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A Writer’s Writer: ‘Jenz’ at Oxy
I got to know Chuck in 1980-82 during my sophomore and junior years at Oxy. He and I shared an interest in photography—as well as writing. When we met, I was shooting for the Office of Communications and lugged an old Nikkormat, a couple of lenses, and rolls of Kodak Tri-X film pretty much everywhere I went. Luckily, those thousands of workaday snaps also recorded times with friends, Chuck especially. While the tragedy of his death at 51 is hard to think about, these images are a chance to reflect on Chuck as he was, a young writer as brilliant as those L.A. days.
Chuck was a senior, four years older than most of his graduating class, seven years older than me. He walked like John Wayne in topsiders and preferred straight-leg jeans and a t-shirt—a pressed t-shirt—or a long-sleeve dress shirt, tucked in, no belt. He lit his Camel Lights with a Zippo lighter and curled his lip a bit like Elvis when he was amused. He looked good in sunglasses, and his hair was always clean-cut. Some friends called him "Jenz," a nickname that felt like a wisecrack, rhyming with Chuck's laconic sense of humor.
He and I were both single, working diligently to rectify the situation.
Chuck was lovesick over a young woman, a close friend of one of my close friends. I’ve never seen anyone endure more pain in love. Whatever impeded his approaching her when he had the chance remains a mystery to me. My guess is that some old-fashioned expectations about courtship got in his way. Looking back, I see Chuck as a man writing a life for himself, spiked with impossible love interests—women cut from the mold of the “damned good-looking” Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. At times the blending of life and literature was literal, as when we’d wear combed-back hair, thin ties, and sports jackets like our angst-ridden literary heroes from the Lost Generation—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Nathaniel West, and Ernest Hemingway—mimicking while mocking a masculine literary culture that was no more.
Late one night, after a party, Chuck and I climbed through a window into Oxy’s locked game room and played “Xenon,” a pinball game we had mastered, smoking cigarettes and racking up free games. As the score rose to the level required for a free game, Xenon herself, a weirdly sexy female cyborg, would beckon in a sultry voice, “Try me again. Try the tube shot.” A satisfying “pop” signaled the award of a free game, prompting Chuck to tilt his head back and announce with a wry grin, “the sound of corn.” We left after dawn with dozens of free games still on the scoreboard.
(For years I thought “the sound of corn” was an aficionado’s expression, evidence of Chuck’s long experience with pinball, but after Googling it unsuccessfully I’m tempted to say the term is a Jensvold original. While searching, I did learn that the original Xenon is a Wellesley grad named Suzanne Ciani, who was inducted into the Pinball Expo Hall of Fame for her work on the game’s hypnotic soundscape—a detail I think Chuck would appreciate.)
I met my wife, Caroline Boss (’81), the year I met Chuck, and she and I were allied in helping him succeed romantically. His presence at the start of our life together and our shared roots in the West made Chuck feel like family. (Chuck attended elementary school in my hometown of Bellevue, Washington, and as kids we were both YMCA Indian Guides. Later, his family moved to Blackpoint, California, not far from Caroline’s home turf in the Bay Area.) The year after Caroline and Chuck’s graduation in 1981, she took up gardening at our studio apartment over a detached garage on Mount Royal Drive. While Caroline dug a lawn and I processed film in a makeshift darkroom, Chuck worked in the driveway, patching and sanding Bondo on his red ‘67 MGB GT.
After Oxy, we drifted apart. Chuck left Eagle Rock, Caroline moved to Switzerland where she could earn money for graduate school, and I traveled abroad on a Watson Fellowship.
Chuck never did get the girl. Many years later, after he was gone, she told me he was the greatest unfulfilled love of her life.
Chuck lived off campus, and money was tight. He had a daylight basement apartment facing the ragged backyard of a house, an easy walk to Oxy, just off of Campus Drive. It was a convenient stop for me to kill time before heading back to the room I rented from a Seventh-Day Adventist minister in the Glendale hills. When Chuck couldn’t pay the rent, he did landscaping for his landlord.
