JUNE 26, 2021
THE FIRST PHASE of my comma awakening came several decades ago when I found myself intellectually, physically, and psychically uncomfortable while reading Patricia Highsmith’s wonderful novel The Blunderer. The cause of my angst was not Highsmith’s exquisite rendering of a nightmarish trap, but her use of commas.
Highsmith’s sin? She consistently used commas to join sentences in which an independent clause was followed by “and” and a dependent clause.
At the time, I was a copyeditor by day and university composition/fiction-writing lecturer by night, and both jobs were leaking all over my recreational reading. I was aware of the problem in my reaction. The sin was less Highsmith’s use of commas and more my allowing it to ruin my appreciation of a sublime book.
My solution to that problem was all wrong, however: I decided to ignore Highsmith’s comma incorrectness. You may, in your youth, have conducted the popular experiment of telling yourself not to think of elephants for 30 seconds, with the result that you think of elephants, elephants, ELEPHANTS. The more I tried to quash my comma awareness, the more I told myself that I was a nerd and a snob, the more I castigated myself for deigning to criticize the great Highsmith on such small-minded grounds, the more I saw those commas.
To a great extent, contemporary editors were the invisible nighttime cleaning crew that ensured my daytime reading was mostly filled with well-scrubbed published works. Through the years, however, I found my literary attention gravitating more toward the messy glory of my students’ work. (I mean, who on earth could be more excited than I was when encountering a student piece called “Teach Yourself Esperanto”?) And when I finally quit teaching and got old enough not to worry about the high-mindedness of my answer when asked what I was reading, my flirtation with pulp fiction turned into a lust worthy of an Orrie Hitt novel.
Before I get too caught up in congratulating myself for my literary egalitarianism, I should face the lingering shortcoming in my literary lovemaking. I still noticed the mistakes in punctuation and grammar in my students’ work, but I told myself that I loved the work despite these mistakes. I still noticed the less flagrant but still stinging (to me) punctuational problems that the only moderately conscientious copyeditors at Black Mask magazine or Gold Medal Books allowed to slip through into the published work of pulp favorites like Charles Williams (Big City Girl Charles Williams, not All Hallows’ Eve Charles Williams), Bonnie Golightly, Charles Willeford, and Gil Brewer. I noticed these mistakes, but in my arrogance, I saw fit to ignore them. I loved the works despite their flaws. I maintained my place atop a self-constructed mountain as the arbiter of comma correctness.
Over the years, I became aware in an intellectual sort of way of the pomposity of my perspective. My gut-punch comma awakening did not come, however, until my recent discovery of the writing of Basil Heatter.
As best I can piece together, the Wikipedia-page-less Heatter was born in 1918 on Long Island, New York, left the United States at age 16 for some travel in Europe, and returned to become first an advertising copywriter and then, during World War II, a patrol torpedo boat pilot. He later resumed copywriting and also was a news commentator for Mutual Broadcasting. By the 1970s, Heatter lived on a boat off of Key West, Florida, doing some racing and chartering. He died in 2009.
Heatter’s written output is rather difficult to track down, but it appears to comprise close to 20 paperback original novels of crime, adventure, and the sea; a couple of nonfiction books; and something on the order of 60 appearances in pulp magazines.
When I encountered the work of Heatter, I was swept away by his narrative rush and his sweaty settings. But I was blown away by his paucity of commas.
Consider this example, from the novella “The Empty Fort,” published in the September 1954 issue of Manhunt magazine (and two years later in longer form as the novel A Night Out by Popular Library):
Cutter arched his wiry body and managed to free one arm long enough to punch Flake in the face and Flake growled and took the arm that had punched him and began to bend it steadily back, feeling the bones grating and hearing Cutter howl and then feeling the stiff point beyond which it would not go and making it go even further so that there was a snapping sound like a dry twig breaking and Cutter let out a little yelp that might have come from a kicked dog and then was still.
In “The Empty Fort,” Heatter’s comma omissions are largely those that would divide two independent clauses joined by a conjunction. Thus, the speedy action Heatter depicts avoids being slowed down by commas, and its sense of chaos is subtly enhanced.
In the novel Virgin Cay (Gold Medal, 1963), however, Heatter’s comma omission extends in glorious ways, particularly in a failure to separate prepositional phrases or subordinate clauses from main clauses in places where a comma would typically be used for clarity or simply convention. Consider the following examples:
“By the next day the Stream, building up steadily under the battering of the wind, would be wild.”
“Shortly before midnight the yawl, beating up against stiffening head seas, was in what is known to sailors as the Hump, midway in the Florida Straits.”
“With the drag of the heavy line slowing her down the yawl was now under control.”
And my favorite:
“You told me yourself that without a boat life for you wasn’t worth living.”
I applaud Heatter’s copyeditors at Manhunt magazine and Gold Medal Books for what in my fantasy was their astute hands-off approach, giving readers the wonderful gift of being able to experience not only the words and actions of Heatter, but also the subtle visceral dislocation that his punctuation creates, as an expression of his characters’ own dislocation from any sort of conventional life.
Because Basil Heatter’s selective punctuation survived the now-typical editorial buffing and polishing, readers get to experience the pull and tug and bob and bounce — much like the sea the author loved — of Heatter’s act of writing; his unfettered and unfussy joy in creating these wild rides and in accompanying his characters on them; his drive toward the conclusions of his elegant single-arc stories; and his need simply to finish the damn thing so he could get paid and start the next one, or get back to his boat, or just have a cocktail.
But forget these anonymous readers I have created in the previous paragraph’s effort to distance myself from the personal nature of Heatter’s gift to me. He finally knocked me off my high ground of being a protector of correctness, of what a long-ago professor of mine referred to with scorn as being a “possessor of literature.”
Finally, I know that my students’ work was great not despite its mechanical problems, but because of them, that whatever mistakes they made were glimpses of their souls. Finally, I know that whatever commas may or may not appear in Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer were the palpable evidence of the author’s — and the characters’ — struggle with their very existence. Finally, I am able to dive into literature, to roll around in it, without pieces of punctuation sticking to my sweaty skin.
Robert Fromberg’s memoir, How to Walk with Steve, is forthcoming from Latah Books. His prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Colorado Review, San Antonio Review, and many other journals. He taught writing at Northwestern University for many years.