Let me get this out of the way first: I loved this book. I spotted Gone Tomorrow by P.F. Kluge on my library’s shelf of new arrivals and picked it up because I remembered hearing some good things about it. I’m so glad I did.
Oddly enough, the likeable main character has already died in the first sentence:
George Canaris is the first faculty member of this college in half a century whose death merited an obituary in the New York Times. He was our best-known professor, one of those outsized characters who arrives in an obscure place and makes it his own. “A writer, a critic, a professor, a campus legend and a national figure, the very embodiment of the liberal arts,” the Times obituary said. And a mystery. He was the author of two well-received novels and a book of essays, all published more than thirty years ago. Taken together, they were the beginnings of an impressive shelf to which, in all his years here in Ohio, he added nothing. “Compared to Faulker and Dos Passos at the start of his career,” the Times observed, “in the end he resembled Harper Lee.”
To some of us on campus, that last remark seemed harsh and condescending: the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately school of criticism, unfair to George Canaris and to Harper Lee. They were both authors – add J.D. Salinger to the list – who left readers wanting more and whose accomplishments, even as they recede, remain fresh and new and magic. Of how many writers can this be said? Also, there was always a chance that something more would be coming from a small town in Alabama, a remote New England farm, a small college on a hill in central Ohio. There was that hope, tantalizing, like a phone call from an unlisted number. In Canaris’ case, there were specific grounds for hope, his references to a novel underway, something major, years in the writing. He called it “The Beast.” But, as time went by, inevitably, there was speculation that the book was a myth, a lie, a joke. Every passing year made skeptics more confident. But never certain.
And that’s the main set-up of this book within a book, told in part in Canaris’ own words: how he progressed from a famous and sought-after author to an aging professor at a small rural college. Much of the novel goes back and forth between his past and the present, gradually filling in the blanks. The central question, both in Canaris’ life and in Gone Tomorrow, is whether The Beast really exists and whether it will ever be published.
To make the book even more captivating, the author, P.F. Kluge, happens to be a writer-in-residence at – guess what? – a small college in central Ohio. I couldn’t help wondering how much of the novel was autobiographical (though, obviously, not the part about not publishing in 30 years). Perhaps his own experience is the reason why the setting and descriptions in this book are so vivid.
Gone Tomorrow is clever and engaging, and I grew to really like George Canaris. I was rooting for him and hoping that The Beast was real and that he would conquer it and show those naysayers. I also became fond of the college and its little rural town and enjoyed Canaris’ tales of teaching there. All in all, this was a very enjoyable novel.