When Les Plesko committed suicide in September 2013 in Venice, his legacy was in disarray. The author of three novels — “The Last Bongo Sunset” (1995), “Slow Lie Detector” (2009) and “Who I Was” (2012) — he left behind the manuscript of a fourth book, “No Stopping Train” (Soft Skull: 318 pp., $25.95 paper), set during the Hungarian Revolution, a moment of great significance (personal, historical) for him.
“It was the book he was born to write,” explains novelist Janet Fitch, a longtime friend and supporter, who helped get “No Stopping Train” published and contributed a heartfelt introduction. “More than ‘The Last Bongo Sunset,’ with its description of the junkie world of Venice Beach, of which he had been a part, ‘No Stopping Train’ goes back to his origins: his father, his mother, his sense of identity, his Hungarian nationality, the impact of World War II.”
Fitch and I emailed recently about the novel, Plesko’s life and the “No Stopping Train” celebration scheduled for Sunday at UCLA. Plesko taught for more than two decades at UCLA Extension, where he won the Outstanding Instructor Award.
In addition to Fitch, other participants include film and TV writer Joshua Miller, memoirist and journalist Samantha Dunn, short story writer Julianne Cohen and Lannan Foundation fellow Mary Rakow, as well as two of Plesko’s students: PEN Center USA Vice President David Francis and Jamie Shaffner, a former PEN Emerging Voices fellow.
The “No Stopping Train” launch party and reading, sponsored by PEN Center USA, is to be held Sunday, Oct. 19, in the Charles Young Salon at UCLA. Doors open at 6 p.m. and readings begin at 6:30. Admission is free.
What makes Plesko special as a writer? How did you two meet?
I met Les in 1995 in a private workshop run by Kate Braverman out of her apartment on Palm Drive in Beverly Hills. I was thrilled to be there, trying to hold my own in a very accomplished milieu, while Les was one of the stars. A self-effacing, wry guy with wild hair and a walleye, he was already finishing his first novel, “The Last Bongo Sunset,” and had begun a book about lovers in Hungary. Our relationship in that workshop was one of tolerance (his) and admiration (mine).
What makes him special as a writer is, was, his absolute conviction that there was no higher calling than this, that art would save us, that the transmutation of life into art was the great redemption. It gets harder and harder to find such practitioners anymore. I remember his process so clearly, that he would have to get every sentence right before he went on to the next sentence. His painstaking care with every line he ever wrote — I don’t know if most readers can even imagine how hard it is to write as beautifully as he did. It’s like, you almost have to have tried it yourself, like dancing, or playing an instrument, to understand the labor and devotion that goes into virtuosity like his.
You note in your introduction that he considered “No Stopping Train” his magnum opus.
Les’ story is intimately entwined with that of his mother country, where his mother became pregnant in an affair and bore him in 1954. (He would not learn his father’s identity until he returned to Hungary years later, while researching his book.) Remember, Hungary fought on the side of the Axis and then was overrun by the Soviet “liberators.” The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 arose from deep wounds in the national soul. When young Laszlo, as Les was called then, was 2, this Revolution broke out, and his mother escaped Hungary with a man who would become Les’ stepfather, leaving Laszlo in the care of his grandparents until he was 7. I think he was haunted by his Hungarian roots, wanting to return to that time and place and live through his own history, not as a helpless child, but as an active protagonist, to understand what happened, not only to him, but to his mother and his native land.
After “The Last Bongo Sunset,” he published two novels — “Who I Was” and “Slow Lie Detector” — with local independent presses. But he seemed to want a bigger reception for this book.
Les was enough of a Beat to be comfortable publishing with Equinox and MDMD Books, run by his friend Michael Deyermond. But he worked so very hard on this novel, there was such beauty, such labor, such rigor, he really wanted to see it — as a friend put it— “walk down the aisle in a white dress.” I think he felt that if this more difficult, complex book was published with a certain presence, people would find their way to the other books. I hope this will be the case.
How was the manuscript put together? Did he leave orderly archives?
Les was a great sharer of his work. He brought his own pages into class to read to his students, as he required of them. The manuscript had been submitted many times, and after 2008 or so, very little was tweaked. Students and friends had versions, so it took little work to assemble it. His papers are voluminous. His brother George has most of them, including his computer files. They need to be sorted and the publishable pieces identified. I have been told that there is a novel he completed shortly before his death. It is most likely on that computer. I imagine there is also a good chunk of unpublished short work.
Plesko committed suicide. This is tragic. And yet, is it possible for a life to have a tragic end and not be tragic itself?
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? There was a deep wound in him, perhaps from being abandoned by his mother when he was so small. A deep wound, and a lovely gentle quality, a gentle pessimism — completely un-American. He was absolutely sincere, there was nothing ironic about him, but he never was a believer in anything but art and love. What a romantic. He constructed his life around art and romance, and the romance of art. Which is a terribly vulnerable place, especially as you grow older. I think he lived himself into a corner in a certain respect. I think he was always tragic. Though he wasn’t morose or gloomy, he could have this sweet comic quality, like Charlie Chaplin wobbling away on a broken bicycle. A wry pessimism, gently encouraging, but a great woundedness underneath it all.
What was the relationship between his teaching and his writing?
He concentrated on what was working in his students’ stories and urged they cut the rest. He was a grand cutter of clutter and reiteration, praiser of the lapidary phrase. He loathed sentimentality — he was very Eastern European that way — and a really overwrought scene would elicit an “oh, brother.”
He encouraged the writing that trusted the moment. One of the first bits of advice I ever got from him was, “Don’t have ideas.” As outrageous as it sounded at the time, it has become a touchstone for me. “Don’t have ideas” means don’t plan what you think is going to happen, don’t shove your characters around. It means: Quiet down and feel what’s happening in your work, sentence by sentence.
I don’t think he struggled between teaching and writing as many of us do, fighting for the time to work, the clarity. Or if he did, he never complained about it. Les wasn’t a complainer. He certainly didn’t complain about the things many untenured lecturers complain about, the poor pay, the lack of health insurance, though he must have worried about it. It was the first thing I thought of when I heard he’d committed suicide — did he have health insurance?
How did this weekend’s launch party come about?
It’s almost like an unveiling, a year since his death. When he died, there was a memorial at Beyond Baroque, where his colleagues, friends, students and members of the literary community gathered to mourn his passing and shared his impact on our lives. At that time, no one knew what would happen with his Hungarian novel, and it so added to the darkness. He had no children, that book was the child — orphaned, left behind.
Now, the book is coming into the world, though its father is gone, and once again his colleagues and students, friends and the literary community are coming together — this time, to mark that white wedding.