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Friday, August 2, 2013

George Sauer's Secret

Joseph Mitchell, author of Joe Gould's Secret
One of the great writers I've ever read is Joseph Mitchell, whose collection of nonfiction Up in the Old Hotel sits on my shelf. At first, I read him because my mother told me to, which is why I started reading everything I read as a boy. She was the first trusted librarian I ever had, and my teachers were sometimes frustrated to know that the stories that they recommended to me were not worth reading if Mom didn't like them. So naturally I read Joseph Mitchell. But his writing didn't come easily to me at first. To the modern reader, Mitchell is like an evening meal in Paris to an American tourist. The American notices that while he is scarfing it all down so that he can then move on to the next thing and then the next thing, everyone else around him is just savoring the time amid talk, bites, smoke and more talk, without ever checking their email or another's Facebook status.

In his short piece "Mr. Hunter's Grave," Mitchell writes,

"Invariably, for some reason I don't know and don't want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits life, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk."

A lot of his work reads like that, and it requires re-reading because he begins and then stops and puts things parenthetically and stumbles into another idea, picks up the old one again and proceeds, while allowing us a little insight into the brittle nature of the narrator's sense of well-being, even as he becomes, as he says, quite cheerful.

Joe Gould
His most famous piece is Joe Gould's Secret, a work of greatness that is not so much a tale of a strange loner but of a penultimate study of the entire network of the city's "cranks and the misfits and the would-bes and never-wills and the God-knows-whats." Joe Gould is the greatest of those misfits that Mitchell loved to write about. He was a roaming, vagabond half-genius, half-madman that all the artists of early 20th century Greenwich Village bohemia knew about; his nude portrait was done by the painter Alice Neel, who gave him three phalluses.

Joe Gould worked his whole life, from his graduation from Harvard, all the way through his days of wandering around New York, on the Oral History, a massive work-in-progress that was composed of tens of thousands of conversations from memory that he had documented through the years.

It's terrible to reveal endings, so I won't too much. But Joe Gould did have a secret, and suffice to say that his secret was, in some ways, that he had no secret at all. 

I felt like mentioning him a few weeks back when I wrote about former Jets wide receiver George Sauer, who died in June from heart failure after struggling with Alzheimer's, but I didn't want to presume so much as to connect the hypergraphic Gould with Sauer's searching soul. But while I was away on vacation recently, my mother sent me a clipping of Jack Williams' article in the Times about George Sauer's legacy of unfinished writing. Mom didn't send me the link to the article, as I do here, but she still lives in a world where a person cuts out an article out of a paper newspaper and sends it through the US mail to another person who receives it a few days later. Sometimes I miss that more patient and gradual world.

George Sauer, who quit the Jets and football altogether in 1970 after posting consistently great seasons at wide receiver, became in early retirement a full-time writer, a profession that must have seemed infinitely exciting to a still young man who, at a time of growing individual freedom of expression, felt that he needed to tell his story. I'm so grateful for Williams' work in tracking down the truth of George Sauer's mysteries, though like many real-life riddles, the story is more sad than engaging. In his effort to spend the rest of his life trying to write the story about his life, the life of a football player, the secrets of things he had discovered in the world, the strange odyssey of his experiences growing up the son of a football star himself, he managed to complete very little of the actual novel he wanted to write:

"By the late 1990s, George Sauer Jr. was living in Sioux Falls, S.D., working at the Sunshine Food Stores stacking shelves by day and writing his novel by night.
"'George would talk about how he would go home and write, but, you know what, I would never see any of his writing,' said Mike Dhaemers, 55, who was Sauer’s supervisor. Dhaemers remembered him as being friendly, intelligent and interesting, but a private person. He was so private that he worked in the store for more than a year before anyone there discovered he was a former football player."
A co-worker at the store is quoted as saying, 

“'He was, without a doubt, the most intelligent and talented man I’ve ever known,' Knutson said. “'He knew and understood things from medicine and nuclear physics to classical and popular music to Saturday morning cartoons and ’50s and ’60s TV sitcoms. He was Curious George in the flesh.'”

Yet the work never materialized, nor did a single sense of place for George Sauer. He married four times and apparently struggled through life in trying to find a place to feel at home. One of his ex-wives is quoted as saying that he never saw his life as anything else but as a novelist, while adding that Sauer "had problems I couldn't solve." 

When I saw George Sauer interviewed, talking about his unfinished novel at the tail end of the DVD that accompanies the Namath NFL biography, I thought instantly about Joe Gould. There's some part of us that seems to always know that when a person has a lofty ambition we know that the enterprise will not come to be. Joseph Mitchell had enough interest in Joe Gould's Oral History to believe in its authenticity and that it would come into being someday, but what he encountered in Joe Gould were problems that he too could not understand or even solve, though Mitchell did try. What's more, having come to understand Joe Gould's actual secret, Joseph Mitchell published his last profile of him in 1964, but then never published a single story ever again before his death in 1996. He himself contracted writer's block, one almost seems to think by mere proximity to his subject. 

