Friday, January 29, 2010

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

By Kevin Guilfoile

This is a fan letter—of sorts. I’ve always been an admirer of yours, for your musicianship, and for being one of the few sane guys in your field.


Last year, a friend sent me a link to a story about a missed connection of fan letters between Bruce Springsteen and the author Walker Percy. When I clicked through to the story I think I must have been trembling.

Percy had been an obsession of mine since high school when I first read my sister's copy of The Moviegoer, which she had carted home from college. My devotion to Springsteen went back further, to junior high, when I had raided my older brother's record collection and became fixated on making mix tapes which were not so much mixes as a reordering of Springsteen playlists according to my whims. The fact that there might have (almost) been a connection between a New Jersey rocker and a Natinal Book Award-winning southern novelist seemed to somehow validate the hours and hours I had spent on repeated listenings and re-readings of their work.


The letters are almost perfectly heartbreaking. Percy (who writes near the end of his life) is a devout Catholic who mentions their shared admiration for Flannery O'Connor (a friend of Percy's), but who misreads Springsteen's Catholic upbringing as spiritual devotion comparable to his own. When he received the letter, Springsteen was unfamiliar with Percy and must not have known what to make of it, so he didn't reply.

Years later, Springsteen read The Moviegoer and saw in it many of the same themes that he had been writing about his entire career. He remembered that letter and instantly regretted not writing back. By this time Percy was dead, so Springsteen wrote to Percy's widow:

It is now one of my great regrets that we didn’t get to correspond....The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me.


Every writer gets asked "Where do you get your ideas?" and it's mostly an impossible question to answer. But I usually know I have a good premise for a story when I discover that two seemingly unrelated things bouncing around in my head turn out to have some kind of connection. Maybe it's a real connection or maybe it's one that develops in my mind. But this correspondence that never took place is, for me, an almost perfect tale. (Percy was a terrific letter writer, by the way, and his collected correspondence with his lifelong friend Shelby Foote is one of the best books on writing I have ever read.)

I was reminded of all this last week when I was watching Springsteen on Elvis Costello's show Spectacle, which airs on the Sundance Channel (Spectacle is a fantastic program for any music lover, incidentally. Costello is a terrific interviewer, and the performances are great.) "In the end, my music has always been about identity. Identity, identity, identity," Springsteen told Costello. "Who am I? Where do I belong? What is the code I'm trying to live by?"

That's the place, not in a church, where Walker Percy and Bruce Springsteen would meet.

16 comments:

Pete said...

Fine post, Kevin - I didn't know you were a Springsteen fan (I consider myself an admirer, not a fan, for reasons I'll divulge offline sometime). A local writer, David Masciotra, is publishing a book with Continuum on Springsteen's progressive politics. The book release party is in Joliet on Feb. 20 and I'd be thrilled if you could be there. Info here: http://www.davidmasciotra.com/events.html

Kevin Guilfoile said...

That looks really interesting, Pete. I'm not sure if I can make it on the 20th yet, but I'll definitely check out the book either way.

Jim said...

Kevin,

Here's an interesting bit of info regarding the Springsteen-Percy relationship. (You have to scroll down a ways in the article, which is a book review.)

http://www.tnr.com/article/tramps-who

Jim S

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