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A Book You Could Love

October 01, 2007

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by Lisa Albers

There’s a scene in the novel A Man You Could Love in which the hero, an earnest politician named Mick Whelan, takes the podium to deliver his first election night victory speech. He checks his suit pockets, however, and discovers that his notes are missing. He experiences only a moment of distress before calmly smiling at his audience. “I had some notes,” he says, “but I must have left them in the back room after I heard the returns from Corbett County.” It’s a great save because, in this case, the returns from Corbett County are in Whelan’s favor–and surprisingly so.

This scene might make past and present students of Lewis & Clark think of another man, a charismatic English professor who has a penchant for jotting down notes he probably doesn’t need and delivering polished lectures off-the-cuff. That man, the author of A Man You Could Love, is John Callahan, Odell Professor of Humanities. 

Callahan is nationally known for his scholarly work in African American literature, most notably as literary executor for Ralph Ellison. He edited Ellison’s posthumously published novel, Juneteenth, his Collected Essays, and Flying Home and Other Stories.

Following the painstaking work of assembling another man’s unfinished manuscripts with his own novelistic endeavor raises the obvious question of how one pursuit gave rise to the other. “I wanted my story to answer the question Ellison poses in Invisible Man: ‘And could politics ever be an expression of love?’ ” says Callahan. “In A Man You Could Love, certain characters distort love of another person or their country into self-love or unhealthy fixations on an idea or a person. But sometimes love is conditional and contingent, and I intend politics to express the full range of human impulse and aspiration, destructive as well as creative.” 

Asked about Ellison’s impact on his writing process, Callahan pauses to consider. “We were friends,” he says, “and ours was a filial and paternal friendship as much as a literary one. With Ralph I pretty much let my dream of writing a novel stay underground – ‘on the lower frequencies,’ perhaps.” 

But the energy it took to bring three of Ellison’s unfinished works to publication definitely influenced Callahan. He states, “On the one hand, I thought, ‘I can’t finish yours, but if I ever get going, I’ll finish mine. And that’s for you, Ralph.’ On the other hand, I think I’d be naïve not to realize that some of the frustration I felt going through his files over and over again and not finding the ‘missing pages’ fueled the desire to finish my own novel.”

Not that Callahan didn’t have novelistic aspirations of his own, independent of his work on Ellison’s manuscripts. During the Seattle stop of his national book tour, he told a bookstore audience that he wrote his first novel right after college. But at that time, he lacked both belief in himself and good material. “I was a novelist looking for a story,” he told them.

Callahan’s other aspirations–political–gave him that story. He ran for the U.S. Congress in 1970 and as Senator Eugene McCarthy’s vice presidential candidate in 1976. Callahan uses Florida’s 2000 presidential election recount as a narrative frame through which the narrator, Gabriel Bontempo, relates the rise and fall of Mick Whelan, his best friend. The balance of the narrative is set in the past, spanning 30 years of Oregon and national politics–from the tumultuous 1968 election up through the battles of the ’70s and ’80s to what in Callahan’s estimation is the failed promise of the ’90s.

A Man You Could Love is in some ways a dark book, owing to the nature of politics, especially considering the liberal bent of the hero, who advocates compulsory national service and high-speed trains but fails to get either initiative signed into law. But there is an admirable optimism at work here as well, especially in the moving political speeches that pepper the novel, like this one, in which candidate Mick Whelan speaks to workers at the fictitious company Timber Incorporated:

I’ve heard people say loggers don’t care about the forest, or they wouldn’t cut down a single tree. These people respect the Indians for putting every bit of the buffalo they killed to use–fur, hide, meat, and bone. But these same people live in houses made from wood, read books and newspapers made from pulp, and doctor their children with medicine from bark and sap.

Thus winning the loggers’ trust, Whelan shifts into a criticism of the industry’s focus on clear-cutting and short-term profits, arguing that “there’s every reason for a company like Timber to be a friend to the trees.”

Later speeches made during candidate debates, on election nights, and on the floor of the Senate are handled with equal deftness. Callahan says he “sweat blood” writing those speeches, but the effort was well worth it. They serve to remind us what is still possible in a democratic republic.

Besides Ralph Ellison, Callahan credits two chief influences who made it possible for him to write A Man You Could Love: his wife, Christine, and the students of Lewis & Clark. Several times Christine took him to task for “just playing around with new scenes,” as he puts it, instead of addressing the novel’s central revision issues. As for the students, “I’m grateful to them,” he says. “They continue to have a decency, a curiosity, a freshness about them that keeps me in touch with my own imagination, my own stories.”

This fall, Callahan is teaching fiction writing at Lewis & Clark. It’s a new course for him, one that reveals a shift in his lifelong study of literature. “As a teacher, my whole approach has changed,” he explains. “It’s the difference between an aerial view and being on the ground.”

Lisa Albers is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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