Patrick Noland: His Life and Work
Patrick Noland. His career spanned eighty years, during which he became the most popular literary figure of the post-modern era.
Born in Chicago in 1943, he grew up on the Southwest Side, where his father owned a successful mail-order business. His mother was a devoted homemaker and retired model. While Noland was still a boy, his father moved, at the request of the federal government, to Leavenworth, Kansas. Young Patrick didn't see his father for the next five-to-ten years, an experience that greatly influenced his later writing.
Noland's mother recognized his genius while he was still in diapers. His first word was "Daddy," and his first sentence was "Earn big money stuffing envelopes." While his father was living in Kansas, his mother resumed her modeling career, a decision celebrated in his first novel, Silk and Leather.
With his mother's encouragement, Patrick began to write while still in grade school. His use of graphic detail and earthy language frequently shocked his teachers, who initially tried to restrain him. They gave up this effort after the boy's mother spoke to his fourth-grade teacher in the compelling vernacular of the South State Street modeling establishments of that era.
Noland's first published story appeared in True Story Digest when he was only sixteen. Its opening is now a classic of the genre:
In his eagerness, Dirk ripped Veronica's dress into a pile of red rags. "Slowly, slowly," she whispered.
"I can't," he breathed.
"You must," she pleaded.
"I can't," he rebreathed.
During high school, Noland encountered more resistance from his English teachers. No matter what work they assigned, he submitted his latest piece of fiction, regardless of its content. This occasioned many dialogs with the assistant principal. Midway through his senior year, he dropped out.
At about the same time, Noland discovered mystery and suspense fiction, which gave his career a quantum leap in readership. Readers of True Blood magazine will never forget "Death at the Bus Depot":
The bullet left a little hole in Tony's chest and another the size of a volleyball when it exited his back. It caromed around the tiled room, made a small hole in his forehead and another the size of a softball in the back of his skull. It caromed around the room again and ...
More strong stuff.
When he reached his majority, Noland took his college degree from P.O. Box 1066, Bayonne, New Jersey. Thus credentialed, he left his childhood home to become the assistant director of the Iowa Bureau of Correspondence Study at Eastern Iowa University in Ottumwa.
Looking back, one can see the influence of his father in this fateful career move. Use of the mail had become a Noland tradition. He now had the support of a nurturing academic community. He began to write in earnest. Six weeks after Noland moved to Ottumwa, the director of the bureau was killed by a hit-and-run driver in a white Lincoln-Continental with white-sidewall tires.
Following this tragedy, Noland became the director of the Iowa Bureau of Correspondence Study. After assigning duties to his staff, he thereafter found time to devote himself more fully to literature, despite his many visits to P.O. Box 1588, where he practiced the entrepreneurial skills his father had taught him.
At this point in his career, Noland began to produce intergenerational novels with all the heft and substance for which that genre is known. Mothers and Daughters and Fathers and Sons is his best known, although Cousins received more critical acclaim and warrants an excerpt here:
"Why, Rachel, why? Why in all those years didn't you write? You knew what our circumstances were. We needed you. We were counting on you. Why didn't you write or call or slip a note under the door or send word by someone? Anything to give us hope, to let us know that you were still alive, that you still cared, that we could still depend on you. Why, Rachel, why?"
"I guess ..."
"I ... I guess I don't know." Motes of dust fell through a ray of sunlight like the mist of an April morning. "I don't know," she repeated.
Noland quickly elevated this genre to the status of literature. During this period, he coined the phrase "insignificant other."
Throughout his career, Noland remained a mysterious and shadowy figure. At the Iowa Bureau of Correspondence Study, he rarely emerged from his office, preferring to remain at his desk, where he spent hours sorting and resorting piles of mailing labels. His colleagues eventually began referring to him as the "Ghost of the Labels." A co-worker recalls a conversation he had with Noland one hot July afternoon:
Co-worker: Sure is hot.
Noland: Sure is.
Co-worker: Hard to concentrate when it's this hot.
Noland: Real hard.
Co-worker: They say the air-conditioning won't be fixed until October. It's going to be a long hot summer.
Noland: Very long.
At this point, Noland disappeared into his office. The co-worker says he never had another conversation with the man, even though they worked in the same place for another ten years.
It was during this shadowy period that Noland began to write horror fiction. The opening lines from They Wake, They Walk never grow stale:
A ghostly figure rose from the mouth of the grave. It hovered above the ground for a moment, then swept through the air toward Jessica, who turned and ran screaming toward the car. "No, no!" she gasped. "Not me. Please, God, not me!"
She clawed at the door handle, breaking two fingernails. She climbed in and frantically shoved the key into the ignition. She turned the key, the starter groaned, but the engine wouldn't start. Jessica looked at the dashboard. The gas gauge registered empty. She began to beat the steering wheel with her hands. "No, no, no!" she screamed. She beat the steering wheel until the blood ran down her arms and soaked her white dress. Suddenly, the door swung open.
Clearly, this is not a book for the faint of heart.
