Chuck Jensvold: Writer

‘Words Are My Business’

A workmate at an L.A. law firm where Chuck Jensvold was working as a paralegal had the temerity to try to line-edit something he’d written. “Words,” Chuck informed his colleague, with matter-of-fact dismissiveness, “are my business.”

Chuck Jensvold was a writer’s writer, with a hawk eye for the telling detail and a sardonic wit. At Occidental College, he and I were would-be literati, writing for student literary magazines and critiquing each other’s work, sometimes over iced coffee at The Cooler—Oxy’s student café, the setting for our idea of the Algonquin Round Table—but more often over hard drink, in the small hours. A barely sublimated competitiveness ran just beneath the surface of our friendship, but we trusted each other’s “built-in automatic crap detectors,” as Hemingway called a writer’s intuitive sense of anything—pet word, darling phrase—that rings false. I was writing poetry in those days, much of it overripe. I can still hear Jensvold’s dry chuckle as he shook his head incredulously, exclaiming, “Poetry? Why would anyone want to write poetry?” The mere thought of it seemed to cause him almost physical pain.

Paradoxically, the one time Chuck tried his hand at poetry revealed a poetic voice that was as inimitably Jensvoldian as the narrators of his short fictions. Written under duress, as an assignment for the poetry class we both took, “Video Village” (Plastic Laughter, Issue #2, 1981) channels an illusionless wiseacre who writes for the schlocky sitcom The Love Boat, grinding out “Tales of love and kisses/ And guest stars up the ass.” The narrator cracks, “Put a Bloody in my paws/ and I’ll walk the hallowed halls./ The hell with Paddy and Serling/ Those guys missed the boat.”

(Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling were screenwriters during TV’s first Golden Age—roughly, the late ‘40s through the early ‘60s—noted for their cutting social satire and willingness to confront topical, often controversial, issues. The reference betrays Chuck’s yearning for a lost Golden Age, his dreams of winning big by selling a screenplay, and his cynicism about the movie business—and damn near everything else.)

But that was a fluke; fiction—short stories, screenplays—was where Chuck lived. His prose was spare and closely observed, with just a whisper of laconic wit, like dry vermouth sprayed over martini ice with an atomizer. A Jensvold character didn’t just drink tomato juice, he drank Snap-E-Tom, the sort of retro product Chuck loved. In David Garrow’s biography Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Professor David James remembers Chuck’s keen “eye for concrete detail.” He “knew that ‘amassing an inventory of details’ was invaluable” to a writer, notes James, who remembered Chuck as one of the standout students in his creative writing class, English 110, a class whose roster also included Barack—then “Barry”—Obama. Writing “seemed to define his whole being,” said James.

Chuck Jensvold was a man out of time—a hardboiled, Walter Neff kind of guy who knew his Raymond Chandler back to front, had a poster from a ’40s movie in his off-campus apartment, and always seemed as if he’d be happier living in a noir movie. (He once informed me, with what was either perfect seriousness or impeccable deadpan, that “men don’t dance.” I’ll go to my grave convinced the guy wasn’t joking.) “He longed for the halcyon days in art and literature and culture,” says his friend and Oxy classmate Scott Norton. “I think his utterly wacky move into the Marine Corps was a part of that, trying to touch something that connected him to an archetype.” Behind the Philip Marlowe pose was a man who was “deeply offended by a world he thought had gone to hell,” Norton believes. One-liners got him through life’s bleaker moments. Sorting through my mail, I found a terse postcard from him that read, in his neat, precise, mechanical-draftsman’s hand, “Life’s a swell nightmare, and why wasn’t I born rich?”

At the same time, he balanced his barstool existentialism with a Southern California nonchalance—L.A.’s answer to sprezzatura. In the Garrow biography, a classmate recalls Chuck as “the Bogart of Occidental.”

I always suspected that behind that bulletproof exterior lurked a generous soul. After Chuck’s death, Norton confirmed my suspicions in a poignant e-mail. “One night I was out with him and a woman I was dating pretty seriously,” he wrote. “The girl and I got into an argument and she went to say goodnight to Chuck without me. She got back in my car and looked at me. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘He was crying,’ she said. ‘He wants us to stay together.’”

