[(review date 26 February 1995) In the following review, Kelly provides summary analysis of The Tunnel, which he describes as "an infuriating and offensive masterpiece."]
If you want to go down into the self, you'd better go armed to the teeth. Paul Valéry says that somewhere, and it was what came to mind as I began reading The Tunnel, this huge and long-awaited novel by William H. Gass, the masterpiece, one must presume, of this 70-year-old American master.
A middle-aged professor of history at a Midwestern university takes to going down into the cellar of his big middle-class house, away from his unloved, undesired, unloving wife. He starts tunneling down through the floor and out beyond the foundations, lying on his fat belly and squirming past trowelfuls of clay and dirt and dust on his way out. He is escaping from his life.
That is the operative metaphor of this 652-page book, yet in only a few of its many chapters is the actual tunneling presented in ordinary narrative space as ordinary narrated event. Mostly the book is remembrance, invective and expostulation, along with lewd instances and merry excuses, and the tunnel remains just a motif, a poetic image occasionally stumbled into in the midst of other things. All the things, in fact, that Mr. Gass has provided his professor with in the way of the arms and weapons he will need to dig out of his life. As we know, and not just from Freud and other psychoenterologists, the only way to dig out of your life is to dig through it. So the professor talks from the middle of his life, backward, forward, remembering a furtive love life that is mostly skin and spurt, the nasty trivial obsessions of academic life, his horrible home.
The Tunnel is maddening, enthralling, appalling, coarse, romantic, sprawling, bawling. It is driven by language and all the gloriously phony precisions the dictionary makes available. It is not a nice book. It will have enemies, and I am not sure after one reading (forgive me, it's a big book) that I am not one of them. Let me tell you what I can.
There was a little boy, an only child, raised in a bleak Midwestern town by an alcoholic mother and a verbally brutal father. It would not take a Dickens to borrow the reader's sympathy and show us the little boy's suffering, his slow escape from that abusive milieu, and to delicately sketch the paths of liberty the boy might find, or the hopeless mire into which he might, reader signing, fall back.
But that is not William Gass's way. Instead, he leaps ahead half a century and gives us the sex-besotted, verbally brutal professor the boy becomes, a gross character with fascist views and a taste for sly affairs with his students. He gives us the thick of the man, the dirt to tunnel through. To...