I sometimes worry that the professionalization of creative writing is going to kill the writing of books, making them all safe and expected and easy to categorize as something called "good writing." Luckily, the professionals don't control the language, the bookstores, or the libraries. Steven Gillis is one of those writers who are outside the categories, a writer who has trained himself, out of a pure passion for fiction.
After a legal career in Washington, D.C., Gillis returned to Ann Arbor with his family so that his kids could go to school here and he could pursue what he really wanted to do with his life: write novels. And not potboilers, either. Gillis has ambitions to write serious literary fiction, even if he might define that differently than the U-M creative writing faculty. Walter Falls is the first fruit of Gillis's labor.
A successful investment advisor, Walter Brimm lives in a world where a certain level of greed is not just expected but required. But when that normal quota of greed is combined with a more than normal level of jealousy, there is an explosion. Walter suspects that his lovely wife, Gee, "professor of sociology and writer of many exemplary articles published in a host of scholarly reviews," is having an affair with a sickeningly politically correct intellectual named Todd Marcum. Walter's jealousy may be premature, but it is well founded.
Greed and jealousy have their costs. We know Walter will lose everything, and Gillis never lets us forget it. Once Walter falls, Gillis allows him the chance to recover his humanity. He begins the last section by quoting Dostoevsky: "My only fear is that I will not be worthy of my suffering." Whether or not Walter Brimm is worthy of his pain is the novel's final hook.
This summary can't convey the pleasures of Gillis's style. Walter tells his story with a smart-alecky tone that doesn't change until his life is shattered. Then his words become more tentative. There are lapses in Walter Falls that a creative writing workshop may have prevented — a few sentences might have been fixed, a couple characters more completely developed — but no one could have taught Gillis the urgency and passion behind this novel. Walter Falls feels like a book its author had to write, and because of that it is a pleasure to read.
Steven Gillis reads from his novel at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Friday, June 13.