Telling Loss

Retiring professor Stephen Dixon's distinctive fiction details milestones and minutiae and grapples with real-life pain

May 27, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Reporter

Loss tunnels through Stephen Dixon's fiction, pushing up his words like so many clods of dirt.

Oh, the loss isn't there on the surface, which is flat and smooth and level. The loss isn't present in the spiky, black-footed letters stretching from one end of the page to the next.

Instead, readers soon begin to sense ... something. They press an ear to the ground, listen for a rumble.

"I teach my readers how to read my work while they're reading it," Dixon says.

And, so he does.

Readers immersed in Dixon's fictional world learn to delve beneath the sentences to grasp the whole story. What Dixon doesn't say is as important, or more important, than what he does.

Meaning and substance, flesh, bone and blood, accumulate gradually, word by word, cell by cell.

For instance, Phone Rings is a lightly fictionalized story about Dixon's attempt to grapple with the death of his oldest brother, Don, who is named Dan in the novel. The sentences are purposely uninflected, almost matter-of-fact. But readers begin to sense both the quality of the brothers' bond and the weight of the narrator's grief.

But Dixon's impact can't be measured solely by his 500 published short stories or his 26 novels, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award.

The author has spent the past 26 years teaching creative writing at the Johns Hopkins University, influencing a generation of talented young writers, including Michael Kun, Tristan Davies, Jean McGarry and Ben McGrath.

No more.

Next week, Dixon will celebrate his 71st birthday. His retirement will be official June 30. Soon, he will have even more time to devote to undermining the surface of American fiction.

"He's a genius," says Davies, a senior lecturer at Hopkins.

"I honestly do believe, and I say it to all my classes, that when we all are dead and gone and forgotten, people will still be talking about Stephen Dixon."

In honor of Dixon's retirement, the university's Eisenhower Library is mounting an exhibit of manuscript drafts and other artifacts from Dixon's 45 years as a writer. The exhibit will be on view through Aug. 31.

Dixon frequently has documented his life in his novels, but then, he has had more life to document than most.

In the 1940s, his dentist father was jailed for arranging illegal abortions. His 18-month imprisonment, and the subsequent loss of his license, pushed the family to the brink of poverty.

Stephen lost two of his six siblings before he turned 30, and a third, Don, more recently.

And Dixon has significant family responsibilities. His wife, Anne Frydman, who teaches Russian literature at Hopkins,

was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago, when the couple's two daughters were ages 5 and 2.

She uses a wheelchair, and as the only mobile adult, Dixon assumed the bulk of the responsibility of caring for his wife and the girls, who now are grown. Sophia is a visual artist who also reads manuscripts part-time for a literary agency, and Antonia attends Brown University.

So it's no surprise that loss, or the threat of loss, never is absent from his writing, though it spends long periods lurking somewhere just out of sight.

"My brother, Jimmy, was a writer, too," Dixon says.

"He drowned in 1960, when the freighter he was traveling on went down in the North Atlantic. Sometimes I feel as though I'm writing for him. There have been times when I've had the feeling that he was leaning over my shoulder, giving me approval and directing my prose. His death is one of the most important experiences of my life. I've never gotten over it."

Pushing past barriers

The author stands, head tilted, in front of a self-portrait, which is part of the exhibit in the Eisenhower Library. The image on the piece of yellowing paper is far more forbidding and dour than the real-life version.

Dixon's sketches record his thinning, gray hair, but not its curl. They miss the distinctive shape of his eyebrows, which, appropriately, resemble question marks.

Mostly, though, the person in the pictures appears to be standing still, which is entirely deceptive. Dixon's foot jiggles; a hand drums the table.

The man seems to be constantly testing the limits of the physical world, as though he could actually rearrange an object's molecular structure with a well-placed poke or slight shove.

Few writers have an exaggerated respect for boundaries; it's practically part of the job description. And Dixon is no exception.

As a young man, he worked briefly as a radio reporter for the now-defunct News Associates and Radio Press and later for CBS.

When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made his famous visit to Washington in 1959, Dixon was among the pack of reporters cordoned off to one side of the Lincoln Memorial.

"I ducked under the rope and ran up the steps after him," Dixon says. "I could have been shot. I was calling, `Premier Khrushchev! Premier Khrushchev!' He turned and said, through a translator:

"`Such a nice boy; such a nice boy. What do you want to ask me?'

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