Turning writing into money was like a magic trick; you did it any way you could. When he bought a pack of cigarettes with a bad cellophane pull, Chuck wrote a letter to inform R.J. Reynolds of the defect and received a complementary carton of Camel Lights in thanks. Ka-ching.
Chuck had transferred from Arizona State to Oxy in his junior year and graduated magna cum laude with a self-designed major in English Literature and Communications. Like anyone with literary aspirations, he was concerned about making a living after college. Selling a screenplay or short story, regardless of the dollar amount, was proof you could eventually pay your bills, not just as a temp or hack, but as a bona fide author of fiction.
Oxy in those days had some remarkably talented writers, many of whom would write their way to successful careers. Showcasing them was the motivation behind Feast, the magazine Alexandra (Alex) McNear (’83) and I co-founded in 1980. Writers gunning to make a career of it, like Chuck, would need a mutually supportive cohort to survive, and Feast was meant to be part of that. Unlike other campus publications, which were illustrated with student art and photos, Feast celebrated the unadorned word and published work by Oxy faculty and alumni as well as students. During endless formative conversations, I remember Chuck clenching and unclenching his right hand in a parody of the Hemingway-inspired title, saying with mock earnestness, “Fist.” Chuck’s award-winning story, “When It Leaves” appears in the first issue.
Chuck’s doubts about writing as a vocation, despite his formidable chops, was a predicament he shared with fellow Feast contributor Barack Obama (’83). According to Alex, Obama’s girlfriend at the time, Barack admired Chuck’s writing. After his graduation from Columbia, Barack sent Chuck a story for critique, describing it in a letter to Alex (now in the Rose Library at Emory University) as “not top notch.” While I can’t say whether Jensvold’s reply to Obama changed history, both men went on to work with words in government jobs, one as president and the other as an editor of base newspapers during his time in the Marines.
The same year Feast was founded, Mark Dery (’82), then a punk-Surrealist poet, published one of Chuck’s rare stabs at poetry in the New Wave 'zine he co-edited, Plastic Laughter. Chuck’s poem pretty much nails the money thing:
So Hoover it up and make me
A writer for the Love Boat.
Give me a check each week end
from Spelling-Goldberg Inc.
Let me write tales of Tulle,
Your captain, and Isaac, and Doc
Tales of love and kisses
And guest stars up the ass.
Put a bloody in my paws
and I'll walk the hallowed halls
The hell with Paddy and Serling
Those guys missed the boat.
Chuck’s proclivity for ironing seems relevant to his prose style: a penchant for crisp lines and smooth surfaces. In a post for The New Yorker website, Margot Mifflin (’82) remembers him as someone who wrote “noir-inflected” stories and talked “like he’d just stepped out of Double Indemnity.”
Chuck had an eye for the telling detail. He and Margot shot a video of a 1981 anti-Apartheid rally, now memorialized in history as the setting for Obama’s first speech. In it, they cut away from the crowd to the administration building, Coons Hall, where Oxy's trustees are meeting. Taking in the trustees’ luxury sedans in the nearby parking lot, the camera comes to rest on the large doors of the main entrance. You can make out the two videographers in the reflection. “That’s nice, those reflections,” says Chuck as the camera lingers on a distorted stucco building, parked cars, and human figures fragmented in a grid of aluminum and mirrored glass.
In all of Chuck’s work, dialogue drives the action. Chuck had a keen ear for the idiosyncrasies of local vernaculars, insisting for example on the spelling “okey” in the Feast version of “When It Leaves” because it was truer to the surfer idiom. Like Steinbeck, Chuck could hear the subtle differences between regional accents—between Fresno and Spokane, Portland and Seattle, Las Vegas and Albuquerque. Read him out loud: the forms of speech are natural, unpredictable—spellbinding and cinematic without reverting to trope or cliché. The result is intense. His characters are Left Coast originals, ordinary people at the bitter end of history, out of rope and grappling with the absurd. I’m thinking of the narrators of the stories “When It Leaves” and “Knock and Play” or the mid-century road warriors of “After the Trash is Out” and “Sawyer Zell.”
