From Elm and State Streets Comes ‘Houses From Another Street,’ a Novel by Professor Michael Thurston
Grace Mosley ’22
While his office seems comfortable, with stacks of papers and piles of books customary to the English professor, Professor Michael Thurston noted: “I write everywhere except [in] my office. I do teaching stuff here, meet with students here and do college stuff here, but this is a place where I have never been able to write a decent sentence, either of academic prose or of fiction.” Instead, he enjoys writing in Haymarket and other cafes or on his screened-in porch, locations that witnessed the birth of his recently-published first novel, “Houses from Another Street.”
Thurston who, starting in July, will be Smith’s next provost and dean of the faculty, previously published short fiction. With some works as short as 500 or 1000 words, his short fiction often reflected his interest in the prose poems of Bodelier and in early Hemingway, as well as in other works he described as often “lumped” together as contemporary flash fiction. Using track and field as an analogy, he described his earlier, shorter works as akin to a sprint. Now, he has run the full marathon and written his first novel.
“Houses from Another Street,” published this year by Levellers Press in Amherst, is a snapshot of the life of 14-year-old protagonist Will as he navigates social pressures familiar to American teenagers. Thurston acknowledged some glancing semi-autobiographical features of the novel. Like Will, Thurston was also a high school freshman in the fall of 1979 in Texas. The protagonist’s hometown also has more than a passing resemblance to Thurston’s own hometown. Perhaps most tellingly, the main character is in love with books, a nod to Thurston’s own passion.
While the novel might be described as coming-of-age, the protagonist hits serious bumps in the road and, as Thurston explained, perhaps never achieves security, integration and a deeper understanding — concepts associated with traditional coming-of-age stories. Instead, Thurston half-jokingly describes his novel as a “suburban Bildungsroman.” ‘Bildung’ is the German word for development, and Thurston explained that, while most coming-of-age novels follow the protagonist’s progression from childhood to a point of maturity, “Houses from Another Street” depicts a sort of arrested development. To account for the novel’s somewhat-unusual ending, Thurston explained that he was more interested in addressing the ways that American society (suburban society, in particular) exerts social pressures and hinders relationships than in producing a happy ending.
As noted in the novel’s epigraph, the title “Houses from Another Street” is a nod to Robert Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night,” a terza rima sonnet. As Thurston explained, the pervasive themes in both Frost’s poem and Thurston’s novel are the reason for the title’s allusion to the poem. He described the poem as being about the idea of solitude and the feeling of being alone in the night “as a way of getting away from everything, and as a way of … exceeding the boundaries of the social [environment] or the limits prescribed by a society,” which is true for Will. The protagonist is a manifestation of the themes conveyed in Frost’s poem. With regard to Will, Thurston further explained that “nothing really good happens to him any time he is observed by anybody. Fourteen, for me, was this age when [the] public and social [environments] and visibility were all dangerous, but, as a sort of compensation, there were times when you could be out and not seen, and that was pleasure and the possibility of finding oneself.”
He then pointed to a poem by the German poet Rilke titled “Archaic Torso of Apollo” as partially inspiring some themes in the novel. The poem closes with the lines, “ … for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” Thurston mused that the protagonist’s constant visibility and the resultant “danger” had a profound impact on his bookish character.
Thurston also found inspiration in other authors who, likewise, focused on the complexities of young adulthood. During our conversation, he pointed out that he has loved Ernest Hemingway, especially Hemingway’s early fiction, since his own time in high school. Hemingway’s early focus on young protagonists and on moments of crisis as opportunities for growth corresponds to Thurston’s own interest in exploring concepts that can be learned from young, fictional protagonists. On the other hand, he said that, at least unconsciously, he was also inspired by those he described as more “experimental” writers from Europe and Latin America, such as Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, contemporary Argentinian writer Cesar Aira and Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. These authors influenced his desire to get at the “difficult-to-express” manners in which social pressures form characters.
Thurston noted that Bernhard, as well as these other writers, subtly influenced some of his stylistic choices, such as long sentences undisturbed by commas or periods. Discussing how Hemingway might have influenced the style of his writing, Thurston noted Ezra Pound’s advice to poets to write not to the metronome but to write to the rhythm of the phrase. Thurston noted that both Hemingway and Faulkner were attentive to the rhythm of English prose and of their sentences. Even though the sentences in his work could sometimes, as he described, become “elephantine and Faulkerian in their length,” the goal was for the “rhythm and sound” to predominate and “reflect the musical qualities of language.” He explained that he writes his fiction in notebooks longhand, which he finds helpful for thinking of his sentence rhythmically. He added that, while his novel focused more on character and plot than his earlier and shorter works, the rhythm of language is perhaps even more important than character and plot.
But regardless of Thurston’s focus in his new novel, the knowledge he draws on as an excellent teacher certainly informs “Houses from Another Street” and is a welcome addition to the pantheon of excellent books written by members of our community.