—Mark Dery

The following collage of insights and anecdotes, excerpted from e-mails sent by friends and family, comprises a Cubist portrait—a collective study of the man, seen from every angle at once: shy, mordantly funny, cagey, cynical, sensitive, an old-school romantic deeply wounded by what he would’ve regarded as the war between the sexes—in short, a “born character” who could have stepped out of one of his stories, as Margot Mifflin puts it.Steve Coll (Occidental College, Class of ’80): I still recall one of Chuck’s paintings, from 1986, typically moody and evocative. An enlisted man with a sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve and an estranged brunette stand a few angry yards apart, arms folded, leaning against a silver convertible in the parking lot of the Hat Rack Motel, whose neon sign depicts a Stetson slung on a cactus. Only the word “Sorry” is lit on the NO VACANCY sign. Chuck’s prose and his eye sprang from the same richly sensitive and often hidden place. He seemed to feel everything, and yet he was cool and concise, and he refused to be mawkish.

We wrote a screenplay together in the early ‘80s, about blacklisted Hollywood writers in the 1950s. His language was always taut, full of wit, and he was prepared to be obscure if necessary, to preserve the integrity of his language. Like thousands before and after us, we were turned down by every agent we approached, but I can hardly measure how much I learned from working with him. He was a rare and luminous person, full of ambition and devoted to the very highest standards.

Dina Silva (’82): Chuck has been quoted as saying that “men don’t dance.” I was fortunate to have had the chance to dance with him, and I can say that, like his take on life, he had a wonderful sense of rhythm that was all his own.

Bill Knutson (’82): Chuck took his cues from the manly canon of Hemingway, Conrad, Kerouac, and, above all, the noir writers of the ’40s. Unlike many, Chuck was not piecing together a flimsy mask of allusion; he was forging a true stance from a life lived fully. He enlisted in the Marines—an almost inconceivable choice in that just-post-Vietnam era—and served honorably.

Bob Mitrovich (’81): Chuck had been in the Marines for about three weeks, and we hadn’t heard from him. He’d spent a lot of time with Jeff Wettleson, Jim Hanafin, Sally Hoover, Randy Traweek, and me shortly before he enlisted. Jeff and Sally invited a number of us to watch a Lakers game. We thought about Chuck during the party, and decided to call him [at Camp Pendleton] to see how he was doing in boot camp. A switchboard operator answered and I asked if I could speak to Chuck. He said that I was calling after midnight, and that only family members could communicate with him. I told the marine that I was a cousin and that had I called to tell Chuck that “cousin Sally” and “cousin Jeff” were resting comfortably after their surgeries. The marine said he would relay the information to Chuck. Several months went by before we heard from Chuck. He thanked me for trying to call him during boot camp, then quietly said in his low voice that his drill sergeant made him run five miles for each “cousin” he had.

Jeff Wettleson (’81): He came out of the Marines a changed man. He’d suddenly morphed into this larger-than-life figure, so fearless and direct it was a little scary. He was obviously channeling Hemingway. Never did he pose. And of utmost importance to Chuck was to always attribute an opinion, not making it your own. Such a class act he was, such a lesson in ethics.

[He and Chuck competed in what Wettleson calls "5 Writerly Contests."] We would each draft two random references; all four had to be utilized in a one-page story that was due 24 hours later. The goal was to catch the other person off guard and not play to something you might have pre-loaded. The funny part was in the drafting of themes. Each of us could veto at least one theme in the drafting process. This safeguard ensured randomness, kind of like an improv player not being able to have a plant in the audience. Looking back, this was a very insane process. We did this five or so times and each time we declared a winner. I think Chuck gave me one win.

Bill Mullen (’81): Chuck Jensvold was my idea of a writer before I knew what a writer was. Every campus poet and journalist I knew had been talking to me about an older guy from Arizona who smoked, who drank a lot of coffee, who had read a ton of stuff, who had gravitas, who was cool in an off-planet kind of way.

I first met Chuck at the Hazelwood house where I was living senior year with Mike Dobson, Jim Hanafin and Jenny Simpson. Chuck sauntered into one of our fairly regular parties. He was different: His hair was coiffed. His mouth seemed permanently curled around words, a half-smile, or a cigarette. He was very smart and he was very funny. We had drinks and talked about books. I don’t remember which ones, but I remember Chuck having something interesting to say about every one of them.

The day after the party I found Chuck somewhere and we had coffee. He got more interesting. He’d written lots of short stories, was working on a novel, told me about a book on screenwriting by Syd Field I had to read. Though I didn’t then, I did start smoking. Cigarettes seemed to make Chuck’s ideas about writing better than mine. Actually, they just were better.

That’s because Chuck had put an inordinate amount of time into studying what textbooks call the “craft” of writing. He had extremely clear and fixed ideas about what sentences were, what characters are, what story structure and tone was, or should be. Here’s an example—the opening lines from Chuck’s story "After the Trash is Out," published in the Spring, 1981 Community Review:

The gritted tide of the wind finally filled the large globe of tumbleweed that was hung up on the board fence, sending it rolling punch-drunk into the lot of the station. Its irruption silently crashed into the sign the leasing agent had erected, paused and tottered, then spent itself, continuing on out of the lot and into the dark.

