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Life After a Critically Acclaimed First Novel
Bruce Duffy made his name with a great novel he wrote nearly a quarter century ago—then his fiction-writing career foundered. Will his latest book revive his reputation? By Tim Warren
Comments () | Published August 4, 2011

Bruce Duffy’s “nonfiction novels” are years in the making. Photograph by Stephen Voss

Bruce Duffy is 60 and has been writing fiction all his life, but his literary reputation rests on a single novel.

The World as I Found It
, published in 1987, received extravagant praise: In a 1999 article, Joyce Carol Oates called his reimagining of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life “one of the most ambitious first novels ever published.” A Guggenheim Fellowship followed the book’s publication, and for a time Duffy looked to be a rising literary star.

But that was 24 years ago.

A second novel, Last Comes the Egg, was based in part on his childhood in Montgomery County’s Garrett Park. It “crashed and burned,” Duffy says, when it was published ten years later.

Other writing attempts fizzled, including a novel examining black/white relations in Washington. Duffy made a living as a corporate consultant and speechwriter, and he wrote some good journalism, including an article for Life magazine on trying to buy a Stinger missile in Afghanistan.

His fiction? By 2002, he had no book, no editor, no publisher.

But Duffy and literature have always had a difficult relationship. Rather than thinking up books he’d like to write, he waits for a topic to come to him: “My mind can lie fallow for a long time, then spring to action when I get enthusiastic about a subject.”

With Wittgenstein, the spark came from reading that the Austrian had forsaken philosophy for a time to become an architect, then from learning that three of Wittgenstein’s brothers had committed suicide. Such sadness and pathos should be in a book, Duffy felt, and he wrote his novel.

His curiosity was similarly piqued by Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French avant-garde poet around whom Duffy imagined another “nonfiction novel.” The result, Disaster Was My God, has just been published.

Rimbaud’s poetry and his bizarre life—he repudiated his work at age 21—had long fascinated Duffy, but the thought of writing about him never crossed his mind. Then something kicked in: “I just knew he was a great story, and once I figured out how to write about the disagreeable parts of his life, the novel took shape.”

As with World, Duffy proceeded without a map, writing away without any clear focus. Then a couple of things happened.

When the Wittgenstein book had come out, Duffy admitted that his vividly drawn scenes of turn-of-the-century Vienna and 20th-century Cambridge University had come from his imagination; he had never been to Europe. But after friends told him that an early draft of the Rimbaud book was unconvincing, he made a research trip to Ethiopia, where the poet had spent much of his later life.

The rawness of Ethiopia’s frontier startled Duffy. “They still castrate each other,” he says. “There is still constant tribal warfare. You are not a man unless you have killed somebody.” He returned even more certain of Ethiopia’s importance to the novel.

Reenergized, he resumed the manic writing regimen he had undertaken during much of World. He would get up before dawn at his Bethesda house to write, then head to Starbucks when it opened at 6. There he’d toss back Triple Grande Frappuccinos and an energy drink and write until 8:30, when he’d go to his job as a corporate speechwriter.

Late last year, he told his agent that his third novel was just about done.

Disaster Was My God is now out from Doubleday, 14 years after Egg disappeared into a hole and nearly a quarter century after his debut novel caused a sensation in the literary world.

Disaster is an intense book. Duffy examines in excruciating detail Rimbaud’s anguished relationship with his mother and his supplying weapons to a king. The author’s reimagining of Rimbaud might make some readers squirm, but its power continues to the final page.

Duffy has a lot riding on Disaster Was My God. Will he be restored as a darling of the literary world? He acknowledges relief at finishing another novel: “I have not published in 14 years, so I feel like Rip Van Winkle.”

Duffy is tall, dressed casually and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, the picture of an associate college professor, down to the backpack. Of his new novel he says, “The world has changed. There’s a lot less coverage of books. My editor says, ‘We don’t know if this is the calm before the storm or the calm before the calm.’ ”

Much like his characters, Duffy is complicated. Along with some charm comes some steel, as well as decades of personal pain. Along with his self-confidence is an easily wounded psyche. He says what connects the self-confidence and fragility is “a molten core that has always propelled me.” That anger has been softened by age—and therapy—but is still a driving force.

The pivotal event of Duffy’s life was his mother’s death when he was 11—“probably from medical malpractice,” he says. She had gone into the hospital for a routine procedure.

“This was before I was a teenager, before I would normally be getting angry at her like any teenager, so I was completely smitten with her,” he says. “It was as extraordinary as if she had run away to join the circus. I felt completely radioactive and angry. I thought adults were fools and completely blind and that other kids had no clue.”

“He was very contrary,” says Marjorie Perloff, a poet and literary critic who taught Duffy in two classes at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s and has remained a friend and mentor. “He would scoff and not want to do the assignments, and he could be very belligerent. But one day he came to my office and we talked. It turned out that all he really wanted was attention. He was a very angry young man and drank a lot. But I never saw anybody turn himself around like Bruce has.”

Next: What it takes to be "different" writer

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Posted at 04:47 PM/ET, 08/04/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles