cover image Nobody Grew but the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis

Nobody Grew but the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis

Joseph Tabbi. Northwestern Univ., $35 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8101-3142-2

William Gaddis’s famed media shyness may not have rivaled J.D. Salinger’s or Thomas Pynchon’s, but the much-lauded “difficult” novelist managed to avoid the public eye almost entirely throughout his lengthy career. In this long-awaited biography, Tabbi (Cognitive Fictions) shows that a significant amount of Gaddis’s writing was autobiographical, and that Gaddis mined his own family history for characters, themes, and stories. Tabbi relies on Gaddis’s many letters to his mother—from boarding school through penning The Recognitions—and others to show that Gaddis’s aristocratic sensibility and style developed early. He carefully takes apart Gaddis’s massive novels to show where the artist’s life and work overlapped. The emphasis on literary exegesis does not make for the most revealing biography, but Tabbi has accomplished important work in untying the nearly inseparable strands of Gaddis’s life and art. Between the publication of his first two novels, Gaddis worked for 20 years in corporate America, claiming it was just to “pay the bills.” Yet Tabbi shows that Gaddis used this time to listen to the way Americans spoke—a skill that corresponds directly to the dialogue-heavy core of his second novel, JR. Tabbi’s valuable and worthy scholarly contribution shines a bright light on a great, enigmatic American novelist. (June)