Michael Collins: a genius student but a classic outsider
In a wide-ranging essay, the author’s tutor at Notre Dame tracks the successes and mistakes of a brilliant writer out of step with US academic and literary culture
Michael Collins: Photograph: Cyril Byrne
I was a university professor for over 40 years and Michael Collins was the only genius student I ever encountered. I certainly had any number of smart ones, bright ones, utterly successful ones. Too much ability can be a burden of sorts and what Michael possessed in excess he lacked in what some might call common sense – at least the American variety of common sense. He was then and now the classic outsider.
I had never met a student who had such diverse high-level abilities: in prose literature, in world-class athletics, and in computer know-how. He defied CP Snow’s Two Cultures split
He came to Notre Dame by way of the university athletic programme, insofar as he was recruited as a long-distance runner. He turned up in my beginning creative writing class after a falling-out with the track coach, or so I heard. His scholarship had been yanked and a priest had to intervene to recover some of that – mere secular professors had no influence there.
Michael, at that time, was also a computer prodigy and what could be termed a premature hacker, since the term wasn’t in use back then. I heard he got into the university’s system and changed some grades. I had never met a student who had such diverse high-level abilities: in prose literature, in world-class athletics, and in computer know-how. He defied CP Snow’s Two Cultures split; in fact, he was dancing in three cultures.
Writers, especially novelists, tend to be outsiders. Insiders often turn into journalists, if they have any literary talent. The outsider point of view is almost de rigueur for the critical mind, though the paradox of knowing what you’re talking about while observing it nonetheless pertains.
In my creative writing class when Michael was a junior he would turn in short stories with sentences like these: “Father Sheamus gorged down a greasy fry and washed it back with three cups of watery tea. His heavy coarse beard was splattered with the yellow of egg and specked with crumbs from burnt toast. The waiter stood idly by in amazement. The priest gulped down the last drop of tea and then slamming the cup against the table with great satisfaction, he belched and wiped his sleeve across his mouth. The jostling train, now set on track four, crawled like a great armored centipede into the station.”
It’s highly unusual to have a student with such a gift: description that is dynamic rather than static. “Gift” is usually what displays of early talent are called, since no one can believe that the youngster is able to do something like that without outside intervention. Irish writers have a long, glorious history in the short form, the short story, so Michael’s competence didn’t seem out of place. Here a sort of racism and stereotyping provided him a background that didn’t make him seem an outlier, but a writer emerging from a tradition.
Humans tend to mask their ignorance by inventing similarities. A year later I tried to get Michael into the premier graduate creative writing programme at the University of Iowa, by contacting TC Boyle, who had influence there. Boyle was a writer I had met, but he balked at my entreaties by saying, “But, he’s so Irish!” Michael, on his own, applied to the University of Alaska, a choice few native Americans would have made. They, no surprise, accepted him. He left a few months after he began, selling his only suit in order to arrange transportation back to the lower 48.
He showed up at my office door later and his at-sea-ness led me to do something I had intended to do all along, to start a graduate creative writing programme at my university.
Michael and a young man who was in the PhD programme became Notre Dame’s first two graduates of the new program, which has since flourished. Upon graduating (Michael only needed a year, since I had given him graduate credit for all the advanced creative writing courses he had taken with me as an undergraduate) he went back to Ireland and England and I learned that a small press there was bringing out a book of short stories, some of which he wrote as an undergraduate, titled The Meat Eaters. It was called The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters when it was published a couple of years later in the states by Random House.
It turned out that Michael had created the small press that brought out the original volume, attempting to get notice, which only succeeded in getting my notice and the help of my agent who managed to sell the book both in England and America after Esquire magazine ran a story from it, accompanied by a large picture of the young, handsome author.
Presumably, Michael had arrived. But the literary world is a fickle place and nothing went smoothly thereafter. Though a critical success, a hardback of short stories, all set in Ireland, only attracts a discerning, but limited audience. It received as much praise as any collection of short stories had that year, though, unfortunately, as a debut book especially, there is, in America, a ceiling on how much such a collection will sell. Cause and effect are tossed about and Michael found himself dismayed that his fresh fame didn’t make his life similar to members of the band U2.
Michael and his new wife went to Chicago and he enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. She went to medical school. Michael didn’t publish another book in America until eight years later (The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters had appeared in 1992). When The Keepers of Truth was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the attention it generated prompted a paperback of the novel to appear in 2000.
