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My friendship with Bob began in the fall of 1962, when we were both fledgling fellows in the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Program at Stanford, at the first meeting of that year’s Stegner workshop—Dick Scowcroft presiding—in the fabled Jones Room atop the Stanford library. For openers in that first class, Dick read three selections from Bob’s novel in progress, A Hall of Mirrors—specifically, the segments introducing the three principal characters, Rheinhardt, Morgan Rainey, and the unforgettable Geraldine—which of course were so good it scared the billy hell out of the rest of us. Afterward, in lieu of shooting Bob on the spot, I invited him home with me for a drink, thereby smoking out the first of our many mutual affinities, and we became fast friends from that day forward.
I was about five years older than Bob, and I’d been teaching freshman comp in a state college in Oregon for the past four years, and I’d already published a short story in a (soon-to-be-defunct) literary quarterly; so I considered myself a pretty hot property, and I daresay I might’ve been inclined to condescend to this scruffy young upstart, except . . . oh my, could he write! One of the greatest joys and grandest privileges of my literary life is that, over the next couple of years, I got to watch Hall of Mirrors grow from those three brief passages into what I believe is one of the very best American novels of the twentieth century. It was an often thrilling, transformative experience, like being present at the Creation.
And of course it also soon became apparent that, thanks to a Catholic education and an itinerant big-city upbringing and four years in the Navy, Bob was already vastly more sophisticated than I could even pretend to be. Nonetheless, he was endearingly hapless in certain respects. He’d never driven a car, and I had a friend who had an old banger of a Hudson sedan for sale, so Bob bought it for, I believe, $150, and I undertook to teach him to drive it. He was, at least in the beginning, the most inept adult human being I’ve ever seen at the wheel of a car. But after a few terrifying practice sessions, Bob, nothing daunted, decided he was ready to go for his license. I knew better and did my best to dissuade him, but he persisted, and lo, he passed the test! “Oh, I just Zenned it through,” he shrugged, with genuine modesty, when I owned up to my astonishment.
He was a great talent, a sweet man, and a loving, loyal friend. The world without him in it will be a lesser place . . . but I suppose we’ll just have to Zen it through somehow.