My friendship with Chuck was built on a shared passion for a wide range of things: movies, sports, people, books, cities, buildings. I spent two years in New York working on a failed novel, and talked regularly throughout the writing of it with Chuck. He was the best man at my first wedding, which took place on the roof garden of the Gramercy Park Hotel. I didn’t choose the Gramercy Park because of Chuck (Humphrey Bogart married there, and Debbie Harry was a resident in the 1970s) but he was in his element. I remember him swinging hard late into the night, walking down Park Avenue with a new flask after everything was done. We talked about the joy of that evening for a long time.

I stayed in touch with Chuck through my New York years by phone and sometimes by letter. He was in Los Angeles, then San Diego, sometimes building architectural models for his brother. That was another thing about Chuck: he had great hands. He created a series of paintings that remind me now of Depression-era lithography. He had what John Berger called a “way of seeing” that he could translate into other media unlike most of us stuck in one or two dimensions.

I felt a crushing sadness when Chuck died. I remember getting the news, and reports from his family, and feeling a massive vacuum. Chuck had touched an inordinate number of people in a short period of time. There is almost no one at Occidental who met Chuck who forgot him, or something he said, or some advice he gave, or some act of kindness he imparted. He was inimitable in the way we want all people to be, meaning irreplaceable.

Chuck taught me to take nothing of appearance for granted, especially the ease of putting words together. I don’t know what he would think of the way I do that now, or have done that here, but however I have done it owes a little bit to the sharp light he brought into my world.

Elaine Jensvold (Chuck’s mother): We were sitting on a park bench and Chuck, at age two-and-a-half, read the inscription on it. I knew he loved books and read the familiar words in them, but the dedication sentence, carved on the bench, was completely new to him. In 1958, we moved to Bellevue, Washington, where Chuck attended Phantom Lake Grade School. His teachers praised his story writing and drawing ability. Back in the San Francisco Bay area, we built a home in Blackpoint, Marin County. Most afternoons were spent roaming the oak-covered hills, walking down the hill to the bay, and building tree houses. He and [his older brother] Dan were in Indian Guides, learning about the Northwest Indians and their lore. A lot of time was spent at libraries and collecting books at home. Then we were transferred to Phoenix [Chuck’s father worked for Standard Oil] and we lived in Tempe where Chuck attended junior high and high school. He helped me in my volunteer work at the Guadalupe Yaqui Indian Mission. He liked to cook his own recipes, and had a book on living off the land. When Chuck started college at Arizona State, we were transferred to Portland, so we weren’t in as close contact as we had been. He left school to travel, working at various jobs, trimming trees in Key West (probably went there to research Hemingway). He was always interested in writing, painting in oil and acrylics, and visiting second-hand and used furniture stores. He liked mid-century modern chairs, appliances, and other classic ephemera.

Scott Norton (’81): Chuck was at his best when he was pursuing his love of words and language. He was filled with pointed allusions and imaginative characters, his own Yoknapatawha County. He invented several characters and actually sent me letters on “their” letterhead. When we were playing draw video poker in Vegas, if two queens came up on the first round, he’d stop and exhort the machine, “It’s a party, ladies; call your friends!” and then hit the button. An 8 was a “snowman.” At Hollywood Park [Racetrack], where we used to go on Friday nights, he’d hand out a free tout sheet he called “CJ Sez” to unsuspecting patrons. Chuck’s favorite movie was Chinatown (he’d gone to see its premiere in Phoenix, where Evelyn Mulwray’s Packard was parked in the lobby of the theater) and his favorite character was Morty, the mortician who says to Jake Gittes: “We’re in the middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A.” Chuck repeated that line at least a thousand times, using it in every conceivable situation to parse the mania of life. Morty was played by a rotund, aging actor named Charles Knapp. One time I was throwing a party at my place in Mount Washington and we were planning a guest list. “Hey Norts, why don’t you call up SAG and get Charles Knapp’s address, see if he wants to come.” I didn’t know if he was serious; I rarely did.

Chuck did have a soft side. When he got out of the Corps, he moved to an apartment building in Los Feliz. There was an old man living there and I knew Chuck liked him. “Something about him,” he’d tell me, “like when he’s talking to you he looks at the ground.” The guy was a sucker for civility and gentility.

Margot Mifflin (’82): Chuck was a born character with a wonderfully acerbic wit. I see him in noir heaven, writing novels about all of our romantic entanglements and collegiate hijinx (played out at backyard barbeques and against the vinyl banquettes of our old L.A. haunts), finally getting the literary recognition he deserved.

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