1. It was my then-girlfriend (now wife), G, who spotted the unassuming flyer by the door of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, just a few steps away from the elegant dome of the Radcliffe Camera. There was something about Philip Pullman giving a talk, and it was the next day, and there wasn’t anything about an admission price. We had to go. G and I were studying abroad in the U.K. that year and visiting Oxford for the first time. G would later go on to study at Oxford, which was a longtime dream. We’re part of the generation that grew up with great fantasy series: the Harry Potter books came out when we were Harry’s age, and we both read The Lord of the Rings voraciously as children, snubbing those who only saw the movies (which we also loved). Oxford, as the home of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and the filming location for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies, held a special magic for us. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with its reimagined version of Oxford, was also part of that magic. What we should’ve realized about Philip Pullman’s talk that morning in Oxford, and the fact that he was giving it in a church on a Sunday morning, was that it was in fact a sermon. Which meant we had to sit through mass in order to hear him speak. The place was packed, and we heard some local ladies mention that they noticed many young new faces in the pews. I’d never attended an Anglican mass before, and I was glad to find out that much of it consisted of listening to beautiful singing. Pullman is an outspoken agnostic, so it’s a credit to the Church of England and to this church in particular that he was invited to give the sermon. He climbed up the pulpit in his trailing black robe, wisps of white hair framing his round head, rimless glasses around his eyes. Philip Pullman has said that if he had a daemon—a kind of animal companion the characters in his books have, a physical manifestation of their souls—it would be a raven. He certainly looked like one that day. Instead of talking about God or analyzing a quote from The Bible, Pullman used his mellow storyteller’s voice to talk to us about the motivating force in his own life: intellectual curiosity. 2. Pullman has been promising his readers a sequel to His Dark Materials for a long time. We’ve even known the title for several years: The Book of Dust. The Dust in question is a mysterious substance, conscious matter that clusters around human ingenuity, that is a driving force behind the plot of the original trilogy. Pullman, as if to help us wait for his new opus, has published two short stories and an audio story in the intervening years, but these amounted to pleasant collectibles that excited briefly but could not fully satisfy. Now, finally, with the publication of the new trilogy’s first volume, La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s readers are seeing the fruits of his work these last 17 years, and I’m happy to say that the wait has been worth it. Authors do well to limit the scope of the first book of a trilogy. With the exception of a few short scenes, The Golden Compass sticks to the point of view of Lyra, a scrappy orphan with a knack for lying, as she travels north from her home in Oxford, in search of her kidnapped friend, Roger. She befriends witches, armored bears, and a Texan aeronaut along the way, and, of course, learns who her real parents are. At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra crosses into another world, using a bridge in the sky opened by her father in a horrific scene in which he sacrifices Roger, tapping into the energy that connects Roger to his daemon to wrench open the heavens. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, Pullman puts his omniscient third person narrator to greater use by expanding the cast of characters and the setting. That book begins by following Will Parry, a young man from our own world, as he runs away from home. The change in perspective is so stark that I remember wondering if I was really reading the sequel to The Golden Compass when I first opened it or if there had been some kind of printing error. Eventually Will meets Lyra and they become close friends. As The Subtle Knife progresses and leads to The Amber Spyglass, the action gets bigger and madder, introducing a defrocked nun physicist, angels split into two warring factions, tiny knights who ride dragonflies, creatures from another world who get around on wheels made of large seeds. All the action drives towards a cosmic conflict, a moment of redemption, and a heart-wrenching scene between our two protagonists. Pullman has certainly kept things (relatively) intimate for the first volume of The Book of Dust, which takes place exclusively in Lyra’s world, and largely in and around its alternate version of Oxford. La Belle Sauvage recounts the (mis)adventures of Malcolm Polstead, about a decade before the events of The Golden Compass, with Lyra present as a baby. Malcolm is a capable boy, quiet, sensitive, serious, and crafty. He’s equally at ease talking to adults, repairing broken windows, or canoeing out onto the river to watch birds. He’s the perfect young hero, very much in the mold of Will Parry, although Will had an inner darkness because he grew up without a father and had to take care of his mentally ill mother, whereas Malcolm lives with loving parents. The darkness in La Belle Sauvage comes from Malcolm’s unexpected ally Alice, a withdrawn girl who’s capable of defending herself when necessary, and who, because she’s older than Malcolm, is also more aware of what the adults are up to. Tellingly, though, her daemon hasn’t fixed into its final form yet, which suggests that she still hasn’t quite figured out who she is. The villain, once again, is organized religion, which takes the form of a powerful, dogmatic, and politically implicated Catholic Church and its tentacular agencies, such as the ominously named Constitorial Court of Discipline. In Pullman fashion, everyone who’s associated with the church is automatically suspicious, with the exception of a few good nuns across the river. Yet the one character who actually stalks our heroes and endangers their lives isn’t an agent of the Church: he’s a psychopathic, manipulative, relentless French scientist called Bonneville, and he’s out for revenge. Bonneville’s daemon is a horrendous, maimed hyena that symbolizes his violent impulses, and it’s telling that he’s often in conflict with her, at one point even striking her. I was reminded of a scene Pullman wrote for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, in which the character of Mrs. Coulter hits her golden monkey daemon. As the characters keep saying in La Belle Sauvage, only the very deranged would hurt their own daemon. 3. After a pleasant but slow-moving first half, La Belle Sauvage climaxes with a dramatic flood, not of biblical proportions—although several characters refer to its scriptural precedent—but rather of biblical implications, since it unexpectedly carries away Malcolm and Alice, along with baby Lyra, and we know that Lyra’s survival will lead to the world-changing events of His Dark Materials. Journeys are an essential element of Pullman’s original trilogy: to the north, between worlds, even to the land of the dead. But whereas the travels in those books took their mythological underpinnings from the Old Testament, along with a smattering of Nordic imagery and a sheen of science fiction, here the fantasy elements are decidedly folkloric. The journey itself is less epic in scale, and even a little rushed as Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra paddle from island to island in a changed landscape. The flood strips away the veneer of modernity and unleashes the magic of old Albion. Malcolm becomes an Odysseus-cum-gallant knight who encounters, in quick succession, vicious nuns in their fortress-like priory, fairies that must be tricked like Rumpelstiltskin, enchanted riverbanks where a thick fog causes adults to forget their past, and a pagan river god who guards his tributary of the Thames. Finally, we reach a “quiet rode” inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a figurative place of rest that is both a pause in the journey and a break in the story. In these dreamy, feverish scenes, Philip Pullman is tilling the same creative soil at Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s the soil of English myth, and of English country folklore. So less high fantasy, and more of what Neil Gaiman would call English fantasy. In earlier chapters the novel flirts with other genres, especially thanks to the character of Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar who works with the Bodleian’s alethiometer, a mysterious truth-telling device that Lyra will eventually use herself. Careful readers will recognize Dr. Relf from short scenes in the original trilogy when she enquires about Lyra’s education early in The Golden Compass, and then offers her a place at a boarding school and the chance to study with her to read the alethiometer at the very end of The Amber Spyglass. In La Belle Sauvage, Dr. Relf works for a secret service agency that protects democracy against the agents of the Church, who are bent on stifling free speech and personal freedom. We’re plunged into a light spy novel: there are secret levels of government at war with each other, tradecraft, double-dealings, spy masters ready to do the very worst to bring about good—right out of the pages of the world’s most famous spy novelist, another Oxford-educated writer, who happened to study at a college on the same street as Lyra’s beloved Jordan. There’s also a more sinister undercurrent, whiffs of an Orwellian brand of dystopia. In dispiriting early chapters, one of the Church’s organizations called the League of Saint Alexander takes over schools in the Oxford area, with the aim of having children snitch on parents and teachers who don’t follow the church’s dictates. Pullman was inspired by the kind of tactics used in Soviet Russia; I was reminded of the terrifying children in 1984 who are trained to spy on their parents and report them as bad party members. Pullman, who worked as a middle school teacher before writing full time, has an excellent ear for schoolyard arguments. 4. The prerogative of the curious protagonist of a YA novel is to observe and half understand the world of adults. Think of the number of scenes in which Harry Potter overhears an interesting conversation from underneath his cloak of invisibility. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm is rather conveniently always at the right place and time to witness important events and talk to the right people. That convenience could be explained on the one hand by the fact that he lives and works in a pub his family owns, The Trout, and so gets to meet and talk to many adults who frequent it, and on the other by the fact that greater powers—Dust, perhaps—bind him to the task of protecting Lyra, just as Lyra herself will one day be nudged into action by the alethiometer and the prophecy that foretells her role in replaying humankind’s fall. Yet I was somewhat bothered by the role Pullman has Malcolm play within the larger story. Although Malcolm is the protagonist of this book—his precious canoe even gives the volume its title—we know that his place is inevitably at the fringe of the greater drama of Lyra’s story. Lyra’s parents, Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel, who both have arresting cameos in La Belle Sauvage, are powerful, charismatic individuals. They’re also beautiful and noble. So it seems almost inevitable that their daughter will grow up to become someone important. Similarly, Will Parry’s father, unbeknownst to Will, is a world-crossing scientist and shaman. Will’s story is entangled with Lyra’s, but as the bearer of the subtle knife and, later, as the figure of Adam, he takes his place as Lyra’s equal. What about poor Malcolm? Well, he’s a publican’s son, and for all his craftiness and courage, and the fact that Dust appears to play some role in guiding his actions, he will always be subservient to Lyra. When he meets baby Lyra for the first time, his immediate thought is that he will be “her servant for life.” Before the end of the book, he will have risked much to make sure that she’s alive to fulfill her destiny in a decade’s time. I can only hope that Malcolm will return in the next volumes of The Book of Dust to get some credit for everything he’s gone through, and that he’ll grow up to be more than a servant. He deserves a story of his own. It’s only with the publication of the second and third volumes of The Book of Dust that we’ll be able to recognize the figure in the carpet, and to see if Pullman has been able to create a story that holds together in his new trilogy. From the information Pullman and his publishers have made public, I assume that it will be a baggier series than His Dark Materials because it has to cover a longer time period. The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, will apparently be set 20 years after the action of La Belle Sauvage, with Lyra as an undergraduate student. Pullman has the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes he made in The Amber Spyglass, whose plot, though enthralling, hung together only with an added dose of suspended disbelief. At least with La Belle Sauvage Pullman has avoided the biggest pitfall: by expanding his cast of characters and nodding to his past books while keeping this novel different in tone, he’s avoided sounding as if he was writing his own fan-fiction. Pullman’s novels communicate big ideas, and some have criticized him for the relentless dogmatism with which he pursues them, but for all the god-killing and evil priests, Pullman is first and foremost an extremely skillful storyteller—the warmest, fuzziest kind that takes readers by the hand and guides them with sharp prose and a fast moving plot. There was some violence and some fairly dramatic moments in His Dark Materials, yet I found La Belle Sauvage more mature because it explores psychological darkness as well. There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books. The Amber Spyglass ends with Lyra declaring that she will build “the Republic of Heaven” on earth, in a celebration of the physical world and its joys. That’s exactly what Pullman is doing with the universe he’s expanding with each new book, except he’s building his republic with words, with stories, with human characters brimming with curiosity.
Among the many attractive qualities of the late James Salter—his powers of evocation; his famously ungross writing about sex; his apprehension of and about mid-century masculinity—is that he didn’t overestimate his chosen profession. He wore it lightly, the way ace pilots he knew wore their heroic qualities lightly. That writing had been a choice for him, before it was anything else, was paramount. Salter chose to resign his commission from the Air Force in 1957, after a grueling education at West Point and 12 years of service that saw him fly over 100 combat missions during the Korean War. Leaving the military to become a novelist “was the most difficult act of my life,” he writes in the first of the essays collected in this new volume of nonfiction, Don’t Save Anything. Difficult not because writing was dangerous or glorious (“I had seen what I took to be real glory”), but because there was no way, with his background, to avoid imagining as marks of personal weakness the potential humiliation, financial risk, and egotism that writing invites. West Point trained him for the opposite of those things; naturally, he ended up avoiding all three in a career that yielded six novels, two books of short stories, plays, screenplays, a brilliant memoir, and the journalism gathered here. He wrote with a new lease on life, under the name James Salter rather than his birth name James Horowitz. “Call it a delusion if you like,” he writes, “but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been.” Having gotten a late start, Salter wasted no time and no words; from The Hunters (1956) to All That Is (2013), every sentence feels measured and without ornament, the emotions precisely located before their conveyance. Paragraphs resolve with a pronounced matter-of-factness, often along a chain of clipped, plainly wrought details marshalled by a style that’s always subtle, never self-amused, and capable of devastating poignancy. Salter practiced the indulgence of writing with a kind of operational humility, even on topics like war and sex that other male writers of his generation could crow about ad nauseam. “Don’t save anything” was his advice to other writers, his widow Kay Eldredge Salter explains in the preface to this book. Saving “phrases or names or incidents” for some better, future composition was a luxury unsuited to someone so familiar with mortal risk, or at least someone who really knew how to savor the moment. In his own moderate way, Salter did live a sort of bon vivant American literary life, whose familiar locales (New York, Paris, Rome, Aspen, Iowa City) provide the backdrops to some of these essays. He met glamour with curiosity and discernment—never taken in, exactly, but entering on his own terms. His friendship with the young Robert Redford, for example, is described in one of this collection’s fuller pieces, about his experiences in screenwriting. (In New York, “when I went into restaurants with Redford, eyes turned to watch as we crossed the room—the glory seemed to be yours as well.”) Ultimately, though, the movie business failed to move him: “Looking back, I suppose I have always rejected the idea of actors as heroes, and no intimacy with any of them has changed this,” he writes. “Actors are idols. Heroes are those with something at stake.” He might have said the same about writers. Glory belonged not to the individual but to the endeavor, like in the military. ”The thing that is marvelous is literature,” he says in another essay, “which is like the sea, and the exaltation of being near it, whether you are a powerful swimmer or wading by the shore.” Don’t Save Anything is an odds-and-ends collection of pieces mostly written for magazines, from The New Yorker and Esquire to Outside and European Travel and Life. A few of them cover topics and rehearse memories more richly developed in his superb collection of travel writing, There & Then (2005), and the memoir Burning the Days (1997), which may be his masterpiece. Still, with a biography of Salter yet to appear (his papers at the University of Texas lie in waiting), Don’t Save Anything does more than any publication since the memoir to show us who he was, to “reveal some of the breadth and depth of Jim’s endless interest in the world,” as Kay Eldredge Salter puts it. That’s all very welcome, and reading Salter on French restaurants or the history of Aspen is preferable to reading just about anyone else on those subjects, but it’s when Salter reveals more than merely his interests that the prose really flickers, as it does throughout Burning the Days. On catching a glimpse of Redford at a premier years after their friendship had waned, he writes: There was a virtual rain of light as flashbulbs went off everywhere, and, amid a small group moving down the aisle, the blond head of the star could be seen. I was far off —years, fact—but felt a certain sickening pull. There came to me the part about Falstaff and the coronation. I shall be sent for in private, I thought, consoling myself. I shall be sent for soon at night. He was, at last, when The Paris Review awarded him its lifetime-achievement Hadada Prize in 2011, with Redford as the presenter. (“This is my Stockholm,” Salter told the gala.) Predictably, these essays illustrate how at ease Salter felt in the world of derring-do—not bloodsports, but auto racing, skiing, and climbing. His fluency in the often unspoken codes of male camaraderie and competition was a transferrable skill, and he mined those pursuits for literary productions like the novel Solo Faces (1979) and the screenplay for Downhill Racer (1969), in which Redford starred and which Robert Ebert called “the best movie ever made about sports—without really being about sports at all.” Like Jon Krakauer after him, Salter could hang: profiling the legendary climber Royal Robbins, Salter clings to the crag right with him (“Almost from the first moment, certainly from the time you are eight or ten feet off the ground, there is the feeling of being in another element, as distinct as diving into the sea”). About authors Salter is courteous here, a powerful swimmer hailing others further out. For a very different editorial staff of People, he interviewed Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Antonia Fraser, and Han Suyin. For The Paris Review, which published many of his short stories, he wrote a gorgeously rendered but myopic essay-in-vignettes about the Italian