By then Michael had acquired a PhD from Illinois and still was running about winning long races and found himself working for Bill Gates in Washington state, where his wife practiced medicine. He wrote The Keepers of Truth out west while employed at Microsoft and the corporation wasn’t aware they had let an actual writer into its midst (an asp in its bosom!) until the notoriety of the Booker Prize accolade reached someone’s ears out there.
Michael and Microsoft parted ways, a fact that became apparent when his swipe card no longer opened up any doors. Microsoft may want to run the world, but the literary culture wasn’t high on any of its lists of specific interests. They do like to kill mosquitoes, though.
Michael had signed non-disclosure contracts with the company and hasn’t to my knowledge written about the place, since they would likely send 200 lawyers to ruin his life if he dared. Talking about outsiders! One of Norman Mailer’s best books (and least read) is Of a Fire On the Moon, about Nasa’s moon landing. Employees of Nasa seem to be denatured of any novelistic ambitions as they rise in the ranks and it was necessary for them to bring in someone from the outside to chronicle their derring-do.
Mailer possessed sufficient reputation, so he was called in and given remarkable access to the goings-on. Hidden cultures make for interesting novels and books, but we have come a long way from the days of Upton Sinclair, or, for that matter, muckrakers in general. Modern corporations, obviously, take steps not to open themselves up to critical scrutiny.
There are many reasons for the relative scarcity of work literature. In 1977 I put together an anthology titled On the Job: Fiction About Work by Contemporary American Writers. I was surprised by the paucity of possibilities. One reason that trend has continued is that so many writers of my generation have found work in American universities. Life in academia has been well covered.
Collins is a chronicler of small Americana and the downbeat drifters that have been passing through ever since The Grapes of Wrath
Michael ended up living in lower Michigan, teaching at what was more or less a community college in Dowagiac, while his wife doctored in South Bend, a half hour away. Michael’s outsider status, like many an author, had multiple sides, at least a pentagon’s worth, all equally distant. His publishing history reflects that. After the Booker shortlisting, American publishers again took interest in him. Scribner’s published The Resurrectionists in 2002. One Irish critic commented on the British edition: “Collins is a chronicler of small Americana and the downbeat drifters that have been passing through ever since The Grapes of Wrath.”
Of course, it was Michael who has been passing through. Dowagiac is a hard-scrabble town, not quite the upper-scale Microsoft suburban world of Bellingham, Washington. The American economy in this part of the country has become a cliche, saddled with its own tired vocabulary, cinched by its “rust-belt” label. First there was automation, then nationalisation, then globalisation. Michael has been writing about the region’s Donald Trump voters for a long time.
The Keepers of Truth is set, evidently, in South Bend, Indiana, seen, of course, from the serene woods of Washington state, where it was written. The writer as outsider often needs to be literally outside the geography where a novel is located. His next two novels, The Resurrectionists and Lost Souls, form a trilogy of sorts, all dealing as they do with our country’s down and almost out. Alas, given low sales, American publishers abandoned Michael’s neo-proletarian novels once again after Lost Souls.
By the early 2000s American publishing had changed utterly. Large publishing had coalesced into the minor businesses of three or four giant conglomerates. And computers, technology, the internet, had done their insidious work. America no longer has a literate culture, but an oral-visual one, a media, platform culture, and the so-called serious writers remain out of luck, unless they are billeted at some stable university. Reading rich prose became as much of a specialty in the common culture as being able to play a musical instrument, not a universal ability.
There was, still is, a Noah’s Ark sort of hopefulness for authors, where at least two examples of each literary species will be saved, given the flood of all the “content” overtaking the average American who can read. One barcode villain can be identified: Bookscan, which can accurately chart every sale any book in the country makes. Publishers use this data point as a decision maker or breaker. Oddly, as discerning readers began to vanish, the number of publishers began to rise, since writers, primarily those attached to universities, began to create coterie presses, a great number of them. Virginia Woolf is to blame, given that she too invented a press and published her friends. That model has been employed by American writers for the last 20 years without shame.
But authors make mistakes, too. Very few non-commercial writers know how to successfully advance their careers. Michael was no exception. He changed agents, publishers, gave up writing short stories – a critical mistake in this country, if you want to continue to be noticed as a literary writer – and attempted to jump into the crime genre to entice the vagrant reader. If bestsellers were easy to write there would be more of them. Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader. America really doesn’t possess enough of a literary culture anymore to maintain a writer like Michael.
