One of the first classes I took at UNM was “Creative Writing/Prose Fiction,” taught by Rudolfo Anaya. Today the New Mexico native and long-time Albuquerque resident, who died in 2020, is known as the “dean of Chicano Literature.” Yet, even a quarter-century earlier, nearly any resident of New Mexico with a fondness for fiction was familiar with his work, particularly his celebrated debut novel Bless me, Ultima. When I arrived in New Mexico, there wasn’t a bookstore, and likely not even a gift shop in a museum or hotel, that didn’t have copies of Ultima for sale. Thus aware, I, too, read the book, and enjoyed it. What engrossed me about the novel was its evocation of place―the high plains of eastern New Mexico, which recalled for me my Pawnee Grasslands due north in Colorado―and the door it opened to the family life, society, and customs of rural Latinos. Except for the setting, it was a world unlike any I had ever known.
“Rudy” wasn’t the first published novelist with whom I was acquainted. At Hobart, I got to know Robert Ward. “Bob” arrived at the college a couple of years after I entered. Shedding Skin, his first published novel, a comic one, appeared in bookstores about the time of his arrival. Bob was a late-twenties, extremely easy-going fellow. He was often visible on campus, wearing sneakers and dressed from head to toe in faded denim, his shoulder-length hair bound in a headband. He walked with animated arms and hands, a bounce and occasional mashed potato in his step. Originally from Baltimore, he had a mild southern drawl. He admired such satirists as Burroughs, Roth, Pynchon, and Celine. He was the first person to acquaint me with One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s masterpiece. He mixed freely with students of all ages. He was often wired, riffing on one humorous aspect of life or another, floating ides for novels by us. He was a good basketball player who played forward on our intramural team, scuttling around the court, clamoring for the ball, accompanying his gyrations with the “whoa-whoa-whoa-WHOA-whoa” riff of Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford’s raucous R&B classic “I Need Your Loving.” I took a creative writing class with him, spending the entire semester laboring over an insipid short story. I received an undeserved “A” for the class.
Rudy, on the other hand, was soft-spoken. His words came out slowly and measured. He had a trim mustache and a head of thick, wavy hair. He was serious but not in an intimidating or overbearing way, and there was a great calm at his core. He dressed smartly: slacks and button-down shirts, although the shirts were always unbuttoned at the collar and sometimes adorned with a bolo tie.
There were some dozen students in Rudy’s fall semester class, and we all sat in a rough circle around a couple long tables pushed together. During class we would exchange and discuss photocopies of our stories-in-progress. I wrote two long short stories for the class. One of the stories I based upon a personal experience as a sixties New Jersey teenager. It included an expression, a common putdown among us boys back then: “Smell me.” I’ve never forgotten how Rudy, no stranger to juvenile cuts in his fiction, erupted into a rare cackle when I read that aloud to the class.
Both stories were long, and I finished each one mentally exhausted. Like Bob, Rudy gave them respectable grades, even suggested I attempt to publish one after “re-working” it. However, I didn’t care to return to either of them. I told myself I had described the setting of each more than adequately. I felt each one had a satisfactory narrative arc. But neither of them glowed like, say, a tale by Cheever or Malamud, and I wondered if I was designed for fiction writing. If I had the imagination. If I had the radar required to constantly scan for life’s conflicts and possible resolutions of those conflicts. If I even had the meagerest philosophy of life or moral grounding that I could summon to explain or justify such resolutions. I thanked Rudy on the final day of class.
But I was certainly capable of reading fiction, and I consumed plenty of it for my various classes: Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia Márquez, Proust, Greene, Hemingway, Forster, Woolf, Kafka, Lessing, Camus. I took “Chicano Literature,” in which I read Anaya, Ernesto Galarza, Tomás Rivera, Sandra Cisneros, northern New Mexico-born Sabine Ulibarri. Yet, although I rarely took more than three classes a semester, I felt that I never had enough time to carefully read many of the assigned books. Nonetheless, I read them all, and without amphetamines. I took a seminar on metaphor. I even cranked out several of those dreaded “scholarly papers,” including one on Dickens’s Hard Times and another on Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, the title of the latter novel aptly describing my condition upon finishing both papers. Neither paper was suggested by a professor for publication in an academic journal. Mr. Davis, meet Perish.