Wilson, Robley 1930–
Wilson, Robley 1930–
(Robley Conant Wilson, Jr.)
PERSONAL: Born June 15, 1930, in Brunswick, ME; son of Robley Conant (a teacher) and Dorothy Wilson; married Charlotte Lehon, August 20, 1955 (divorced, 1990); married Susan Hubbard, June 17, 1995; children: (first marriage) Stephen, Philip. Education: Bowdoin College, B.A., 1957; Indiana University, graduate study, 1960; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1968.
ADDRESSES: Home—Winter Park, FL.
CAREER: Writer, editor, poet, short-story writer, and educator. Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, IN, instructor in English and Russian, 1958–63; University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA, assistant professor, 1968–70, associate professor, 1970–75, professor of English, 1975–2000, professor emeritus, 2000–. Has given readings and lectures at colleges and universities all over the United States. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1951–55; became staff sergeant.
AWARDS, HONORS: Editor's Grant, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, 1979; Drue Heinz Literature Prize, 1982, for Dancing for Men; Guggenheim fellow, 1983–84; Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, 1987, for Kingdoms of the Ordinary; Society of Midland Authors Poetry Prize, 1990, for A Pleasure Tree; Nicholl fellow in screenwriting, 1995–96. Doctorate of Letters from Bowdoin College, 1986.
All That Lovemaking (poetry chapbook), Country Print, 1961.
(Editor, with Stephen Minot) Three Stances of Modern Fiction: A Critical Anthology, Winthrop Publishing (Cambridge, MA), 1972.
Returning to the Body (poetry chapbook), Juniper Press, 1977.
The Pleasures of Manhood (short stories), University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1977.
Living Alone (fictions), Fiction International (Canton, NY), 1978.
Dancing for Men (short stories), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1982.
Kingdoms of the Ordinary, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1987.
(Editor and author of introduction) Four-Minute Fictions: Fifty Short-Short Stories from the North American Review, Word Beat Press (Flagstaff, AZ), 1987.
Terrible Kisses, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1989.
(Editor) The Place That Holds Our History: The Missouri Writer's Biennial Anthology, Southwest Missouri State University (Springfield, MO), 1990.
A Pleasure Tree, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1990.
The Victim's Daughter, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1991.
A Walk through the Human Heart (poetry chapbook), Helicon Nine Editions (Kansas City, MO), 1996.
Everything Paid For, University Press of Florida (Gainesville, FL), 1999.
(Editor) Ellen Dearmore, The Adventures of Gertrude Stein, Detective, Association for Textual Study and Production (Cedar Falls, IA), 1999.
(Editor, with Susan Hubbard) 100 Percent Pure Florida Fiction: An Anthology, University Press of Florida (Gainesville, FL), 2000.
The Book of Lost Fathers, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2001.
Splendid Omens, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2004.
The World Still Melting, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of poems and stories to anthologies, including All Our Secrets Are the Same, Norton (New York, NY); Three Genres, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ); and Interpreting Literature, Holt (New York, NY). Contributor to books, including The Pushcart Prize III, Best American Short Stories of 1979, The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, Fiction of the Eighties: A Decade of Stories from TriQuarterly, and The Ploughshares Reader: New Fiction for the Eighties. Contributor of poems and stories to literary journals and popular magazines, including Antaeus, Atlantic, Esquire, Nation, and New Yorker. Editor, North American Review, 1969–2000; guest editor, Lost Magazine, issues 1-3; guest editor, Nightsun, December, 2005.
ADAPTATIONS: The short story, "Terrible Kisses," was adapted as a short film starring Saffron Burrows and Jack Davenport, 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: With the publication of Dancing for Men, Robley Wilson, Jr., "may climb out into the world of recognized authors, those whose names are mentioned in lists and are used as illustrations," predicted Anatole Broyard in the New York Times. Although judged "uneven in execution" by Malcolm Boyd, the critic reported in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Wilson's work nonetheless is "stunningly original," "significant," and "daring." Often focusing on the relationships between men and women, the stories in Dancing for Men feature people who find it difficult to resolve their need for privacy and their urge to express individualism with being intimately involved with another person. "The characters break out of their habits, their adjustments, their preconceptions, for a while," Broyard explained, "and then [they] get back in as if they had never been there before." The stories illuminate both the static and the ever-changing aspects of personality and relationships.
Of the book's eleven stories, Broyard wrote, the seven best "are the sort of pieces that talk to each of us, murmur, whisper and shout at us, too." Susan Osborn commented in the Village Voice Literary Supplement: "[Wilson] is a superior writer who understands how to make the most of subconscious associations…. Connected incidents seem at first not to relate. But as we read on, we realize that while they may perplex our intelligence, they make a kind of irrefutable subconscious sense." Although she felt Wilson's presentation of women frequently discloses the male characters'—or the author's—misogyny, Osborn in the end stated that "there is no doubt that Wilson is a superb writer. At times, his syntactical adjustments make for lovely, poetic sentences …, his images are keen, and he is often possessed of a great psychological acuity."
Wilson's poetry collection, A Pleasure Tree, is "challenging and dense," commented Penny Kaganoff in Publishers Weekly, tackling "grand themes of love, death and violence," and how human beings interact with the powerful forces of the natural world. Nature as depicted in these poems is simultaneously "destructive and redemptive," Kaganoff observed, representing the power of the universe to alter, change, and transform the world and the beings in it. For Wilson, the resilience of the human spirit is as significant as the awe-inspiring forces that buffet it.
