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Life After a Critically Acclaimed First Novel
Comments () | Published August 4, 2011
Duffy knew by the time he graduated from Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School in 1969 and headed to the University of Maryland that he wanted to be a writer. His choice of vocation didn’t sit well with his father, a hard-nosed blue-collar type who couldn’t imagine why his only child would choose such a ridiculous profession. Then again, they didn’t get along for two decades after Bruce’s mother died.

Duffy acknowledged this troubled relationship in a 1990 article for Harper’s written not long after his father’s death: “From my teens through my late twenties, my father and I were sucked through the undertow of a bitterness so progressive and consuming that I don’t think either of us ever understood it.”

When they finally reconciled, his father confessed that he had spent many a night under a tree in the back yard, weeping over their estrangement. Probably not coincidentally, Duffy’s books make acute observations about the tortured relationships that both Wittgenstein and Rimbaud had with a parent.

Duffy decided to make a go at a literary career after graduating from Maryland in 1973. He wrote fiction and poetry, supporting himself by working as a security guard at a hospital. Such literary risk takers as Thomas Pynchon had dazzled Duffy, and he was set on writing something original.

“It was very important to him to go out of the gate and be recognized as a different kind of writer,” says Slaton White, a friend of Duffy’s since childhood who is now deputy editor of Field & Stream.

Duffy sent his former teacher Marjorie Perloff some of his poems. She responded “that I didn’t know enough about poetics, didn’t know how to use words, didn’t read the right poets. She said I had to be more conscious about really learning my craft and really looking at writers I admired and say, ‘How did they do that? Why does it work?’ It made me look at the alchemy of words, as Rimbaud said.”

Perloff’s blunt criticism hurt, but Duffy says she was right: “And her honesty was just what I needed at the time.”

The pivotal event of Duffy's life was his mother's death when he was 11—"probably from medical malpractice."   

Duffy set aside poetry to work for five years on an autobiographical novel, which he describes as “the kind of journeyman novel that doesn’t go anywhere but that every novelist has to get out of his or her system.” After junking the book, he considered giving up writing, convinced that the wave of minimalism sweeping American literature left no place for him.

He took up painting. One day, Duffy came across a reference to Wittgenstein. The next thing he knew, he was deep into research on the author of Philosophical Investigations.

Duffy spent seven years researching, writing, and rewriting while beginning a career in business consulting. His friend Slaton White told him: “You’re such a contrarian that you start your first novel about someone so obscure that maybe five people in this country would know of and understand.”

Duffy couldn’t come up with a good beginning, so he started writing the novel in the middle. A few years later, he got an agent, and some years after that the agent got him a modest contract with the publisher Ticknor & Fields. To get the contract, Duffy had to submit an outline for the nonexistent first half of the novel. He wrote one but then decided he hated it and, without telling the publisher, junked it and proceeded to write the first half of the novel in six months.

“I was getting up to write every day at 4 in the morning before I headed off to work,” Duffy says. “It was like going on bombing missions every day, but I had to get this done.”

Praise for the 600-page novel was nearly universal. Reviewers acknowledged its scope—it covered the first half century of European intellectual and cultural thought and featured real figures such as Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. The Los Angeles Times noted: “It is hard to know which is more outsized; the talent of Bruce Duffy . . . or his nerve.”

Last year, World—which had gone out of print—was reissued in a paperback edition by NYRB Classics, again getting great reviews. “We choose The World as I Found It because it seemed to represent the rebirth of the historical novel in the past 35 years,” said Edwin Frank, editor of NYRB Classics. “It was a book ahead of its time.”

Next: A high bar is set with his new book

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