After several years at the Iowa Bureau of Correspondence Study, Noland was forced to resign after a series of strange events in which his role was never made entirely clear. First, a huge pile of mailing labels disappeared during a false fire alarm. Next, a university administrator accused Noland of offering him a $5,000 bribe to move the bureau into the unused Magnetic Resonator Center, which commanded a superb view of the police station. Finally, Noland published a catalog of five hundred new courses for which he had no course materials and no instructors. When students began requesting refunds of their tuition for these courses, Noland refused to return a dime. All this occasioned a five-to-ten-year residence at a state facility in Fort Madison.
After leaving Fort Madison, Noland made his way to the Iowa Correspondence University in Des Moines, where he took a nonmanagerial position as a course writer and instructor. This move effected significant changes in his career. He married a woman twenty years younger than himself and fathered two children: Maria and Lucia. During these years he began writing inspirational literature. A sample from Follow That Star illustrates the depth of his thought in this period:
Do you feel rotten? Do you lack self-esteem? Do you think no one cares if you live or die? Do you care if you live or die? If you suffer from these negative thoughts, join the club. You're not alone. Everyone has self-doubts at one time or another, but some people do something about it while others continue to wallow in self-pity. The ones who do something succeed in life. The others do not.
What do the successful ones do? One thing, and one thing only. They change their attitude. If they can do it, so can you. They resolve to banish negative thoughts and think positively. They start whistling as soon as they wake up in the morning and continue throughout the day. One man I know even whistles while brushing his teeth. That's how confident he is.
As an indication of his own self-confidence, Noland published and marketed the book himself. The book would likely have brought him economic security had the Internal Revenue Service not become obsessed with ten thousand copies printed but unaccounted for in either Noland's inventory or sales figures. The subsequent fines and penalties left him in a weakened financial condition.
With this crisis, Noland returned to the gripping tales of love that had launched his career many years before. This, too, would have brought him financial success had it not been for the attacks of feminists, who now launched an all-out assault on Noland's entire oeuvre. These attacks initially boosted sales, but in the long run a well-organized boycott again brought him to the brink of financial ruin.
Still, in one of those inexplicable accidents of personal history, this episode had a therapeutic effect on Noland's psyche. He gave up all attempts to write commercially and began keeping a journal, which remained unpublished until after his death. He became a vegetarian and stopped using all stimulants. By living frugally, he and his family got by on his salary at the Iowa Correspondence University. His wife supplemented their income by selling duplicates of old photographs from her mother-in-law's modeling career, using P.O. Box 1929 in Des Moines.
As his memories of an unhappy past faded, Noland became less reclusive and began to explore the world around him. He spent weeks driving back and forth across the Central Plains in his white Lincoln-Continental with white-sidewall tires, stopping to take black-and-white photographs of abandoned towns and farmsteads. He copied the names of strangers from the tombstones of rural graveyards. He parked along country roads and spent hours staring at the horizon. He traveled the length of the Missouri River and hiked for days along abandoned railroads. Every year he took his children to watch the millions of migrating birds that stop along the Missouri River. He bought land in Nebraska and built a sod hut. He committed to memory the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. When offered a managerial job, he turned it down. An excerpt from his journal reveals his mood at that time:
Standing on the Great Plains, one can see the world and one's place in it with a clarity forever denied to those who live in a more varied terrain. In the emptiness of the Plains, mysticism is as natural as speech. The spirits of the dead hover above every spot of dirt. On the Great Plains, no one is ever alone.
If you look past the apparent loneliness of the Plains, you'll see that this vast flatland is a living being. If you travel east from Denver into Iowa, the only elevation you'll see is the Loess Hills along the east bank of the Missouri River. Formed from billions of particles of wind-blown dust thousands of years ago, it is as if the Plains had removed one of its own ribs and laid it down as a reminder of itself.
As he grew older, his fascination with the Plains became more acute. He set out to photograph all the WPA murals in the post offices of Kansas and Nebraska. He inventoried all the windmills in Cherry County, Nebraska. In a spirit of community betterment, he started a rumor about earthquakes to scare all the tourists out of the Black Hills. He hired a street gang to collect and bury all the USA Today vending machines in Omaha. At his own expense, he reprinted thousands of copies of Black Elk Speaks and handed them out to strangers on the streets, in bus stations, and at railroad depots.
Noland lived well into the twenty-first century. His children grew, married, and prospered. Maria became the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Lucia became the postmaster general of the United States. Shortly before his death, after years of searching, Noland found the graves of his great-great-grandparents in a country cemetery in central Illinois. No one had tended the graveyard for years. From one end to the other, it was covered with bluegrass and wildflowers.
He died in Des Moines in 2043 at the age of 100, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. As death approached, he asked to be buried beside his great-great-grandparents. Room was left for his wife, who lived another ten years. On the last page of his journal, he wrote that he now believed the feminists had been correct in their criticism of his work and that he harbored no resentment against them. And beneath that, he wrote his own epitaph:
About the author:
Patrick Irelan's comic short stories have appeared in Opium2, Opium4, Kansas Quarterly, Iowa City Magazine, Whiskey Island, Prairie Weather, and elsewhere. His two memoirs, Central Standard (University of Iowa Press, 2002) and A Firefly In the Night (Ice Cube Press, 2007), are available at fine bookstores everywhere.