poet and proto-fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio. (The logic here is that only so many writers have ever also been fighter pilots, and d’Annunzio is more interesting than Roald Dahl or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Salter’s essay, included in There & Then, about the favorite Tokyo hotel of Yukio Mishima, another reactionary whackjob, has little to say about Mishima.) In his tributes to people like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Isaac Babel, and the editor Ben Sonnenberg, Jr., his style brings to mind that of another consummate “writer’s writer,” the reporter Murray Kempton. Like Kempton, Salter could write about his subjects with a sense of history and deep continuity, casting them almost as actors from antiquity or myth. Salter’s fans may wish he had written more before his death in June 2015, but seen from another vantage his reticence can look like virtue: unlike many in the nursing home of “American letters,” Salter didn’t feel compelled to weigh in on every controversy under the sun. Whatever his private grumblings, he didn’t re-enlist to fight in the culture wars on behalf of Allan Bloom, the Ayatollah, or Patrick Bateman, at least not in these essays. At a time when Joyce Carol Oates brings a suicide vest to a gunfight each day on Twitter, Salter’s non-intervention comes as a relief more than anything. And since his fiction is so far from broad social portraiture, it’s no surprise that when Salter does veer into the realm of “commentary,” he sounds imprecise and ambivalent, firmly out of his lane. Only in the last essay of the book, a transcribed lecture from 1995, do we get all the predictable hand-wringing about the state of the canon, the universities, deconstructivism, euphemistic discourse, the souring influence of television, computers, and pop culture, etc.; he locks sights and rains death from above on one straw man after another. The worth of literary texts, he insists, “is not in their provenance or their good intentions, just as their achievement is not to be gauged by their conformity to the moment’s panethnic pansexual Panglossian social or political enthusiasms.” This kind of talk came very cheap in the '90s, of course, and represents a riskless engagement with literature. It makes Salter seem so much more common than some of us would like to think he was. But the mistake, Salter himself would surely agree, is to come expecting heroism in the first place. Elsewhere, a 1998 “Talk of the Town” piece about Bill Clinton’s perjury seems neither here nor there. The truest shame of the bunch is “Younger Women, Older Men,” a meandering essay full of literary and historical and autobiographical referents, about the attraction of older men to younger women and vice versa. Needless to say, it is among the last takes on that presently extremely charged topic that anyone will want to read at the end of the 2017. It’s not so lecherous or piggish (Salter’s own much younger wife, with whom he spent nearly 40 years before his death, was no doubt at the front of his mind through it all) as it is equivocal and even playful where neither of those things can do. On one page he praises a young heterosexual couple in words that could come from a Focus on the Family newsletter, and on the next he says something so definitive as: “The slightest understanding of things shows that men will take what they are not prevented from taking, and all the force of society must be set against this impulse.” Would that he concluded right there—shout it from the mountaintops—but no, it goes on. From the mouth of a character it would all be one thing, but this is cud you don’t want to see the author chew with his own mouth wide open. One really not worth saving—a sharper editor would have consigned it to the yellowing pages of the March 1992 Esquire. In his lifetime, Salter found admirers as various as Saul Bellow, Teju Cole, Richard Ford, Roxane Gay, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Ondaatje, and Susan Sontag, who numbered him “among the very few North American writers all of whose work I want to read, whose as yet unpublished books I wait for impatiently.” While assembled with the respectful intention of not reprinting material published elsewhere, Don’t Save Anything proves that there remains an unpublished, more definitive book of Salter’s essays—one to really affirm his stature as a worker in the medium. In addition to much of what’s here, that book would cull from the travelogues of There & Then and the food writing of Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days (2006), which he wrote together with Kay Eldredge Salter. It would also include what has to be his most fully realized essay: “You Must,” about West Point, originally printed in Esquire, anthologized in Best American Essays 1993, and later modified to become a chapter in Burning the Days (which explains its absence here). A worthy successor to George Orwell’s boarding school nightmare “Such, Such Were the Joys,” “You Must” displays all the gifts that Salter could bring to the table as a writer of nonfiction (“Seventeen, vain, and spoiled by poems, I prepared to enter a remote West Point,” he says by way of introduction). But until the collection appears that can take the whole measure of Salter’s interests—Library of America, are you listening?—we should count our lucky stars that this much more of his work is now so close at hand. It’s one more invitation to wade out into the sea where he plunged himself a full 60 years ago and to which he belongs now, a lifeguard on the horizon signaling that the water is just fine.
The June 1999 issue of Esquire was full of essays about fathers: Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Cash, and Nasdijj. “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” was Navajo writer Nasdijj’s dizzying, heartbreaking essay about his young son, who had died from fetal alcohol syndrome. Nasdijj’s essay was as pithy as his cover letter to the magazine, which claimed “In the entire history of Esquire magazine, you have never once published an American Indian writer. This oversight is profound.” Nasdijj claimed that Esquire was only his second publication; the first was a fishing story for Gray’s Sporting Journal. Nasdijj’s essay was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and soon became a memoir; The New York Times called it “a fascinating book, unlike anything you are likely to have read.” A book that “reminds us that brave and engaging writers lurk in the most forgotten corners of society.” Two more memoirs, and more critical acclaim, followed. The truth also followed. Nobody named Nasdijj had ever published a fishing story in Gray’s Sporting Journal, but in September 1996, “The ‘Hemingway’ Boat” had been published by one Tim Barrus. Barrus, it turns out, was Nasdijj. A white writer, not a Navajo writer. “The hoax warns us without warning and informs us without informing,” writes Kevin Young in his new book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Young is a fine poet—incoming poetry editor of The New Yorker, no less—and his often recursive, textured prose is the perfect delivery for the cyclical nature of literary lies. Of Barrus’s Hemingway story—another not-so-true tale—Young writes “by claiming Hemingway, Barrus was claiming a connection to the past and Papa and to literature itself. Hemingway would sometimes play soldier (though he really was one), matador, revolutionary, but he was also an actual journalist, drawing fairly clear borders between fiction and non. The writers who followed, especially male writers, would often struggle with Hemingway’s style and lifestyle, mistaking one for the other—and many, from Clifford Irving to James Frey to Barrus, would eventually turn to hoaxing to find their way.” Bunk is teeming with these types of insights. As a poet and historian, Young has the particular skill of seeing the unseen. He understands that at the heart of every lie is a good, perhaps great, story. Often the act of story is the act of persuasion, hypnosis, delusion. For better or worse, we love to be lied to if the song sounds good. Because the hoax is not a lone performance, it needs an audience. In describing literary forgeries, Young writes the hoaxer must fake “a document as well as a backstory—providing a collaboration between present and past, the hoaxer and the audience ...for the forger, like other hoaxers, seeks to make the audience complicit.” It is this well-made point that will make attuned readers of Bunk cringe. We’ve bought half or quarter truths—especially when those lies varnish our biases, our ideologies, our hopes. Young cautions this is not a new phenomenon. Bunk is certainly fascinating in the light of our current post-truth world, but Young demonstrates how lies, frauds, exaggerations, and misinformation are a particularly American exercise—baked into the republic from the years of P.T. Barnum on forward. The digital age continues to blur reality, performance, and hoax, but with greater speed and range. Bunk contains a laundry list of charlatans, including Rachel Dolezal, Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Laura Albert. But what is most powerful is Young’s examination of American lies about race. Barrus was simply one of many who have taken up the identity of a Native person. There is a particular insidiousness at play here, Young offers. When a hoaxer performs as a person on the margins, “hoaxers erase those their story purports to represent.” These are not small sins. They are not postmodern play at the malleability of the Author. The appropriation of another’s identity is a continuation of history. Young connects the unfortunate tendency of white writers to take on Native identities as part of the “sideshow attraction” trend: “Besides reinforcing notions of the West as a continuous battle and justifying Native displacement and death, the Wild West show also cemented the figure of the imaginary Indian—a decidedly Plains Indian look, complete with war bonnet—that would prove dominant in popular thought and in the broader West ever since.” Stories write our history. Stories write our culture. Once sewn into that history and culture, the hoax and the lie are almost impossible to separate from the truth. They become part of our fabric. In Bunk, Young might just have written the most important book this year. Sadly, his book suggests that we might make the same statement for 2018—and the next year, and the next.
