Tribute to Ron Sukenick
by Matt Samet
"This," said Ron Sukenick, holding up an eleven-page manuscript about a priest molesting a little boy in a body cast, "is what we'd call X-rated fiction." It was 1996, and I'd turned in a story, based on real events in New Mexico, for Ron's workshop. I didn't know Ron well then--who he was, how central he had been in ripping down the Bastille of the traditional linear narrative and avoiding, at all costs, what he branded "schlock fiction" (generally the bathetic short stories in the New Yorker, which he was fond of ripping on) in favor of the music of the language--I just knew that, for the first time, I had found a classroom where I could bring in a narrative as diabolical as this and have it critiqued on the merits of language and form without being called a "sicko" or "crazy." And so Ron did, keeping the discussion focussed on the voice, plausibility, and dynamics of the piece, even in the face of a girl who, appalled by the subject matter, began to rail on me, saying she couldn't finish the story because that weekend a friend had "recovered" memories of being molested.
At which point Ron cut her off.
"What does that have to do with this story?" he asked in his no-bullshit way. It shut her up. She needed shutting up. Ron did that well. He knew who came to write and who came to posture, and he spent his energy as any great teacher does, fostering the students who were there to learn, politely working with the others because it was his job. He segued into his own tale, one of almost being kicked out of Cornell for using the term "bird shit" in a piece of fiction he wrote while studying with Nabokov as an undergraduate there. Is it possible that by casting out that one term, that "birdshit"--a phrase that what would now be laughable if singled out as offensive--he launched a chain-reaction that eventually led to my fictional "outing" of the pedophilic priest? It was chaos theory made manifest, a "bird shit" from decades ago ripping through time to collapse the edifices of convention and expand the world of American words into what is today: a land of incredible freedom, a vast, raw, in-your-face landscape pocked by explosions of glee, hate, excreta, insanity, passion, birdshit, and body casts.
Yes, it's a long road from birdshit to body casts, but it's a road that Ron traveled, opening doors into the philosophy of language and the vulgar beauty of human existence that we now have the luxury of taking for granted. I came on the scene late, helping Ron and Mark with Black Ice, then having the good fortune to participate in the last workshop Ron ever taught, during the fall of 1999 at CU-Boulder. I curse myself for not returning to school sooner, for not having a chance to prepare a complete body of work under Ron's attentive eye, but I got that one semester, one in which Ron, his health already failing, went far beyond what any teacher has ever done for me, trying, via example, dialogue, and subtle encouragement, to convince me that the whole spectrum of life, and not solely the horror, comprises good and real writing.
"I don't want your writing to be better," he once told me during one of our myriad meetings on campus that fall. "I want you to be better." I was down, strung out, psychotic, fucked-up, and I bet Ron had been there and I knew Ron could see it in the dark circles around my eyes. He gave me a book from FC2--Life of Death, by Phillip Lewis--to show how one can inject humor into invective, humor into horror; we talked about the book; I tried to emulate the style with my subsequent stories for his class; I'm still trying; I always will be. When I read Ron's novel Mosaic Man I began to get it. But here was a master at work; I was an apprentice. I took away what I could understand then tore into Doggy Bag, Narralogues, trying to glean as much information and, soak up, through some species of psychical osmosis, Ron's prodigious talent. I knew it was his last go at teaching; I would listen to and write down every word. I still have my notebooks from that semester. His theory of "just get it out on the page" is my mantra.
Ron was a teacher but he was also a friend. I remember him asking me, in an ironic turn of events, if I thought his story "Pigs in Shit" was too hardcore for Black Ice; he wondered if running it on this website might endanger his job. This, too, was "X-rated" material, but I almost had to choke back laughter recalling my story from four years earlier. And the almost tender way in which Ron asked about "Pigs" touched me, made me realize that even a writer of his experience still has those second thoughts, those pangs of--Is it remorse? Guilt? Self-doubt? Self-loathing?--that strike when we know a story of true power has spun "out there," never to return.
But "out there" is where the best writing lies, and "out there" is where Ron so rightly knew we should go. It is also where Black Ice shall remain, schlock fiction, "recovered" memories and the linear narrative be damned.
Thank you, Ron, for all that you gave us, for all that you gave me.