I’ve been rereading, for the upteenth time, A Stretch on the River, the first novel by my favorite American writer, Richard Bissell. Not only is Bissell my favorite writer, he’s also the writer who made me want to be a writer myself. And I’m not the only one. Elmore Leonard has said that 75% of what he knows about writing he learned from reading the books of Richard Bissell.
Richard Pike Bissell was born June 27, 1913, in Dubuque, Iowa. He was the second son in a prominent, wealthy family. He was educated at Exeter and Harvard. But somehow all this class and culture did not seem to matter much to him, and he chose to join the working class.
After college he became an ordinary seaman, then worked as a deck hand on riverboats on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers. Eventually he earned a pilot’s license on the Upper Mississippi, the first writer since Mark Twain to have that distinction. His novels A Stretch on the River (1950) and High Water (1954) draw from his experiences working on tugs and barges on the Mississippi.
A Stretch on the River is the story of Bill Joyce, the second son in a wealthy family, who decides to forsake high society and sign on as a deckhand on a Diesel towboat called the Inland Coal. He finds himself keeping company with hard-working, hard-drinking, fast-talking, loud-laughing rowdies, not to mention lady friends in port towns up and down the river. Bissell’s ear for dialogue is brilliant, funny, and true. He does clearly like the work and the working life of the working class—this is his own experience he’s writing about, after all—but he doesn’t romanticize it or downplay the difficulty or the danger. One remarkable chapter is about the drowning death of a deckhand named Shorty, told almost entirely by Shorty himself in one long paragraph that goes on for six pages. That may sound gimmicky, but it’s not. Wallace Stegner included this chapter as a standalone story in his anthology Great American Short Stories.
Not all of Bissell’s work experience came from the river. He also worked in the family clothing business, which he called the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory in 7-1/2¢. That novel, his second (and his third book) brought him fame and fortune in the form of the Broadway musical The Pajama Game, for which Bissell co-wrote the script. The musical in turn formed the basis of his fourth novel, Say Darling (1957), an affectionate but stinging satire of the New York show business scene, as seen by a Midwestern hick brought in to convert a novel into a musical. Say Darling itself became a musical, and once again Bissell co-wrote the script.
His next novel, and for my money his best, was Goodbye, Ava (1960), set back in Dubuque (called Blue Rock in the book) and back on the river, this time not on a tugboat but on a houseboat. By this time, Dick and Marian Bissell were living in a houseboat on the Mississippi, docked at the harbor of his home town. In Goodbye, Ava Bissell is at the top of his form, focusing more on the people than on the dangers of life on the river.
Richard Bissell also wrote travel articles and comedic nonfiction, but his best work is his fiction. And his best fiction is found in his four Midwestern novels, be they on the Mississippi River or in the town he calls Junction City in 7-1/2¢ and Blue Rock in Goodbye, Ava. Both towns are thinly disguised versions of Dubuque, where Richard Bissell was born, where he lived most of his life, and where he died on May 4, 1977. His tombstone, which he shares with Marian, is a giant granite slab with a map of the Upper Mississippi carved into it from top to bottom.
No grander epitaph is necessary, but if there were room, it would be good to see, etched into the granite, this passage from The Monongahela:
“To have a river in your blood, you have to work on her for wages.…Oh, they’re not all bold and reckless adventurers. A heap of them are as dumb and drab and spiritless as can be, but in the main they want to go places and do big things out under the sky. And when the whistle blows and they have to get out and make a lock they cuss and moan and claim they’re gonna quit. But mostly they stay. That’s the way it always was on the river, and the way it always will be, until the Monongahela and the Youghiogheny and the Tygart and the West Branch run dry, and the last steamboat whistle has echoed back off the hills, filling the valleys with that mournful music that haunts you wherever you go.”