“Private letter to you,” wrote Ernest Hemingway to Archibald MacLeish on December 1, 1929. Two months earlier, he’d followed the success of The Sun Also Rises with his breakout, bestselling work, A Farewell to Arms. In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, James Aswell wrote that upon finishing the book, he is “still a bit breathless, as people often are after a major event in their lives. If before I die I have three more literary experiences as sharp and exciting and terrible as the one I have just been through, I shall know it has been a good world.” But Hemingway was a writer, and writers work. We toil, we dream, we fail, we hope. He was living in Paris with his wife, Pauline, their two children, and Hemingway’s younger sister, Madelaine. His father, Dr. Clarence E. Hemingway, had committed suicide a year earlier, and Hemingway had established a trust fund for his mother and his younger siblings. MacLeish had just been hired as an editor of the recently debuted magazine Fortune, and Hemingway wanted to talk money. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1929-1931 are the fourth volume of his correspondence, and nearly 85 percent of them are being published for the first time. The result is a windfall for Hemingway fans, but also for those trying to understand the daily working life of a major writer—about whom biographer Michael S. Reynolds notes “His contemplative and his active life are jammed together so tightly that only minutes separate them.” Editors Sandra Spanier and Miriam B. Mandel are comprehensive and meticulous in their approach—the book is peppered with contextual footnotes that moor the letters—and the result is real insight into a stubborn, driven, accomplished writer. Although the letters document his life as an outdoorsman, as well as his fracturing friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the correspondence best illuminates his life as a writer. “You know how I hate to pull money terms etc. with you,” writes Hemingway to MacLeish, before promptly talking about money. He quotes offers from Collier’s Weekly—$750 for 1000-1200 word stories—so he wants at least $2000 for the long article on the economics of bullfighting in Spain. “I would write it for you for nothing,” he promises, but knows “I have to keep the price up because thats how they judge you.” Hemingway’s article would be published the following year as “Bullfighting, Sport and Industry,” and would later become part of his first bullfighting book, Death in the Afternoon. A Farewell to Arms would soon be translated into French and German, and become a Broadway play. Hemingway also sold the film rights, although he hated the film version, starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. The business of being a writer is a business, and Hemingway’s letters demonstrate that even the most celebrated writers encounter countless setbacks. Writing is a struggle. Publishing is a struggle. It is fine to accept that. Writing is wonderful, it is cathartic, it is frustrating. The pulse of writing is paradox. Poets know this in their lines; freelancers know this when they sit down to pitch. Hemingway’s letters allow us to follow that trail of failures and successes, and how a writer’s life off the page affects their words. In a 1931 letter to Dr. Don Carlos Guffey, a fervent collector of Hemingway’s books who would deliver Hemingway’s son Gregory later that year, Hemingway sounds rushed, nervous, and afraid. He will soon be off to Spain, and has a request of the doctor: “In case anything should happen to me—in the bull ring or any other dumb way—I have told Pauline where to find the copy of the 3 Stories and 10 poems that it is to go to you—Do not expect any disasters nor have any premonitions but have had so many accidents lately that should take that step to protect your interests.” Hemingway laments the paltry money he’d made from In Our Time, and how he couldn’t sell a single story from the collection to a magazine. His final words in the letter about the writing life were true in 1931, and will be true for eternity: “It is a strange business.”
The brute facts of John McPhee’s career connote a serene productivity: for more than half a century a fixture in The New Yorker; 30-plus books—many expanded from New Yorker articles, all still in-print—to his name; a Pulitzer in 1999 for an omnibus of his work on geology; and an appointment since 1975 at Princeton, where he’s instructed generations of students in the craft of nonfiction, including current New Yorker editor David Remnick. Then there’s his composure on the page: a finely-milled crystalline prose that never announces itself yet pins its subjects with felicitous precision; the apotheosis of the New Yorker’s signature patrician style. And an expression of its sensibility: urbane intelligence at large in the world. Thus, McPhee’s range: riverboats, Alaska, oranges… The list of his subjects is long. Expansive, yes, but he’s also the consummate miniaturist, unhurriedly unwinding his monographs across tens of thousands of words and sometimes multiple issues. Such are the hallmarks of the McPhee canon; people who wouldn’t dream of picking up a book about say, long-haul trucking, will reach for McPhee’s trans-continental travelogue from the cab of a semi. At 86, he’s his own franchise, the McPhee shelf at your local bookseller immediately recognizable for its serried ranks of spines in Tom Wolfe ivory. Heft any of these tomes in your hands and you’ll find them as stolidly wrought as the writing they contain—robustly bound with sturdy paper stock in seeming anticipation of their consumption in some contemplative sylvan setting or other. It comes as a surprise, then to encounter this doyen of the form terror-stricken and supine on a picnic table early on in Draft No. 4: John McPhee On the Writing Process. All but the most facile writers of narrative nonfiction will identify with the spiraling panic stealing over McPhee in 1966 at the prospect of distilling an amorphous wedge of painstakingly acquired field notes and transcripts into several thousand sentences of crisp, on-point copy. It's shades of Tom Wolfe in 1962 birthing the new journalism in a single paroxysmal night suspended over the abyss of a blown deadline. But McPhee is not so brash a writer, his catharsis slower to pay out. For nearly two weeks, he remains blocked and recumbent. He recalls a similar fugue state in 1960 on staff at Time: at a loss for how to approach a profile of comedian Mort Sahl, he marshaled his notes to block out a story—impetus enough to escape his “catatonic swivet.” Six years on, the dense material he’s amassed for a piece on New Jersey’s Pine Barrens poses a higher degree of difficulty, but gradually it resolves itself in his mind into a semblance of cohesion. Through the salvific touchstone of structure, he pries himself up from his prostration and bends to his task. A preoccupation forged in the crucible of crisis, structure is paramount to McPhee’s craft; a liberating constraint, the mold into which he pours his words. “It painted me into a corner,” he recounts. “Yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.” Initially, he practices a variant of the “cut-up method,” dismembering his notes with a pair of scissors then reassembling them on a makeshift drafting table in a sequence that plots a path through the material, imposes order on it, manages the tension between chronology and theme. With the advent of personal computers in the 1980s, he automates the process through a bespoke program that instantly configures his notes into the desired pattern based on coding he appends to them. He even diagrams out his stories’ structures: “A Roomful of Hovings Rorimer” (1967) is two trajectories of topics converging on a vertex, the crux of the story—then-Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving’s Princeton years. “Travels in Georgia” (1973), about his odyssey around that state in the company of a roadkill-eating biologist, unspools itself in a spiral. Still, writing remains an anguished, halting process (Draft No. 4 refers to the laboriously eked out money draft)—confidence an account that is zeroed out each time he files a piece. The picnic table funk, he points out, occurred when he was a New Yorker writer of almost two years standing: You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would…Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed. For McPhee, writing occupies a negative space, trammeled by doubt and dissatisfaction: If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. There’s succor in these words for every agonized scribe. And McPhee is suspicious of anyone who professes otherwise: …[I]f you tell people that you ‘just love to write,’ you may be delusional…And…unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops—how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work? You won’t find such psychodrama in that all-time classic of writing instruction William Strunk Jr., and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style. But we live in a more confessional age. Still, McPhee is heir to E. B. White, with whom he crossed over at The New Yorker during the 1960s and '70s. The authoritative standing of “Strunk and White” stems in part from its concision. Draft No. 4 emulates this in places with epigrammatic élan: “A lead is good not because it dances, fires canons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows,” writes McPhee. Or, “You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness.” On the other hand, lest you forget the basics: “If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out.” But Draft No. 4 is a different kind of book—a writing manual-cum-professional memoir. This invites a certain windy raconteurship. There are intriguing glimpses of the operation behind The New Yorker’s exquisitely modulated prose—a kind of virtual organization: a loose-knit coalition of free-floating writers (McPhee describes his own status there as that of “an unsalaried freelance close to the magazine”) attended by battalions of fact-checkers, editors, and sundry other “usage geniuses.” But does the world need more anecdotes about the fastidious and phobic ways of “Mr. Shawn,” the “one-man we” of the mid-20th-century New Yorker—editor from 1952 to 1987? We learn, for example, that he deemed the “irregular restrictive ‘which’…[allowable]…under certain unusual and special circumstances…at the head of a restrictive clause,” but was known to draw the line at ads for “genital-contact clothing” (more diverting: his nickname among staffers—“the iron mouse”). Likewise, an extended discussion of the vagaries of the magazine’s fact-checking process seems strictly for New Yorker completists. And this begs questions about the rarefied air in which McPhee draws breath. Let me disclose at this point my own prejudices. Before I read McPhee I felt little disposed to do so. There was something reproachful about his serial industry and studious reasonableness of tone, the way he abjured the red meat of topical currency in his road-less-travelled pieces. They seemed bloodless, vegetal, skewed toward the genteel leisure-time pursuits of upper-middle class outdoorsy types—canoe-fabrication, angling, etc. Then, out of a native interest in its subject, I read Levels of the Game, his account of the 1968 U.S. Open tennis semifinal between Clark Graebner, an original specimen of white privilege, and Arthur Ashe, African American, product not of the country club set but of municipal courts. I found an enthralling play-by-play freighted with character studies of its protagonists retailed in a style that while correct was never stuffy. And McPhee could cut loose; I still remember a tossed-off description of a tennis ball machine that nails the thing’s dyspeptic propulsion: “a four-hundred-dollar mortar that belches tennis balls.” Still, I felt reverberations of my original disposition in reading Draft No. 4. Principally, who apart from McPhee and perhaps a handful of his fellow New Yorker independent contractors gets to devote months to researching subjects of, at best, tenuous topicality then unburden themselves of them over novella-length word-counts? In Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, another master of nonfiction narrative Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd describe a classic McPhee feature as a “piece of fine cabinetry, fussy and great…” Draft No. 4 is, no less, a period piece; a treasury of keen insights from a painstaking craftsman and a capsule of the charmed status of an elite practitioner during what looks today like a golden era of magazine journalism replete with extended parlays with editors, protracted fact-checking triangulation, and two weeks on a picnic table.
