‘The Hour After Westerly’ by Robert M. Coates

It was as if he had been driving in a fog, and the one thing he did remember was an image as precise and as unrelated as something one might see through a sudden parting of fog—a group of small white houses grouped at an intersection, and a clock (was it on a steeple?) with the clock’s hands pointing to ten minutes to six. There was a faint suggestion of a dirt road, too, but even as he tried to consider it, it floated off into nothingness.

There’s nothing more depressing to me than a writer worthy of a readership whose name seems, to borrow a phrase from John Keats, “writ in water.” I’m realizing that, even though it wasn’t one of the three rules I set forth in creating this personal anthology, part of what I’ve done here has been a meager attempt to save certain writers like Conrad Aiken and Robert McAlmon from the ash heaps of history. Another author I love from the List of Writers Whose Names Are Rarely Uttered is Robert M. Coates. Coates, if he is remembered at all, is remembered as the art critic who coined the term “abstract expressionism” to describe a group of painters in the 1940s that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, and Arshile Gorky. But it is his fiction that has long enraptured me: the dadaist sci-fi novel Eater of Darkness, published with the help (and praises) of Gertrude Stein; Yesterday’s Burdens, in which Coates attempts “to reverse the usual method” of the novel, “and instead of trying to individualize [his protagonist] and pin him down to a story, to generalize more and more about him—to let him become like the figures in a crowd, and the crowd dispersing”; and his stories, which often appeared in The New Yorker, where he was resident art critic, including ‘The Hour After Westerly,’ about a man who loses an hour while driving home from work and can’t make sense of the lost time. Though it has the trappings of an unaired episode of The Twilight Zone, Coates’s story is much more than that: an atmospheric rumination on the ravages of time, the malleability of memory, the regrets of middle age, and our innate nostalgia for the possibilities of roads not taken. 

First published in the November 1947 issue of The New Yorker, included in the collection The Hour After Westerly and Other Essays, 1957, Harcourt Brace & Company, and available online for those with access to The New Yorker archive

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