Reading through the collected works reveals Chuck’s development as a writer, though it’s hard to trace his evolution with precision because so few of the works are dated. In the screenplay “Star Witness” I hear period dialect, retro-noir rat-a-tat-tat, possibly contrived for the journalism genre, but I don’t know if what I’m hearing is a progression from the early stories or a different aspect of Chuck’s hard-boiled American Gothic.
“Securing Liberty,” an existentialist one-act play and (probably) the most recent of the collected works in the archive, explodes with language every bit as vivid as the earlier stories but loaded with an arsenal of experience from Chuck’s military service. Set in a rusting Quonset hut in the Philippine jungle at the outset of the Gulf war, a Marine battalion awaits clearance from superiors for a few hours of “libo” before imminent deployment to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. A stage manager I asked to read it was impressed, describing it as “a snapshot of lived life, full of meaning without throwing it in your face; the characters are real, funny, gripping—phenomenal, I’d pay to see it.”
Later in life, Chuck billed himself as a writer and a photographer, but the only photo of his I’ve seen is a postcard he developed and mailed to Caroline. It’s an abstract study of three horizontal pipes set against a wall of black and white triangles, dated July 7, 1981, with a note:
Down here in Mexico and getting sick and consuming more and learning the photo scam. Made this card myself. An incredible amount to see packed in this walled city of San Miguel. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to say bye.
I’m struck by how Margot’s two photographs show a different side of Chuck than my photos of him from around the same time. Beside being in color—mine are all black and white—Margot’s shots show a relaxed Chuck, smiling casually with a smoke, leaning back in a rocking chair, a tad self-conscious but having a good time.
By contrast, my photos of Chuck, like the portrait against the white clapboard at Mount Royal Drive taken with my ’50s-era Graflex 4x5” camera, exude attitude—confrontation. That one reminds me of ideas Chuck and I shared about image-making and identity, point of view, what today would be called branding. We knew that writers and artists increasingly needed to package their work for audience appeal. Chuck’s attitude shows an artist test-driving a persona to fit his growing reputation as a writer’s writer.
During those years, Chuck was doing everything right. He had the life experience, craftsmanship, work ethic, humility, imagination, and sheer talent to succeed as a writer. When we parted ways, I fully expected—and was a little jealous of—the long list of writing credits and posh house in the hills; they seemed inevitable. The later emergence of hard-hitting films like Reservoir Dogs and boundary-pushing TV dramas like Hill Street Blues proved that Chuck’s “noir-inflected” style wasn’t retrograde but prescient—and potentially lucrative. In time, Granta, the one literary quarterly I read religiously, revived a tradition of literary reportage reminiscent of Hemingway—story-driven work so much like Chuck’s I used to squint at the table of contents, half-expecting to see his name there.
Having witnessed Chuck’s phenomenal discipline only increases my sense of how tough the personal challenges must have been that made it difficult for him to thrive, in later life, as a writer. Maybe integrity was his Achilles heel. When I knew him, the man was exacting, impeccable in his person and tastes, and generous, a literary older brother to a younger set at Oxy. Looking back over 35-plus years, the work he didn’t write for lack of acceptance feels like a loss—but, then again, sanity has its limits.
I’m sorry he and I lost touch. If I were at Oxy today, hanging with our mischief of “Cooler Rats”—the epithet the late, great Professor Roger Boesche pinned on off-campus students like Chuck, Caroline, Margot, Mark, Alex, Barack, and me who relied on the campus greasy spoon for social sustenance—I’d be pitching the idea of a screen adaption of “When It Leaves” or a student production of "Securing Liberty" to anyone within earshot, especially Chuck Jensvold.