Baton Rouge: A Doctor Story
by Matt Clark
Issue #70 • February 20, 2006•Buy Now!
The doctors’ wives have planned the picture carefully, chosen their husbands’ outfits with attention to colors and patterns, sent lab coats to dry cleaners. The coats have come back pressed and whiter than choir robes. The doctors’ wives comment on how good a job the dry cleaner did. The doctors’ wives use the same dry cleaner.
The doctors’ wives planted the garden in which the doctors stand, the garden in front of the Health Center sign. The sign is concrete, but covered in earthen tiles; the lettering is brass. The doctors’ wives polish the letters using an expensive brass polish Dr. Hileman’s wife bought in England. The garden is not very big. Being in the deep shade of a large oak, the garden’s contents had to be carefully chosen by Dr. Teal’s wife, who took a course in botany.
The concrete sign was designed by Dr. West’s wife. She was an art major in college. She met Dr. West at a gallery in which her works were displayed. She still paints, time permitting. The other doctors’ wives admire the sign’s sturdiness and its shiny letters. Architecturally, the sign complements the Health Center’s slightly Spanish flavor. The doctors’ wives like things to match.
Matt Clark’s novel Hook Man Speaks (Putnam/Berkeley, 2001) was chosen as the inaugural title for The Texas Monthly Author Series. When he died in 1998, at age thirty-one, Matt was coordinator of the Louisiana State University creative writing program. His stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Flyway, and the anthology Texas Bound II, and are forthcoming in the Southwest Review and the Yalobusha Review. While a graduate student at LSU, he was fiction editor of New Delta Review, which now sponsors the Matt Clark Prize.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
MG: I too met him in workshop, and besides our fellow workshopper’s harrowing rant about the Coupland book (I found this as nourishing . . . as . . . ice), what I most remember is that when we went around the room introducing ourselves and naming an admired writer, Matt broke the earnest string of Joyces and Faulkners and Morrisons and Dantes by naming Dr. Seuss. He’d heard enough bloviating about Finnegans Wake; it was time somebody spoke up for Hop on Pop.
MG: My memory is similar. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t one of the ones he produced during our story-a-day experiment, but I too associate it with that time. There was a lot of cross-pollination going on that week—by which I mean, in my case, shameless theft of the pollen of others (I filched a premise from Josh), and in Josh and Matt’s, plain old cross-pollination. Josh was working on a story called “Natchez” around then, and I think the notion of a story named after Baton Rouge came from that. And what I worked on that week (fine, Josh—the story that was my cheating, lowlife dodge that week) was told in fragments, in something like the mosaic style Matt uses in “Baton Rouge.” One other thing: My recollection, which may or may not be right, is that Matt’s story changed dramatically after its first draft. The sexual liaison between Drs. Stephens and Teal was a minor element at first, one secret among others, but in revision it came to loom larger and larger, become more and more the axis around which everything else revolved.
JR: How did I manage to forget that whale? I’m so glad to be reminded, and I wish I could remember its name, but I can’t. When he came to LSU, Matt was writing magical realist Texas tall tales; then he got kicked around in workshop and in response wrote some very good but very traditional stories, and then after he graduated, he brought together the wildness he had when he got to LSU and the craft that he honed while there. His MFA thesis, the novel Hook Man Speaks, is a good example of that, I think, and in different ways, so is “Baton Rouge.”
MG: As Josh says, Matt later wrote some more conventional and more autobiographical stories (no more drinking goats and chameleons that writhe together to imitate masterworks of art and so on), and toward the end of his life—the final version of “Baton Rouge” is definitely a late story—he found new ways to marry his technical skills to his sense of exuberance and whimsy and to make them work together, beautifully.
JR: Baton Rouge was a good place to be in the early ‘90s. The beer and rents were cheap, and something weird was always happening. Hurricane Andrew came through in August 1992, and that was weird. Matt wrote a story about a hurricane party after attending one during Andrew; he wrote a lot of stories about Louisiana, in fact, so I guess it got into his blood. I think that happened to a lot of us who went to LSU, thank goodness.