Alan Eastman poses a problem for Alex Gilvarry. As self-important as he is self-pitying, and a writer who thinks literature is warfare, Eastman is surely a fool. But how to avoid making him also a caricature? Gilvarry manages to avoid this, making him a "real person" as well as a buffoon, because he understands that the problem is one of distance—narrator to Eastman; reader to Eastman—and that this problem translates in terms of craft into a question of tone. He is wise to waste no time establishing the kind of distance we’ll be enjoying for the rest of the novel, which begins like this: Eastman, the timid bastard, look at him! Sat in his reading chair, all worn and tousled, face behind a book (The Metaphysical Poets, an anthology), hiding from a world he had come to fear. The month was May in the year of the polymorphous perverse, 1973. This is Eastman at the beginning of his journey, not the end. And what was he doing? Paralyzed? Hardly. Eastman was cowardly ducking. Look at him we readers do; we look at his “poor man’s corduroys” and his “well-formed belly, testament to better years,” we look at him moping, at him reading maudlin poetry and doing his back in reaching down to pick up a book. But we’re also here with him in this room, where he is alone, and we have access to his thoughts. We get to point and laugh at this man, but also feel what it’s like to be him as he lies on the floor “riddled with pain” reading a poem called “Mortification.” Gilvarry has a greater aim with this, though. It’s not just setting up the rules of our interaction with Eastman; it’s also making a point about his sense of self. Throughout the novel, whenever Eastman is feeling something, he’s also looking at himself feeling it and checking how it’s playing with the world. So, for instance, after making a fool of himself confronting his wife Penny’s new lover, he is confused by the world’s aghast response: “Wasn’t what had just happened the sign of a passionate love and someone who cared?” He’s highly aware of himself as an actor on the world’s stage, but he’s never aware of how he’s actually appearing. Which is how? To answer that, we should first recognize the novel’s literary context. Eastman Was Here takes its place alongside a growing group of books that seek to reappraise “the sixties”—something its promotional material acknowledges. If this tendency began in the mid-1990s, with books like Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus (1995) and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997), it’s developed since then into a veritable mini-genre. 2016 witnessed at least three such novels published: David Means’s Hystopia, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and Hannah Kohler’s The Outside Lands. Eastman Was Here is a '60s novel, then. But rather than deal directly with the events of the period, Gilvarry’s novel uses Eastman as a prism, so we see the '60s through this writer’s use of them. In one sense, this means that the '60 aren’t really that prominent in the book. There are passing references to “[h]ippies, dopers, vets, students, and dropouts”, to “[r]ock and roll, the Kennedys, Vietnam, Watergate” and “the war, the draft, Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger,” but as you can see, these are tossed-out lists, and Eastman’s interests are personal before they are social. That being said, like Kohler’s The Outside Lands, the novel borrows the tripartite structure of Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1979): a section at home, before the war; a section “in country,” during it; a section back at home, after the war. But whereas in that film and novel this structure was utilized in the service of showing what the war broke in its protagonists, and the effects of post-war trauma, in Eastman Was Here it is a joke that reveals Eastman’s pretensions. The “in country” section follows him to Saigon, but he never leaves the city, and never actually sees warfare. Instead he mooches around the Continental Hotel, semi-falling in love with Anne Channing, a reporter he knows is much better than him, all the time planning to leave for the north, or for Cambodia, where there is fighting, but never actually going. Eastman is famously anti-war, and we are told he was prominent in the protests against it, but the war also presents opportunities. For Eastman, the upheaval of the '60s is a stage or a backdrop for self-promotion and self-fashioning. It’s the '60s of Mad Men’s Don Draper, for whom it allowed the possibility to create an entirely new self; in The White Album, Joan Didion wrote that the “sense that the world can be reinvented smells of the Sixties in this country, those years when no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring.” Eastman hopes to use Vietnam to write “a record of history,” which will advertise his continued relevance, his heroism, and the “passion” Penny no longer sees in him. Eastman wants his book to work like the title of a collection of Norman Mailer’s essays: Advertisements for Myself. All without leaving his hotel room. In interviews and promotional materials, Gilvarry has been clear that Mailer was an inspiration for Eastman, and there are many ways Alan is like Norman. There are biographical similarities: Eastman’s first book, The American War, which was a big hit and nearly won him the Pulitzer, detailed his experiences as a soldier in World War II. Stylistically, it sounds nearer to Armies of the Night than The Naked and the Dead: “his original invention (history in a novelistic style) as executed in The American War, but he would be the book’s protagonist, its hero.” Like Mailer, he is keen to create “a new type of journalism” and his trip to Vietnam is powered by his sense of himself as a writer-hero: “He told himself it was newsworthy because he was writing it. That was the story. Himself in Saigon, and his impressions didn’t need to be historically accurate, they just had to be true and somewhat informed. This was a dispatch, a narrative.” It’s not just biography, though. Eastman, like Mailer, sees life as series of conflicts. It’s not surprising that, like Mailer, he was once “under the spell of boxing” and that he cherishes the “competitive camaraderie” he has with Norman Heimish, a broad-shouldered writer who actually does go to Cambodia and who beat him to the Pulitzer back in the 1950s. At one point Meredith, a publisher and Eastman’s mistress, accuses him of creating an “intellectual Olympics.” Eastman wants to be a man of action. But because he’s not a tough guy, “even though he would never back down from the chance to prove that he was,” he makes writing and thinking—living, even, as a public intellectual—an action equivalent to war. The day after he announces his intention to go to Vietnam (done to impress, rather than because he actually intends to go), he wakes feeling like a new man: Something had shifted, altered the atmosphere, and what that was could only be attributed to his announcement the night before. The announcement was action, it was purposeful, reasonable. Whether it was a move in the right direction only time would tell. The forces of his life were always pressed up against the other, tectonic plates of urges. This is Eastman’s "brain voice"—hyperbolic, narcissistic, and always at the centre of a worldly drama (those “tectonic plates”). For him, writing is assertion and triumph rather than exploration. It’s also a pompous, self-important way of dressing up a concern with his declining virility. He remembers his college days with girls, when he switched from engineering to literature because “when he spoke of literature he became attractive in their eyes…at the mere mention of Dos Passos or Maugham or Hemingway. These were writers, celebrities, thinkers, stars.” Along with Philip Roth, John Updike, and, yes, Norman Mailer, Eastman sounds like one of David Foster Wallace’s Great Male Narcissists; and of course he is the sort of man whose chosen method of suicide is autoerotic asphyxiation (a truly hilarious scene). Anne Channing describes Eastman as “invasive,” but it’s an aggressiveness that’s made from a “mixture of naiveté and hubris.” Eastman is the kind of man who would—who does—explain a woman’s own expertise to her, poorly. “It was his nature to take over an evening or a conversation,” we are told. Is this satire? And is Mailer the target? He’s the inspiration, but it seems an odd choice to satirize a man not only easily satirizable but who’s also been dead for 10 years. The only way to make it work would be to use it to illuminate our current culture. I don’t think Gilvarry is satirizing Mailer per se, but I do think his book does some of the latter. Eastman craves attention but does not understand (or often even care for) people, and in this it’s hard not to see him as a prototype for the kinds of men that populate Twitter and currently inhabit the White House. Eastman, whose “urges were totalitarian,” is a man-child premonition of the Age of Trump. In his identification of romance with entitlement, Eastman is the man in Bristol, U.K., who recently stirred up the Internet for his "romantic" gesture of playing the piano in a city park until his ex-girlfriend took him back (he stopped when he got punched at 4am). Eastman would approve of this man’s “passion.” For him, actions are always undertaken in order to gain something; he sees love as strategy, as power-play: Was it his damn career that always interfered with his love life? Certainly, his first marriage succumbed to his literary affairs. Back then the two always seemed to be competing. Now he felt one was going to solve the other. The problem of love could be resolved if his actions showed Penny that he had passion. Passion in his work. Passion by the fistful. There’s a kind of submerged, filtered, history of the present in Eastman Was Here. I hear something of both the Bush era’s embrace of "black sites" and of the Trump administration’s war on the media in reporters’ dismissals of the daily briefings at the Continental, which are full of nothings: “There is what we know and what they don’t tell us. So we work to find out. And there are the people who don’t want us to find out.” And the novel’s description of Vietnam War protestors reminds me of Occupy Wall Street: A protest was in progress at the foot of the park…Some of them, it seemed, had been camping out in the park. The nights had been warm enough. But this sudden encounter with youth gave him an intimation of tiredness. He could smell their fatigue through the musk and body odor and marijuana smoke. This generation was tired. They had been spit out, abused…Still, they were determined to keep their lives. Even more, we recognize Eastman’s understanding of literature in terms of celebrity. Boorishly pontificating to Channing, he lays out his modus operandi: I have the hindsight of almost twenty-five years in this business. Not the news, but in literature. And I did ask for all this success. I made it happen because that’s what I wanted and I wouldn’t settle unless I was considered one of the best writers in America. I know that sounds brash, egotistical, competitive, narcissistic, even pompous. But to be called any name you have to be somebody first. I needed to be a little of all of those things. If you have ideas that are controversial people remember them. For Eastman, self-awareness is unimportant. Here he is admitting—or “confessing” as he actually puts it—that his personality is a sham taken on in order to gain literary success. He’s a proto-Trump here not because his performance is at odds with a sincere core, but because any core is irrelevant if the “brash, egotistical, competitive, narcissistic, and pompous” bluster is convincing enough to get you noticed and get you on TV. This is exactly what Channing realizes: he was a celebrity writer, shooting his mouth off about feminism and race on television, and yet he retained a sort of dignity that followed men like Eastman around. It was unfair, really, when she thought about the man and his reputation. How a man could say so many stupid things and be exonerated after a short commercial break. This reality is what allows Eastman to constantly feel remorse for his awful behavior but never actually need to change it. He doesn’t need to be self-aware to succeed, and indeed the only time he ever shows a glimpse of it is when he feels threatened by a woman like Channing, who is a better reporter and war writer; this knocks his sense of his own virility, which is expressed and measured through being “one of the best writers in America.” 1973 doesn’t look too different from 2017.
