Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
1191 words
SHJ Issue 11
Winter 2015

Reconstructing a Radical Realist

by Christopher Klim

Two decades ago, Robert Gover and I met by chance. We were both at sea in our lives. I was struggling to be a novelist, and Robert had been a bestselling novelist from the 1960s through the ’70s. Robert had turned the literary world on its head with his first novel, the literary classic One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, and continued to lambaste the dying sacred cows of society with each successive book. A who’s who of letters—authors like Joseph Heller, Henry Miller, Hunter Thompson, Gore Vidal, and Kurt Vonnegut—lauded his work in the presses, and Bob Dylan later commented on how Gover’s books circulated in colleges and changed minds. This praise awarded him the richest author contract to date, but his continued questioning of the “us vs. them” philosophy — rich vs. poor, white vs. black, heterosexual vs. non-heterosexual — threatened the blue-blooded aristocracy in Manhattan, and without notice, his publisher pulled the plug on his contract, purposefully under-printed his latest novel, and labeled him an instant failure. Knowing they could out-wait and out-lawyer him, they refused to place him in print again. Likely under extreme pressure from above, his editor told him to get out of town. Now a commercial pariah, Robert drifted between women and drugs, a refugee from success and his own brilliance.

The tipping point was his 1965 novel Poorboy at the Party. The story is narrated by a poor college kid, who’s never accepted by his upper class peers, as he witnesses the sort of inbred arrogance and self-destruction of the privileged that we are seeing today. Some of the final lines in the book stick with me for their clarity and foresight: “I’m no longer prejudiced against them, either. Prejudice is a form of envy and I can’t possibly feel envy for them, for I’ve had a post-party premonition of what is most likely to become of them—the dollar-glutted, automated dead-end where they soon will have achieved such glots of profit they’ll simply disintegrate like cancerous cells—and I’m content to play it cool, to wait and watch it happen.”

Robert bravely forged into core truths. Poorboy had been intended as a screenplay, but one of the most powerful men in Hollywood couldn’t stomach the idea of rich kids being downright ignorant. It ran against the narrative of the American Dream, where the successful, and especially the wealthy, were considered sages of society. When talks with Hollywood broke down, Robert wrote the story as his next novel, including a jab at the aforementioned producer in the dedication: “Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., without whose objection this novel would not have been written.” After years of poking his finger in the eye of pretention, prejudice, and preposterousness, Robert should have seen retribution coming his way, but he didn’t. He was blind to mankind’s pettiness. That’s just another thing I loved about him.

As an author, Robert Gover developed a form I dubbed “Radical Realism.” What is real to us is often cloaked in perception, and we tend to deal with “reality” skewed by these perceptions. Robert often said, “Perception trumps reality.” He saw that we barely know ourselves, much less other people. His radical step was to strip away the veil that separates us, that buffers us from truth, no matter how shocking, and only then could we ascend as a people. In his work, he attempted to correct our vision, by first making us see the fault in others, and by the end of the novel revealing the fault in ourselves. That Hollywood mogul probably understood what Robert was saying, but refused to take the next step. As I write this article only days after Robert’s passing, I find it ironic that Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. died merely three days before Robert.

I imagine that the higher-ups who attempted to push Robert like a chess piece would say that he refused to play the game. Indeed, he could be stubborn and irascible. He once threw a chair through an editorial boardroom window as they attempted to dumb-down and castrate one of his books. He and I didn’t disagree on much, but we’d sit up for hours into the night and debate a point into oblivion. There were no compromises in his ideals. Robert aligned with the peace and change movement of the 1960s. He marched with “dangerous” civil rights groups in Florida. He railed against political corruption. He castigated the corporatization of everything. Having been raised in an orphanage during the Great Depression, he was that kid in Poorboy at the Party, roaming the property with a temporary passkey to the big house. I’m not sure he ever felt entirely included in society, but he watched it, always, from an outsider’s vantage point.

In the mid 1990s, I became his student. This partnership resulted in the publication of my first novel. He not only completed me as a writer, but he also taught me how to teach others. His first letter opened by declaring that he was “on my side” and proceeded to list my existing strengths before getting into the nitty-gritty. This was a complete turnaround from the often cold or tactless rejections from Manhattan. Robert was a refuge at a time in my life when I was between careers and reconstructing myself. We’d both seen our earlier dreams crash and burn. I wanted to be an astronaut and came close. He’d walked among the literary giants and then saw his name whitewashed from the ledgers. If Barnes and Noble had been the place it is today, you’d have seen them taking down his iconic picture from their walls across the country. Many of the authors in those pictures were his friends. When the public curtain came down on Robert, I was only a child and had not witnessed his name in bright lights, but I cannot count the number of times someone ten or twenty years my senior told me how lucky I was to have him as a mentor. “He was a big deal in literature, a very big deal,” I’ve heard over and over. I was lucky.

Even though I was raising an infant son of my own, he became a spirit-father, someone who, by example, taught me unconditional love. He introduced me to people who composed the Golden Age of the author. We took solace in wherever our careers were at the time. We shared our work. We talked about everything. We lamented the Hollywood star system that overtook the music industry in the ’70s and swallowed the book business in the ’80s. I witnessed Robert’s tireless volunteerism to literature; it’s an example I attempt to live by. All along, he absolutely never stopped reading and editing my work and sharing advice about life. And then there were the stories. Robert was a man who had traveled the planet and had done it all, both high and low. He missed nothing in this world, but the world will definitely miss him. I’ve lost an editor, mentor, partner, father, and friend, but we’ve all lost a burning torch of truth and an unbreakable spirit—a thing of beauty in a world that sorely needs it.


SHJ Issue 11
Winter 2015

Christopher Klim

is the author of several books including True Surrealism and Jesus Lives in Trenton. He is the Chairman of the Eric Hoffer Award and the Senior Editor of the US Review of Books. Once a NASA engineer, he is currently writing a trilogy of novels based on the space program past, present, and future.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury