The Narrow Door: Remembering Denise Gess

[img_assist|nid=20678|title=Narrow Door/Lisicky|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=194|height=140]The late novelist Denise Gess, a native Philadelphian and editorial board member of Philadelphia Stories, lived a life rich in irony and contradiction.  She was a writer of great talent and immense ambition who devoted large parts of her life to other things – searching for the perfect love, searching for the perfect writing table. 

Now, six years after her death, at 57, from cancer, comes Paul Lisicky’s memoir The Narrow Door, which meditates upon their long friendship, and, with it, the greatest irony of all:  that Gess is likely to be remembered more enduringly for her mentee’s experience of her, captured with grace and breathtaking precision, in the pages of The Narrow Door, than for her own writing.

Gess’s two novels, Good Deeds and Red Whiskey Blues, both published with some fanfare, by major publishers, in the ‘80s, have long been out of print; had been at the time of her passing.  Her third, Trespasses, never found a publisher, a deep wound for Gess, and one that never healed.  That manuscript is packed away, wherever Lisicky and her daughter Austen, Gess’s literary executors, have stored it.  During her final illness, between chemo and radiation treatments, Gess worked with mad determination on a fourth, and on more essays and stories.  These manuscripts, too, are packed away in archival boxes in climate- controlled storage.  (A third book, the nonfiction narrative Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History, co-written with her ex-husband William Lutz, published in 2003, remains in print, and was optioned for a film.)

The Narrow Door, out in paperback from Graywolf, isn’t only, or even primarily, about Gess, my colleague and friend, and the first essay editor of Philadelphia Stories, though her ‘great shimmering aura’ is felt throughout the book.  Rather, The Narrow Door is about friendship and love, both sexual and otherwise.  It’s about ambition and success and failure.  It’s about pairing and coupling; competition and betrayal.  Most of all, The Narrow Door is about the at times harrowing journey into and out of the self – as played out through life’s most bewildering entanglements.

Given Lisicky’s own complexity (a gay man raised in the suburbs of South Jersey in a family of deep Catholic faith), and the depth and breadth of his aspirations in The Narrow Door, it’s no wonder readers are denied a straightforward chronology.  Instead, the story loops around in time, patterned by experiences that repeat, echo, or interrogate each other.  Whisked into this mix are compressed, lyrical set pieces on volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, oil spills, even the backyard fish pond outside his home in The Springs, East Hampton, which he shared with his Beloved, ‘M’.  These set pieces, most of imagistic beauty, buttress or advance the book’s many interlocking themes.  A passage from the home in Springs:

 The pond is skimmed over with ice…Just where the pump flows back into the water, there’s an opening in the ice.  What must it be like to look up through that opening, no wider than a foot or two?  The smaller younger fish draw to it, their mouths hitting the moving surface as if they’re gorging on oxygen.  Or maybe it’s nothing as extreme as all that.  They’re curious.  They want to see what’s up there, on the other side:  the sky with its rushing clouds, the sun, the geese that fly overhead.

As charted in The Narrow Door, the late aughts are a time of reckoning for Lisicky. By then he’s published two acclaimed books, the rambunctious bildungsroman Lawnboy, and the memoir Famous Builder.  But, despite critical acclaim and many honors, he’s yet to achieve financial stability.  He loses his mother, first to dementia, then death. The novel that he hopes might earn some money is rejected many times before being published by an indie press with no advance. He loses Denise first to an estrangement, and then, after their reconciliation, to cancer.  His marriage to the Famous Writer he calls ‘M’ (M is the poet and memoirist Mark Doty, a luminary in American letters, with whom Lisicky shared his life for 16 years.) begins to come apart.  ‘Some joy has been lost in our relationship,’ M tells Lisicky, though ‘this comes as news’ to him. An anguished Lisicky wonders if the ‘gauzy thickness’ of his grief over his losses has driven away his Beloved.

Lisicky was named after his mother’s twin brother, killed at 17 in a car crash, and he wonders if he will always be compelled to ‘live up to a ghost.’  Early in the memoir, he acknowledges his position as a replacement in M’s life, for his previous partner Wally, whose death from AIDS is recounted in Doty’s radiant memoir Heaven’s Coast. 

 “W has been gone for sixteen years, but M’s attachment to that fact does not shift or diminish.  Death shadows his face.  It draws him away from me…. I have learned not to think: replacement—I am not his great love.  The love coming at me is the love intended for the lost.”

Lisicky was in his early 20s when he became friends with Gess, a beautiful divorce and single mother whose first novel Good Deeds, ‘was poised to make a splash.’ Both were teaching assistants in the graduate English program at Rutgers Camden. Back then, Lisicky says, ‘I wanted to become myself, but there wasn’t even a self to work with.’

Gess takes Lisicky under her scintillating wing, her needy wing.  He becomes ‘an outlet for her obsessions.’ Years of long late night and early morning phone calls; of lunches, dinners, caffeine powered gab fests, follow.  Ages of Platonic intimacy before Lisicky comes out to her, to anyone, though he wonders ever after about his reticence, about ‘the costs of bandaging, of mummifying myself’ for so long.

The most intense period of their relationship occurs through her writing of Red Whiskey Blues, though the novel is not named. Lisicky isn’t merely in her thrall but serves as her first reader, a privilege and obligation he’ll repeat later in his life with ‘M.’

 “Over the phone, her sentences speed past me like meteors, and I can feel Denise listening to me as I am listening to her…. she is listening for laughs, pauses, silences after lines that are supposed to be jokes. She is listening for changes in my breathing.  The enormity of this responsibility wipes me out sometimes. “

An indefatigable friend, the kind Gess demanded, Lisicky sees her through the devastation of her editor’s first terrible response to the novel, and her subsequent frantic months of revisions.   Both obsess for hours over the chosen cover. They hate it. To Gess, it signifies a terrible but necessary capitulation to the exigencies of publishing.   The novel, as published, Lisicky says, is a replacement for the dream book.  Others will never see the dream book, but she’ll always have it in her head.  It will pulse like a jellyfish, dangerous, blue…’If only’ she’ll say years later, punishing herself for walking away from it.

‘Listening to Denise was my real education,’ Lisicky says, though he’ll go on to earn his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place Denise yearned to go but never sent in her application. She got to the mailbox with it before she turned away, one of several unsolved mysteries in Denise’s life.

Lisicky, driven by his own ambition, his talent, moves out to Iowa. He takes the steps etched on tablets for writers of great promise who also believe in themselves and their own talent:  He goes to Bread Loaf, in one way following in Denise’s footsteps, but, in another, cutting his own path.  For Denise, at Bread Loaf, had fallen crazily for a Famous Writer, (John Irving, unnamed) a relationship, or whatever it was, that ended terribly and publicly outside Bread Loaf’s famous Barn, an incident Gess believed forever after caused her banishment from the garden. She was never invited back.

Lisicky, paired with M, makes his way into the heady upper reaches of American literary life. Gess remains rooted in Philadelphia. No surprise, then, that Lisicky soon surpasses Gess in achievement and acclaim.  But their role reversals create a perpetual tension between them, and, however obliquely, their eventual falling out. 

The book’s title is taken from a homily Lisicky heard at mass during his deepest period of grief after Denise’s death.  The narrow door is the one all of us must pass through to reach salvation.  Its main story and the side bars are replete with pairings, couplings of many kinds:  Vincent VanGogh and Paul Gaugin; Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell; Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell – a talismanic figure for Lisicky and Gess, both for her artistry and for the way she lived her life. 

The end of Lisicky’s marriage to M is played out in the context of these other couplings, his shattering realization that M is seeing someone else:  There is a person in my house, at my chair at the dining room table.  In my refrigerator, on the toilet seat, feet on the bathtub, hands on the sink.

They have lived well, the two of them, Lisicky and ‘M’, with an apartment in Manhattan, a second home on the water.  They’ve traveled everywhere together, to visiting writer gigs, readings and festivals, other fine literary events. Lisicky agonizes, ‘Who will I be if I have to leave him behind?’

In the early 2000s, Gess accepted a tenure track position in creative writing at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. This would turn out to be the last chapter in Denise’s life, though nobody had any reason to think so at the time.  We were thrilled to have finally hired her after trying for many years. (By then she needed a regular paycheck and benefits.)  She was no longer the literary star she’d set out to be.  And yet, and yet, she radiated confidence and glamour.  

Gess showed up in an ancient beater, a Civic handed down to her from her pharmacist brother, but she might as well have been driving a golden chariot, so regal was she. As slender as a ballerina, she enchanted students and colleagues with her erudition, her classroom performances, her barks of rowdy laughter.  She soon traded in her stilettos for leopard print flats, but lost none of her allure.  Among her most memorable qualities: Her skill articulating her ideas and theories; her uncanny ability to see exactly what students were trying to achieve and to help them move their work forward to fruition.

Gess became a great friend, generous, intuitive, smart and funny.  She was on board with Philadelphia Stories from the start, devoting her considerable energies to the magazine’s success.  She was, as Lisicky describes her, a ‘firestorm’, forever ‘surging forward.’ That’s how, I’m certain, she made it through the narrow door.

In this memoir Lisicky practices what Gess, a demanding teacher always preached:  that making art out of lived experience requires much of the author: an arduous and dispassionate dive into the self and the casting out of all taint of sentiment and melodrama; surgical precision with the sentence as it incises one’s own life and the lives of others.  

At considerable risk to himself, Lisicky satisfies the highest of the Gess’s high demands.  His prose crackles with energy and heat, exploding Joan Didion’s infamous proclamation that writers are always selling someone out.  Instead Lisicky, with a consciousness as sensitive as a tuning fork, opens his own life and the lives of his loved ones, to a rare and resonant form of empathic examination.  Lisicky surpasses the empathy exam.


Julia MacDonnell has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last! was published by Picador in 2014, and in paperback in 2015. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, Many Mountains Moving, North Dakota Quarterly Review and others magazines. She is the nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories. She has a master’s in journalism from Columbia, and one in creative writing from Temple, and is professor emeritus at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. where she taught workshops in fiction and creative nonfiction for many years.