A review of Elizabeth Hardwick is almost obliged to begin with the following facts: (1) she was born in Kentucky in 1916 and moved to Manhattan in the early 1940s with the self-declared aim of becoming a “New York Jewish intellectual;” (2) in 1963, along with Barbara and Jason Epstein and Robert B. Silvers, she helped found The New York Review of Books; (3) for more than two decades she was married to the famous—and famously “confessional”—poet Robert Lowell. Notable though these facts may be, however, they are hardly the reasons why Hardwick’s writing continues to be read. As the 55 essays gathered in the new Collected Essays make clear, Hardwick was one of the most penetrating literary critics of her time. Whether she was writing about Henry James or Renata Adler, Edith Wharton or Joan Didion, “every assignment got Hardwick at full sail,” as Darryl Pinckney says in his introduction. She was a “writer’s writer” without question—a prose stylist par excellence. Hardwick’s style is not for everyone. Her wit is subtle, her syntax sinuous, her learning deep, which is no doubt why her work is so seldom taught in the classroom. It is, in the best sense, un-teachable. “The essayist,” Hardwick once wrote, distinguishing him from the journalist, “does not stop to identify the common ground; he will not write, ‘Picasso, the great Spanish painter who lived long in France.’” Such refusal to stop and explain might easily be mistaken for snobbery today; Hardwick, however, saw it as a gesture of respect. She was not only a “writer’s writer,” she was also—silly though the phrase may be—a “reader’s writer.” She addressed her readers as equals, never wanting to bore them with what they already knew, or what, in the course of their reading, they would soon enough find out for themselves. Although Hardwick often made her living at universities, she kept aloof from the specialized babel of scholarship. In the Collected Essays, one finds a wonderful absence of “arguments” and a plenitude of splendid sentences, alive to nuance and allergic to jargon. Hardwick has a bit of a reputation as a doyenne of the take-down review, and it’s true that she is very good at disparagement, especially of conventional biographers and biographies. (“Full-length biographies are a natural occupation for professors,” she writes in a blistering evaluation of Carlos Baker’s Ernest Hemingway: A Life, “for only they have the inclination to look at life as a sort of dig.”) But Hardwick is equally good at formulating praise, as in her passionate plea for the reprinting of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children—a “genuine novel in the traditional meaning of the term…a story of life, faithfully plotted, clearly told, largely peopled with real souls.” “Real souls” were important to Hardwick. In her essays, as in her fiction, she combined a poet’s sensitivity to language with a novelist’s attention to character. Her great gift was to convey a sense of her subjects’ sensibilities, sketching them in a few swift strokes. Consider the beginning of her essay “Frost in His Letters”: Simplicity and vanity, independence and jealousy combined in Robert Frost’s character in such unexpected ways that one despairs of sorting them out. He is two picture puzzles perversely dumped into one box and, no matter how much you try, the leg will never go rightly with the arm, nor this brown eye with that green one. The progression of images here is elegant. The phrase “sorting them out” leads straight to the image of “two picture puzzles,” implying the pictures have already been cut to pieces even before they’re further jumbled in a single, person-shaped box. And this imagery isn’t just so much verbal window dressing; it’s a prelude to the rest of the essay, which will proceed to pick up some of these pieces and examine them, without ever pretending to “solve” the puzzle that is Frost. For Hardwick, a real soul is a complex one. This is partly why she so disliked “exhaustive” doorstop biographies, with all their endless endnotes filled with archival loot filched from “pharaonic tombs.” Her own approach to biographical matters was more circumspect and more artful. She could pen indelible portraits drawn from life, as in her recollection of her longtime acquaintance Edmund Wilson—“a cheerful, corpulent, chuckling gentleman, well-dressed in brown suits and double martinis.” But she could also conjure up writers she had never laid eyes on, drawing from their work and letters. Gertrude Stein, for example, is: as sturdy as a turnip—the last resort of the starving, and native to the old world, as the dictionary has it. A tough root of some sort; and yet she is mesmerized and isolated, castlebound too, under the enchantments of her own devising. No critic writes this way today. Few would have the chutzpah to rely so entirely on the power of metaphor and image. But to acknowledge this is not, for once, a matter of lamenting a lost midcentury literary milieu. Hardwick was a product of her time and place, yes, but she was herself possessed of a sensibility that set her apart even from her contemporaries. Her attunement to the art of the English sentence, together with her feeling for human character—her “thing about people,” as Pinckney calls it—made her a singular talent, and an enduring one. Her enduringness may be all the more remarkable if one considers how many of her essays began as book reviews (an ephemeral form if ever there was one). Indeed, the Collected Essays lays special emphasis on Hardwick’s work as a reviewer. Its centerpiece would seem to be “The Decline of Book Reviewing” (1959), a spirited critique of the “malaise” and tepid praise to be found in the Sunday New York Times and Herald Tribune, and which served as a fillip to the founding of the NYRB. There are several “non-review” essays in this new volume: memoirs of Italy and Brazil, profiles of Maine and Boston, reflections on the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there are many dozens of pieces that Hardwick wrote—for venues as various as Granta and Home & Garden—that have never been collected and that are not collected here, largely for reasons of length. In Pinckney’s introduction, he modestly compares this Collected Essays to the “first Collected Works of most poets,” because “its existence invites a revised collected.” For a Hardwick fanatic such as myself (who has stockpiled copies of nearly every scrap she ever published, down to a 1936 review in her college paper, The Kentucky Kernel), the absence of so many pieces seems to invite not so much another Collected Essays—one could hardly ask for a better one than Pinckney’s—but an Uncollected Essays, chosen to indicate the full range of Hardwick’s curiosity. Although she, for her part, may have regarded some of her magazine contributions as little more than pecuniary means to an end, she was just as impeccable when musing on Faye Dunaway, second-wave feminism, and grits soufflé as she was on Robert Frost or Gertrude Stein. If she took book reviews as occasions for essays more insightful than most scholarly monographs, she took even “puff pieces” as occasions for meditations far deeper, and more scrupulously composed, than the glossies perhaps knew what to do with. But The Collected Essays is in no sense a provisional volume; it’s an assemblage of essentials. Chronologically arranged as they are, these essays represent Hardwick’s intellectual autobiography, the stylish record of a reader steadily engaged by what T. S. Eliot called “the relations of literature—not to ‘life’ as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.” In Hardwick’s criticism, we discover nothing of the professor with her ax to grind or the peacock with her feathers to flaunt. We encounter an uncondescending intelligence, a humane sensibility, and a forthright independence of mind for which we, in our scatterbrained era, cannot be grateful enough.
