ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And I'm Guy Raz. When Eleanor Henderson's debut novel, "Ten Thousand Saints," came out in June, critics took note of her unflinching prose. Now, Henderson has this appreciation of the person who taught her how to write: Robert Cohen. It's for our series You Must Read This, where authors talk about a book they love.
ELEANOR HENDERSON: Every writer has a collection of influences, the powerful voices that she lays her tracing paper over, hoping to capture some of their inflections. Sometimes, those voices belong to teachers, and the one that rings most loudly in my ears belongs to Robert Cohen. In "Influence," the final short story in his 2002 collection "The Varieties of Romantic Experience," a young novelist says of his mentor: I'm not the only one of his students who'd been secretly infatuated with the man, who'd learned to see and inhabit the world Elgin's way, with Elgin's loathing and wit, his fierce, arrhythmic music.
As an undergrad at Middlebury, I was one of the many students who hung on Cohen's every word in class, but I suspect I was the only one to hunt down every word he'd written: ordering back issues of "Story," "Glimmer Train" and "The New England Review," smuggling them hungrily into my dorm room like the desserts I'd sneak from the dining hall. I read his stories again and again, then swallowed them whole when, to my delight, they were released in book form, and later I taught them to my own students.
But I hadn't gone back to them in a few years, and recently, I picked up the book, wondering if perhaps, now that I was older and the sheen of professor worship wasn't so glaring, the stories might have lost some of their luster. Nope. If anything, they're brighter than ever. The title of the collection is a nod to William James, who is quoted in the title story: There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags - one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.
Cohen's characters are, of course, these persons navigating the zigzags with heartbreaking exertion. They are a young couple trying to get pregnant, a family saddled with the bittersweet birth of a sister with Down syndrome and a failed business owner stumbling through the twilight of his life at a casino. But it's Cohen's voice that brings such humor and emotional incisiveness to these characters. His sentences are coarse, crunchy, glutinous, the kind that leave you with seeds stuck in your teeth.
Cohen is a brilliant novelist as well, but if you're new to his work, start with these stories. Read them for their deft characterizations, for their insistence that we are all in this together, ladies and gentlemen, in a way that would be horrible were it not so comic. When I read these stories again, I realized with equal parts pride and shame just how powerfully the rhythm of Cohen's voice has shaped mine. You, too, will be happy to be hijacked by the tide of his voice, to ride the fierce, arrhythmic zigzags with him.
RAZ: Eleanor Henderson's debut novel is called "Ten Thousand Saints." She teaches at Ithaca College. To comment on this essay, go to the book section of npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.