In Wilson's debut novel, The Victim's Daughter, protagonist Lissa Allen has come back to her Maine hometown for her fifteenth high school reunion. Tragically, she finds her father in his home, the victim of a murder. As the investigation progresses, sordid details emerge, such as the fact that Lissa's father had a predilection for teenage boys. Local authorities are willing to keep this information confidential, but state investigators think it will be necessary to reveal this scandal in order to find the murderer. Lissa struggles to cope with her father's death, additionally tormented by tragedies in her own past, including her husband's suicide and a teenage abortion. Helping her is an old high school friend who would like to take their relationship to a higher level. Though it is ill-advised, Lissa cannot forget the man who got her pregnant years earlier, even though evidence suggests he may have been involved in her father's killing. Wilson "explores the dark side of small-town life in this tale of a murder and its cause," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
The Book of Lost Fathers is a collection of short stories, set in varied locales throughout the United States, in which characters face the challenge of lives without fathers. The fathers are absent by choice and by chance, by desertion, death, and by the erosion of the ties of family life. In "Dorothy and Her Friends," protagonist Dorothy begins an affair with a traveling Evangelist and ponders the series of men that consistently enter and exit her life. She wonders why men abandon stable family relationships, as though they were searching for something more important elsewhere. The story "Florida" finds a divorced father on vacation with his girlfriend and her two daughters, a trip taken to test whether the four of them can truly become a new family. In "A Day of Splendid Omens," a grieving widow comforts her young daughter and tells her stories about her dead father. The father in "California" must somehow find the courage to tell his daughter that he is dying of cancer. Wilson "adeptly illustrates in an unsentimental manner the sometimes devastating powers of family, love and loss," observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer. John Kennedy, reviewing the book in Antioch Review, noted that "the gifts of these stories are in the beautiful phrases of Wilson's prose and also in the populated and furnished scenes."
Wilson's next novel, Splendid Omens, tells the story of a strained friendship and the repercussions of events that happened years ago, when the aged main characters were young college men. When narrator Alec, sixty-two, arrives in Maine to be the best man at his friend Webb's latest wedding (to a woman thirty years his junior), he finds that Webb has unexpectedly died. Alec must try to help Webb's distraught fiancée Prudence, pregnant with Webb's child, while also figuring out how to break the news to Jenny, Webb's first wife, who lives in California. Alec's ties to Jenny extend back to their college days, when she was his first love and the two lived together, with Webb as their roommate. Catching the two in bed together brought an end to the relationship and tainted his friendship with Webb. Yet their friendship did remain intact as the two grew up and matured, with Alec marrying his only wife Helen and later becoming a widower, and Webb becoming a minimally successful artist and an inveterate woman-izer. When Alec travels to California to visit Jenny, she has revelations from decades ago that will devastate Alec and cause him to reconsider long-held attitudes and emotional ties. Ellen Cohen, writing in the Library Journal, called the book "poignant, emotional, and compassionate."
The World Still Melting, Wilson's third novel, is a "somber, dust-crusted tale of Iowa farm life and middleaged love and disappointment," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Farm couple Paul and Arlene Tobler have long worked the land inherited from Paul's family, putting aside their aspirations for professional careers to do so. They are friends with neighbors Harvey and Nance Riker, a couple snared in a crumbling and loveless marriage fueled by Harvey's abusiveness. Bitterly unhappy, Nance begins a concealed affair with another local farmer and Vietnam veteran, Burton Stone. When the affair is discovered, Harvey goes out of control. Interactions between the five main characters become turbulent, culminating in Paul's accidental death at Harvey's hand. Harvey is jailed and Nance finds herself free to marry Stone, but their troubles are not over. A booby trap Stone rigs to scare away thieves maims Arlene Tobler's son, Peter, who is encouraged to sue Nance and Burton by the grudge-carrying Harvey. All the while, the hardscrabble farm must be maintained even as poverty threatens and bad luck proliferates. "Wilson's novel captures how the privations of farm life can foster extreme emotions and situations," observed Joanne Wilkinson in Booklist. Library Journal reviewer Ellen R. Cohen called the novel a "poignant, beautifully written story."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 218: American Short Story Writers since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Antioch Review, winter, 2002, John Kennedy, review of The Book of Lost Fathers, p. 159.
Booklist, February 1, 2004, Ellen Loughran, review of Splendid Omens, p. 952; December 15, 2004, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The World Still Melting, p. 710.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003, review of Splendid Omens, p. 1422; December 1, 2004, review of The World Still Melting, p. 1115.
Library Journal, April 15, 1990, review of A Pleasure Tree, p. 97; February 1, 2004, Ellen R. Cohen, review of Splendid Omens, p. 126; February 1, 2005, Ellen R. Cohen, review of The World Still Melting, p. 72.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 6, 1983, Malcolm Boyd, review of Dancing for Men; August 31, 1989.
New York Times, February 4, 1983, Anatole Broyard, review of Dancing for Men; January 17, 1988.
O, The Oprah Magazine, February, 2005, Jon Edgar Wideman, "Biblio: Recommendations from Our Shelf to Yours," review of The World Still Melting, p. 144.
Publishers Weekly, February 16, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of A Pleasure Tree, p. 73; August 2, 1991, review of The Victim's Daughter, p. 64; February 7, 2000, review of Everything Paid For, p. 71; June 11, 2001, review of The Book of Lost Fathers, p. 62; January 24, 2005, review of The World Still Melting, p. 221.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, December 12, 1982, Susan Osborn, review of Dancing for Men.
Orlando Weekly, http://www.orlandoweekly.com/ (November 12, 2006), Jason Ferguson, review of Splendid Omens.
Plath Country Web site, http://titan.iwu.edu/∼jplath/ (November 12, 2006), James Plath, interview with Robley Wilson.
Robley Wilson Home Page, http://www.robleywilson.com (November 12, 2006).