1. Liars wrote Florida’s history, but screenwriters wrote Miami’s. The liars swindled tourists by inventing outlandish tales of treasure coast pirates who never existed. They tricked snowbirds into buying swampland sight unseen. Local tourism boards spun yarns about the Fountain of Youth, and upon this foundation of lies and limestone they built statewide industries of day tours, time shares, theme parks, and souvenirs. The screenwriters did something different. Instead of ginning things up, they toned things down. They took factual vignettes from Miami’s boom days and smoothed them out for mass-market consumption, creating sexy highlight reels of hot nights, glitz, and fast thrills. Whereas the most popular stories in Florida’s history were fabricated by marketers and speculators, the most popular Miami myths were borne from the truth. By simplifying them, the screenwriters took the tales nationwide. No city in America owes more of its reputation to popular culture and less to reported history than Miami. One reason is because the city, incorporated in 1896, lacks as much scholarly or critical examination as its older peers. There’s no Power Broker for Miami; there’s no City on the Make; and don’t get me started on Tom Wolfe. Yet it’s also because by now, with no disrespect to Arva Moore Parks, there are precious few historical or journalistic touchstones that could ever be more widely read than Miami Vice was viewed. In most imaginations, the closest thing Miami has to an essential story is Scarface. While flawed, maligned, and largely filmed in Los Angeles, the film successfully hit on the four foundational (and true!) pillars of Miami’s modern development: Cuban immigration, glamorous nightlife, its edgy underbelly, and the narcotics trade fueling it all. Because they came first and made the most noise, Scarface and Miami Vice solidified Miami’s reputation. Once America met Crockett, Tubbs, and Tony, they got the gist. Or so they thought. In Hotel Scarface, Roben Farzad uncovers the real stories that inspired those screenwriters. Along the way, he proves that the Magic City’s reality has always been wilder, deeper, and more complicated than it seems. Best of all, Farzad’s nonfiction account—freed from MPAA ratings and the FCC—includes some of the most salacious details the screenwriters couldn’t: pasta fetishes, CIA-backed narco-trafficking, Dom Pérignon baths and all. 2. Set in the age of Donna Summer and deviated septums, Hotel Scarface is about Coconut Grove’s infamous Mutiny Hotel and its members-only nightclub. Located steps from Biscayne at 2951 South Bayshore Drive, the Mutiny was at the time Miami’s version of the Tropicana Club, and would go on to serve as the inspiration for the Babylon in Scarface. Here, celebrities did the hustle alongside narco kingpins and the law enforcement officers building cases against them. During the club’s three decades in operation, you could be stayin’ alive with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Randy Newman, Frankie Valli, and The Eagles. If you stayed overnight, your ostentatiously decorated room might have been last occupied by Rick James, Led Zeppelin, Joe DiMaggio, or Tony Dorsett. If he wasn’t busy freebasing, you could blow rails in the bathroom with David Crosby. (He wrote a lousy song about the place.) So enmeshed were these groups that, at one point, an FBI wiretap was rendered useless because agents couldn’t hear their targets over Liza Minelli loudly asking her friend for another bump. It was the kind of place where you could blow $100,000 on a tab without even meeting the manager. In more than 50 short chapters, Farzad positions the Mutiny as an operational hub for the kingpins who opened the spigots of cash financing Miami’s rise. “By the turn of the decade,” Farzad writes, “the 130-room hotel and club was a criminal free-trade zone of sorts where gangsters could both revel in Miami’s danger and escape from it.” These were the outlaws who connected Peru and Colombia to the Bahamas, and eyed South Florida as their entrée to North America. Along the way, a thousand coca leaves (street value: $625) would turn into a kilogram of paste and high-quality base ($6,500), and then get cut and diluted into two kilograms of cocaine ($80,000). From there, it would be cut again and distributed across the U.S., and in this way, that $625 investment could turn into $600,000. These insane margins meant that by the 1980s, one third of Miami’s economy was narcotics-based. The whole city was in on it—knowingly or not. For want of money laundering, skyscrapers, dirty banks, and business fronts shot up. For want of quick bucks, support staff convened: hitmen, drivers, pilots, watermen, weapons importers, and prostitutes. At one point, the Moonflower Escort Company set up “a twenty-four-hour dispatch office on a yacht in the marina in front of the hotel” so it could service Mutiny clientele. Alongside these objectively criminal enterprises sprang businesses operating in gray areas. Who do you think serviced those cigarette boats? Luxury boutiques and exotic car dealerships opened because Miamians had so much money to spend. Exclusive clubs did the same. “You could mint millions a day and blow it all at the Mutiny, winking at the very cops who were until recently on your ass,” Farzad writes. Hence the complication. The story above is one simply told by a thousand screenwriters: drug dealers rise up, live large, meet babes, spar with rivals, and get killed or arrested. It identifies clear sides: good guys and bad guys. But the real story, as Hotel Scarface shows, goes deeper, and the lines are less clearly drawn. Those law enforcement officers and city officials who frequented the Mutiny? They were either directly involved in the drug trade or they were using the place for intelligence so they could build bigger cases—sometimes international ones. Those smugglers running drugs over the Florida Straits? They brought U.S. government-issued weapons back to Nicaraguan Contras, and sometimes they shuttled Contras and Cuban counter-revolutionaries into to the U.S. for CIA training. (Between the DEA, CIA, FBI, IRS, and a litany of in-state law enforcement agencies, there was no shortage of confusion.) Ricardo “Monkey” Morales made a living out of facilitating this kind of criminal-government overlap—and he frequently used the Mutiny as his headquarters. Howard Gary, Miami’s city manager, partied alongside Ray Corona, the founder of First Sunshine Bank. The two of them shared a cocktail table with a group of lawyers (“the cocaine bar”) who defended Miami’s most infamous dealers in court, and they all listened to music spun by a Mutiny DJ who was attending classes at the University of Miami. These guys financed cars and paid for breast implants for the Mutiny waitresses they liked the most. The government, the financial sector, big law, higher education, and medical institutions all benefited from drug money—when there’s enough to go around, who cares where capital comes from? How can you repossess fake breasts? Farzad quotes Attorney General William French Smith, who described some of these crooked officials’ eventual busts as demonstrative of “one of the most important aspects of the scope of drug trafficking activities: the penetration of the financial and business communities.” Years later, a former cocaine dealer who hung out with the biggest dealers of his day remarked that, had he and his buddies ever snitched on the precise level of that penetration, “there’d be a lot of institutions dead, rotting and stinking in Miami right now.” At its best, Hotel Scarface reads like South Florida’s version of The Westies, and native son Roben Farzad shares T.J. English’s eye for power dynamics. Farzad argues persuasively that revolutionary politics served as the dividing line between Miami’s first and second generations of Cuban-born cocaine cowboys. Dealers like Carlos “Carlene” Quesada and Rodolfo “Rudy Redbeard” Rodriguez Gallo, who dominated Miami’s drug trade in the 1960s, arrived in Florida at a time when Fulgencio Batista’s mafia- and U.S. government-backed Cuban regime was being overthrown by Fidel Castro. They didn’t expect to stay long, but while they waited out the counter-revolution, why not make some money in America? They brought over the mafia’s prevailing attitudes about municipal governments: that everything could be bought and sold. If not exactly Cosa Nostra, they even had a mob-driven sense of decorum. (At the Mutiny, Fridays were for mistresses, Saturdays for wives, and never the twain should meet.) The next era was ushered in by Cuban immigrants who’d come to America as very young children—some because of Operation Pedro Pan. For these narcos who grew up in Miami, and attended American high schools, there were fewer delusions about one day returning to Cuba and resettling their homeland. While they shared their predecessors’ aversion to violent crime, preferring to pay off rivals rather than kill them, men like Jorge Valdés, Willie Falcon, and Sal Magluta were self-aware criminals largely in it for themselves first, and the counter-revolution second: Though their blue-collar parents wanted them to study hard and chase the American dream—college degrees, doctor, lawyer, etc.—most instead dropped out of high school and chased a life of speedboat racing, good weed, and hot and loose women. “Death to Castro!”