Still, part of me also believed that someday I would read George Sauer's book and that I would be drawn into the interior world of this mysterious figure who was my first football hero. I knew though from experience how difficult it is to write anything worth reading, not because no one will think it worth the time, but because the tale to tell is never quite the right fit from the thought to the page. Writing gives us life lessons, regardless of whether or not it is written with that intention, and so we feel there's a deep responsibility in the act. Writing reveals aspects of life that the eye, ear and our conversation cannot.

But not everything can be written as it seems it be in the mind. Life remains a constant mystery, as it has been to everyone before us and everyone to come. So the story goes unfinished for now, but it will be written someday, because it must be written someday, because all the works published in the world happen to get done somehow. You know in your heart you have what Whitman calls a verse to contribute to the powerful play of life, and it will get done someday. And maybe it will. But often, it does not.

The worst part is that Sauer was in a race against time. According to Williams, Alzheimer's ran in Sauer's family; it killed his father, and it was eventually responsible for his own death, so perhaps many of the assumptions - mine own, included - about football's role in his demise were just that. (It seems cheap and easy to reprint the piece of poetry Sauer wrote about living with the legacy of a disease that kills your mind, but read the little piece at the link to Williams' story about his father that describes how "his broken brain rattles mine.")

Namath and Sauer, in glasses
Last month when I wrote about George Sauer, I mentioned the photograph of him shaking hands with Willie Brown after a hard-fought contest on a bitter cold day in the AFL Championship of 1968. This time, I look at the photo at right, from the Times that accompanied Jack Williams' article, and I see something else. It's apparently "three weeks" before Super Bowl III, and there's Namath, sitting next to his indispensible wide receiver. Sauer wears what looks like thick glasses, looking not at all like a football player. 

It's easy to read into a picture things that don't exist at all; we describe the story that we think we see. So it looks to me like Namath wears his usual sheepish expression, while Sauer stares off into something else. Maybe they're looking at film. Maybe they're listening to Weeb. You wonder what is going through Sauer's mind, as the Jets prepare for the franchise's greatest adventure. Perhaps Sauer is preparing for his own, knowing that a win will not only secure the Super Bowl, but also his freedom from playing the game he's been obligated to play out of tradition and respect for his father. It's a game that currently stands in the way of his dreams of being himself and of telling the tales he needs to tell. But I'm probably imagining things. The picture is just that, and maybe that's enough. But it's impossible not to try to write the untold stories, even if one risks encountering the possibility that those stories will never get written. The thing is to try, as George Sauer did.

5 comments:

frankschulz@verizon.net said...

A great blog.George Sauer was my favorite Jet. I was upset when he retired and then never thought of him again. It is something I am not proud of - but at the time I was a young fan who cared only for the sport. I am now 61 years old and am compelled by this (George's life after football)story. It shows the human side of many people(particularly ones who are very intelligent and/or Creative) who have human conflicts (some call it daemons), that are not understood by the person who is having them. But they are not daemons at first - they are human conflicts and if you have more than one they can become daemons - because the person that is having these conflicts does not understand where there coming from; hence, they become daemons. This is an excellent article (blog) my only complaint is the Writer has not gone far enough with it. It needs more investigation and then get the story out there so that like people (really people in general) do not fall into the same trap. But I do not fault the writer (again he did an excellent piece) - it is probably beyond his scope. For those who do not know George Sauer - he was for his short playing career a great wide receiver who's moves were so smooth that defenders would fall down trying to defend him. And if he continued his football career would have been in the HOF.

Frankschulz@verizon.net said...

With regard to my comment (Frank Schulz) the following edits need to be made: A space after blog (first sentence) is needed. A space after people (particular is also needed. and then my sentence "hence, they become daemons" needs to be completely deleted (it is repeated).

Martin Roche said...

Thanks for your comments, Frank, and I appreciate your input. Unfortunately, constraints leave me little time to explore the things you mention. I agree that what happened to Sauer was indeed sad and was likely conflicted by the mysterious troubles within him - perhaps, depression, family issues. Maybe someday someone will crack his story, but he was a man who kept to himself. Apparently even his own co-workers toward the end of his working life didn't know he was a football star until he went to a reunion at the Meadowlands for the '68 team.

The Wound Dresser said...

This is ,quite seriously, the best piece I have read on george Sauer.By using Joe Gould secret as an allusion, you lifted this from tragedy to something nearer art.Sauers story is waiting to be told,its almost a paradigm .This is a wonderful start.Very very well Done!

Martin Roche said...

Thanks very much!