prague," concerns Howard's efforts to find Kafka's grave.

Mr. Dixon began "Frog" in April 1985. "It started out as a collection of stories," he said. "And when I was writing it I realized that I wouldn't just concentrate on the guy himself but his family and his past, and it would be very interesting to go forward, too -- the only way to go forward is to project a life for himself and his kids. So while I was writing one story after another I thought I was onto something."

For five years he gave up all other writing (although during that time two novels and two collections of short stories he had written earlier were published). A disciplined and confident writer, he says he never doubted himself during the time it took to write "Frog."

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