England, Ireland, France (the French love Michael’s books), are small enough countries (geographically small) to still contain literary cultures that are contiguous, somewhat centralised. In the United States we have no such organic whole. What literary culture that is here is not united but shattered, dying off, only functioning in the redoubts of two or three big cities, controlled by fashion-setting gatekeepers, one or two national critical organs that still exist to examine authors (the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books). The country might be too big to fail, but it fails its writers. They are largely superfluous. The academic world houses them in universities across the country, but they are largely insular and have little effect outside their boundaries.
And it is also true that here in the States you will only be read by the many, not the few, if you are telling the culture something it wants to hear. Michael isn’t doing that. Here is almost a random sentence from his current novel, The Death of All Things Seen: “He stood amidst his daughters’ clothes from years earlier, the rows of imported cashmere cardigans, the Izods in the pastel colors and pop-up collars that were no longer in fashion, along with the obscene number of dresses, shoes, boots, sneakers and sandals, many in their original boxes, never worn, or worn once. In their totality, they suggested a great fraud had been committed, in the way Imelda Marcos and her three thousand pairs of shoes had sparked true moral outrange in a world grown too accustomed to mass graves.” Not something most readers hunger to be told.
The Death of All Things Seen, with its mix of high and low characters, hasn’t penetrated the American publishing world, even though it is in the tradition of the great Chicago writers, Midwestern writers, such as Saul Bellow, Theodore Dreiser, James T Farrell, other chroniclers of the American underbelly, its teeming sites of production and consumption, its portraits of the used and used-up many who both populate the place and produce its products.
One difficulty is that Michael, unlike the three writers mentioned above, is not a Dead White Male (a category anathema in US literature departments for the last 30 years), but a Live White Male, not a demographic entity that is much in fashion these days. Though globalised in actuality, Michael is not globalised by background or genetics.
The Outsider writer is both a fact and a curse. If you’re outside, in the cold, there you may well remain. His last novel published here was The Death of a Writer (2006). I bought it in London when it was published and titled The Secret Life of E Robert Pendleton. Though an “academic” novel (which likely got it published here) Michael makes use of a crime to drive the plot and I was happy to see he took a line of mine, giving it to the soon-to-be-disposed-of dyspeptic author to remark that he stopped writing novels since he didn’t want to give people “more not to read”.
Again, Michael, by this time, given the spate of novels published in the US, had finally gotten interviews at decent universities to teach writing, but he made the mistake of reading the early chapter of The Death of a Writer that is an excoriating attack on English departments and their incompetent professors. Not surprisingly, he didn’t get any job offers.
Michael’s career has been singular, since he is singular, though there is an American writer, Craig Nova, who Michael, in some ways, resembles. Craig is also a writer of indelible prose, lyrical and trenchant. And, in his search for an audience, Nova has dipped into the crime genre and certainly writes in those novels, mainly, of the dispossessed and marginal. But, being American, Craig is not an outsider; he knows how the system works and is currently an endowed chair at a North Carolina university.
Craig, too, does not have a large audience reading him and is known only by the well-informed but not hugely populated literary circles. Large publishers, though, have stuck with him, a rarity in itself, and his novels have piled up, like Michael’s. Needless to say, Craig is also a Live White Male.
I, too, have outsider status, at least in one novel, Notts, which appeared in the States in 1996. It is set during the last great strike, the NUM strike of 1984-5, in and around London and Nottingham, where I spent time during the strike. The novel has never been published in England, or anywhere else but America, though when it appeared here in 1996, I discovered that though there was a long tradition of coal mining novels, there was no current interest.
Terry Eagleton, at the time, was visiting Notre Dame for a few months at great expense to the university and I gave him a copy, eventually copies, of the novel to no effect whatsoever. Not so long ago in the early 2000s I refreshed his memory of the book, saying it was the only novel that used the NUM strike as a subject. He said, no, I just reviewed a book about the strike recently, so I adjusted my remark to say, well, it was the first novel about the strike, published a decade earlier. I looked up his review of what I considered (of course) an inferior treatment of the strike (GB84 by David Peace). Nothing like being an outsider, especially to one’s own sometime colleague.
The French may well like Michael’s writing because they translate it into their own language, a cultural absorption of sorts. Between England and Ireland and America there is no need for translation and that makes being an outsider a more abstract thing. Both American and UK and Irish writers who go back and forth easily are the celebrity writers. There is no denying that Ireland and England still have vibrant literary cultures, especially compared to the invalid that passes for literary culture in the States, but like so many of Michael’s characters, what makes him and them outsiders is largely an economic question and not a literary one.
William O’Rourke is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. He has published four novels, six works of nonfiction and two edited volumes