Notes From a Postmodern 'Underground Man'


By William H. Gass

Alfred A. Knopf, 652 pp., $30

William H. Gass's first novel, ''Omensetter's Luck,'' was published in 1966. ''The Tunnel,'' his second full-length novel, has been more than 30 years in the works, we are told, which would place its beginnings at least three years before the publication of his first book.

In the interim, Gass has produced a modest yet considerable body of short fiction and essays that have established him as one of the more innovative and intellectually challenging writers of this era. His essays approach a variety of subjects the art of fiction to the emotions evoked by the color blue -- from expected angles, while his fiction always experimental -- bears the stamp of a serious mind at play.

The narrator and hero of ''The Tunnel'' is William Frederick Kohler, a fiftyish professor of history at a Midwestern university. He is not only distinctly unheroic, but he also is not really a narrator. Instead of telling a story, he ruminates and fulminates in circles, like a caged animal. Kohler, it might be said, is a caged mind, a prisoner of a painful self-knowledge that has turned into self-disgust.

As the novel opens, Kohler has just completed his magnum opus: a vast, carefully argued tome entitled ''Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany.'' Although the book does not, apparently, absolve the Nazis of guilt, it does challenge some generally accepted interpretations of German war crimes. (What it would seem to resemble -- not so much in content as in the kind of controversy aroused is not the recent spate of fraudulent pseudo-histories that deny the existence of the death camps, but rather, something more akin to Hannah Arendt's 1963 ''Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.'')

As Kohler starts to write the introduction to his otherwise completed work, he finds himself writing something else entirely: a wildly subjective, disorganized, undignified screed of self-revelation that is in every way the opposite of his serenely objective historical study. Turning his own life inside out, Kohler discloses a crazy quilt of memories from an ordinary yet unhappy childhood, lamentations for a lost love affair, complaints against his hapless wife and children, snide comments on his colleagues, and bitter outbursts of resentment and misanthropy, punctuated by a steady stream of obscene limericks.

At the same time he is writing this private ''history,'' Kohler is also secretly digging a tunnel out from the basement of his house. His motive, it would seem, is not escape -- unless escape means getting away from other people by burrowing relentlessly into oneself. (His motive, more likely, is providing his author with a metaphor!)

Kohler has led a very ordinary life. An American of German extraction, he grew up on a Midwestern farm, served in World War II, married a woman of similar background, fathered two sons, and rose up the academic ladder. Kohler's one taste of true love was an adulterous affair with a sweet-natured younger woman who eventually left him because of what she termed his ''loathsome mind.''

His formative intellectual experience was falling under the spell of a crazy, charismatic German historian, Magus Tabor, a Nazi sympathizer who preached that historians must shape history rather than just record it.

Tunneling pointlessly beneath his house, wallowing in self-pity, and ruthlessly exposing his bottomless sense of disappointment, Kohler is a latter-day version of Dostoyevsky's ''underground man.'' But Gass's postmodern nihilist is more interested in revenge than freedom. With bitter irony, he dreams of a Party of the Disappointed People, untold hordes who are filled with envy, resentment, and other ''passive emotions,'' smoldering inwardly, waiting only for another Fuhrer to give them the chance to vent their grievances on another set of victims.

Why should Kohler -- who has a home, a family, a job with tenure -- feel such disappointment? Because, this novel suggests, disappointment is a phenomenon more pervasive than hunger, poverty, or homelessness, affecting all levels of society. The potential fascist, Gass (and Kohler) warn, can be found anywhere people feel they have been cheated of what was rightfully theirs to expect.

Unfortunately, Gass's exhaustive exploration of the fascist state of soul is far more meandering and repetitive than Dostoyevsky's ''Notes from the Underground.'' Although parts of ''The Tunnel'' are strongly conceived and powerfully written, Gass has not quite solved the artistic problem of how to write an energizing book about a dispiriting subject.

*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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