About Ibadan Sketches - Commentary by Ed Gruberg

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About Ibadan Sketches

Commentary by Ed Gruberg

Alan Weiss came to Nigeria as a PCV in fall 1963. His educational background was in electrical engineering (with a degree from MIT) which he knew precious little about. His sub rosa ambition was to be a novelist. He went everywhere jotting in a notebook but showing no one any of what he wrote. In person he was quick, energetic, acerbic and funny. He had an eye for seeing people’s flaws and a tendency to point them out. He told witty stories, full of details and texture, about his close friends and created a kind of mythology about them. Each was transformed into a canonical type – the best physicist, the best physician, the best mathematician, the best biographer. He taught mathematics, which he did know something about, at the University of Ife, which was then located in Ibadan.

Our friendship grew from our time in Nigeria. After I left I got glimpses of his writing through our correspondence. He was usually somewhere else. After Nigeria it was Paris, Greece, Mexico where his dollars went further than in the States so he could concentrate more on his writing. He proposed that we write a surrealistic comedy about Nigeria but we never got past the impressionistic stage. And frankly, his stuff was better than mine.

Meanwhile after the Peace Corps I went back to graduate school. I and my friends in Champaign-Urbana realized that C-U was a microcosm (as are most places) and it would be fun to start a magazine and cover the scene. This was the sixties and things were loosening up and getting out of hand. How could we not write about it? I started the magazine with a friend Tom Rickman who was a grad student in the English Department. We called the magazine Voyeur (Weiss hated the name) and recruited our friends to write various pieces. Ironically Rickman had an extended writer’s block and did little writing for the magazine and never finished his graduate work (a thesis on Samuel Becket). Even more ironic, he went to Hollywood to write screen plays and quickly became successful. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his screen play of Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Weiss’s book High Risk/High Gain, a thinly veiled fictional account of Peace Corps training, was published in 1968 and he was on his way. I published Ibadan Sketches about the same time. Weiss was a writer-in-residence at the Breadloaf Conference outside of Middlebury, Vermont in August 1969 where he read his account of Malcolm X’s boisterous visit to the University of Ibadan. Late at night after the reading Weiss drove his Dodge camper van down a winding Vermont road and smashed into a bridge abutment. Thirty six hours later he went into a coma. He seemed to recover to his normal self within the next 6 weeks. But over an 18 month period he went through a bipolar swing. On March 10, 1971 I found him with a self-inflicted bullet to his heart.

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