The novelist William H. Gass has been found wandering along the I-270 North interstate highway in St. Louis County. He was located at dusk, picking up trash as he went, cradling a bright orange empty bottle of Tide detergent someone must have thrown out the window of a car, or dumped out of a truck bed. He seemed attracted to filth in the crabgrass abutting eight lanes of pavement.
Gass was first pronounced dead in June of 2017. His funeral procession was attended by the highest offices of literary media; the who’s-who. Gass was memorialized as a postmodern author of novels such as Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel.
In reality, authorities say, that coffin was empty. After bribing the St. Louis coroner with several hundred dollars, a price Gass called “a steal,” the author locked himself in a self-made tunnel below his home in Parkview, St. Louis. Gass claimed he spent the next five years alone, with no contact with the outside world.
“You had all the clues,” Gass told reporters, as he was being transported by ambience to Barnes Jewish Hospital. “The book was called The Tunnel,” Gass said. “The Tunnel. I wrote it about my house. Kohler is me, you get it? Kohler the filth monster is me.”
“The Tunnel is a work of playful art concerning death, and filth, and decomposing,” said Rutger’s English Scholar, Benedict Cogswell. “This tunnel? Well. I don’t know yet. I’m interpreting just like everyone else. I think maybe, therein lies the point? I’m not sure. Isn’t it fun to be puzzled sometimes? It’s the only time I get to cast around without landing here or there yet. Shifting through a mood, letting things come up as they do instead of forcing a decision one way or another.”
After several hours of questioning Professor Cogswell, reporters surmised told that the tunnel stunt is somehow related to one of Gass’ novels in which a character named Kohler—a professor of history at an unnamed Midwestern University—sits down to write the introduction to his major work on World War II titled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, which is the culmination of his years studying the aspects of the Nazi regime in the scope of its causes and effects. What comes out instead of the introduction is The Tunnel, an honest and subjective depiction of Kohler’s own life and history that is so private and personal that Kohler decides to hide the papers of The Tunnel from his wife. He starts to dig a subterranean passage in the basement of his home, eventually hiding the dirt inside the drawers of his wife’s collection of antique furniture.
“Then I die,” Gass told reporters, as medics loaded his stretcher into the vehicle, “and no one—not one soul—checks my basement for a secret underground tunnel. Unbelievable! Still, I can dig the tunnel, and write The Tunnel, and then live in The Tunnel at the same time. It was possible. That was astounding to me.”
From the start, authorities believe Gass did not spend his time in total isolation. The ninety-year-old author was said to have emerged from his hiding space every few days in disguise, often as a postmodern literature professor from a rival university. Gass visited doctors, attended family events, and left his Parkview enclave to buy groceries, see movies, and visit stores. “I admit to my goulash business,” Gass said later to investigating press. “When I was walking amongst the living; dead and undead twinned; that is a spectral vantage point not many enjoy. A narrator, certainly. It is the rare experience of Tom Sawyer looking down from the church rafters. Lazarus was dead, and came back to life, but I did so without my name. I lost my name for a while. When I was down there, and then out there in the zone, things queered. The zone is full of treacherous hazards. And after a while, I could not remember my name. It came to me by the side of a road one day, while I was picking up trash. I picked up an empty container of Tide detergent, a poisonous mouse house. I said, eureka, I remember. My name is William Howard Gass, and then you all showed up.”
— Devin Thomas O’Shea is a 2023 Regional Arts Commission grant recipient with writing published in Slate, The Nation, Chicago Quarterly Review, Boulevard and elsewhere. Northwestern MFA, 2018. He is on Twitter and Instagram @devintoshea.