—sure. The Boys hated the bearded despot—detested him. They toasted every new year with hopes for a Cuba libre. It’s just that the hedonism of 1970s Miami wasn’t so bad in the meantime. By the 1980s, the wheels fell off. A third era began, one in which more nihilistic, violent criminals—some of them Marielitos—upped the ante. Their presence at the Mutiny wasn’t welcome. The old guard moved on to more exclusive clubs. After all, nothing is more American than climbing a ladder, and then pulling it up from under you. While the earlier cocaine cowboys held out incandescent hope about one day reclaiming their homeland with the help of backing from the U.S., the later generations saw no hope of working with the government. There’s was a more cynical attitude, ubiquitous by the time Joan Didion wrote Miami: Here between the mangrove swamp and the barrier reef was an American city largely populated by people who believed that the United States had walked away before, had betrayed them at the Bay of Pigs and later, with consequences we have since seen. Here between the swamp and the reef was an American city populated by people who also believed that the United States would betray them again, in Honduras and in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, betray them at all the barricades of a phantom war they had once again taken not as the projection of another Washington abstraction but as their own struggle, la lucha, la causa, with consequences we have not yet seen. They were also far less obedient to Mafioso codes, which meant they were also far more violent. Their arrival coincided with a shocking rise in the homicide rate. In 1978, Farzad notes, there were 243 murders in the Miami-Dade County. From 1979-1981, those numbers rose each year to 320, 515, and 621. By 1981, Time declared Miami “Paradise Lost.” This attracted national attention, and before long the “War on Drugs” was declared, the most flamboyant dealers were tracked down, and the Mutiny’s heyday came to an end. Farzad’s feat is taking readers along for that ride—it’s riveting stuff, and he does yeoman’s work linking the era’s politics to its popular culture. 3. Have times changed? In a sense. The Mutiny today is a luxury apartment building in which the median age of tenants approaches 85 years. Coconut Grove transitioned from a nexus of luxe nightlife into a dingier but nevertheless raucous hub of college bars, and then more recently it quieted down due to neighborhood complaints. Now you’re more likely to find a nice brunch than a nose bag. Gone are the days of the Dadeland Massacre and shootouts on U.S. 1; downtown Miami’s streets today are mostly bloodless. Yet in other ways, the city’s essence has remained the same. John Rothchild was entirely correct in 1982 when he wrote that “to describe crime as Miami’s problem would be like describing oil as Houston’s problem,” and he’s a different kind of correct today. Crime is still the lifeblood of South Florida, although these days that crime is committed with computers and conference calls in board rooms around the world. It involves a bevy of foreign actors, from Russians to Venezuelans and everyone in between. (Did you hear the one about the oligarch who bought Donald Trump’s $45 million home for $95 million, and then demolished it before ever setting foot on the property?) Instead of white powder, white collars are what’s fueling South Florida’s real estate development: the jet set treats cities like Miami as safety deposit boxes, setting up multi-layered shell companies and plunking anonymized cash into multimillion dollar condos, which sit empty while others buy the surrounding units. Last year, 90 percent of the new construction in Miami was purchased with cash. This year, the Treasury Department flagged 30 percent of surveyed luxury real estate transactions for “suspicious activity” and potential money-laundering. It doesn’t matter, though, because if enough super-wealthy absentee tenants buy in the same building (anonymously), they’ll eventually raise the value of one another’s purchases, which they can go on to sell to the next generation of jet setters for quick windfalls of cash. By the time law enforcement notices, the early investors have laundered all the money they used on their initial deposits, and turned hefty profits. Does it surprise anyone that after New York, Miami was the American city named most frequently in the Panama Papers? That change is reflected in relatively recent works of art, too. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels, which I lovingly call a sugar-free version of Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, demonstrates Miami’s current operational mode. In the book, which takes place almost exclusively in Key West, a criminal named Cot alternately works for, double crosses, and then evades his Mafioso benefactor holed up in a luxurious South Beach hotel. Readers never meet him. In other words, crime emanates from Miami but takes place far away from it, and the head honcho lives an unbothered life of comfort off the spoils. Likewise, the pilot episode of Justified begins when Raylan Givens shoots a hitman in broad daylight at South Beach’s Delano Hotel. (In Elmore Leonard’s “Fire in the Hole” story upon which the show is based, the shooting takes place at the Cardozo.) Givens, a U.S. Marshal, is punished with forced reassignment to rural Kentucky. After all, this is the Miami of the 21st century! The city may have approached 700 murders a year during its 1980s boom in narco-violence, but last year, there were 84. In the past, shootouts took place all over the city. Now, they’ve been pushed into certain under-served neighborhoods. (Last year, Miami was named the worst city in America in terms of income inequality, and that’s a big reason why.) As in Men in Miami Hotels, local criminal elements in Justified receive orders from their boss in Miami. Occasionally, the Magic City sends hitmen up to rural Kentucky to set matters straight. Miami is the center spoke on a wheel of crime, and it turns in all directions. In Bloodline, the Rayburn family was doing just fine until Danny took a southbound bus from Miami to his family’s palatial home in Islamorada. One consequence of this shift in popular reputation is that now Miami has become an aspirational brand for criminals who are no longer the ones getting their hands dirty. Miami is home to the boss’s boss; setting up shop in Miami signifies that you might be crooked but you don’t need to slum it anymore. Downtown, criminality has been gentrified. Brickell and Miami Beach have become havens for wealthy retirees—criminal and non. This is true in art: Lil Wayne rapped that gangsters don’t die, they “get chubby and they move to Miami,” and Fat Trel brags about drinking peach Ciroc while “in Miami, eating chicken, steak, and shrimp linguine.” It’s also true in life: the anonymous people paying cash for Bal Harbour apartments are definitely not on the up and up, but they are living large. Lydia Kiesling wrote that Florida is “America’s Orient,” which is true, but I’d argue that more and more Miami is becoming America’s Dubai. It’s a playground for the ostentatiously wealthy to flaunt their ill-gotten gains in resorts and hotels staffed by an increasingly powerless and impoverished local populace. These days, setting a narco crime thriller in Miami is as anachronistic as opening a speakeasy in Hell's Kitchen. (Need proof? The upcoming reboot of Scarface is set in Los Angeles.) If anything, what Miami needs now is a bitcoin-based Wolf of Wall Street reboot set in Sunny Isles. The Mutiny got shut down, but a new generation of wealthy criminals has turned all of Miami into the same thing. 4. At the time of this writing, with most of Florida recently savaged by Hurricane Irma, it feels gauche to invoke Atlantis. And yet, the parallels are undeniable. In Plato’s account, Atlantis was the city that antagonized Athens; its kings had the hubris to establish for themselves a society different from the idyllic Republic, which repelled Atlantean encroachments. The point Atlantis served in Plato’s story was to prove that there are consequences for societies that don’t follow the rules: sooner or later, if they don’t destroy themselves, the gods will abandon them and the seas will bury all they ever had. P. Scott Cunningham wrote that living in Miami “feels like living in the first third of a novel, in which the plucky protagonist is suffering setback after setback, but something must change, right, or why would there be so many pages left?” But what if Miami’s story really is a short one? What if it’s more of a novella? In “On Returning to Miami,” Nick Vagnoni writes to the city, “Maybe your sky seems aloof because / everyone comes here to forget, or maybe / there just isn’t much to remember here / yet.” Existence on the edge of Florida has always felt ephemeral, transient. Relatively speaking, the state’s barely been above water. Donald Justice wrote that he “will die in Miami in the sun,” and in the Mutiny’s days it was gunslingers you had to worry about, but aren’t the winds and the seas more likely to claim us all? And when that happens, who will money save?
Between 1898 and 1912, a madman was loose in America. Dozens of families across the country were murdered in their beds, bludgeoned with the blunt side of an axe. Some of their houses were set on fire. The bodies of many victims—if they were prepubescent girls—were posed after death, and there was evidence that the killer masturbated at the crime scene. The most notorious of these murders, the June 1912 slaughter of the Moore family and their house guests in Villisca, Iowa, shocked the nation and remains a staple of lurid Midwest folklore. The case was never solved. The Man From the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery, by noted baseball statistician Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James, offers an explanation not only for the Villisca murders, but for scores of other cross-country killings that spooked America at the turn of the century. The Jameses have an advantage that contemporary reporters and investigators did not: namely, access to newspaper archives, digital maps, and spreadsheets. Based on deep-dive analysis, they argue—elegantly and persuasively—that these seemingly haphazard murders were connected, and that one man is to blame. If that’s true, and if we attribute all of these slayings to him, we’re talking about the worst serial killer in U.S. history, responsible for more than 100 deaths. That body count dwarfs those of our heretofore most industrious bogeymen Gary Ridgway, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy. It’s a seismic allegation, and the Jameses acknowledge that readers are right to be skeptical. After all, how did a killer this prolific evade capture for so long? And more unbelieveable, how did subsequent generations of crime buffs fail to connect the dots on these killings? The Villisca murders alone have been dissected in at least two books, a documentary, several podcasts, an infinite heap of Reddit threads, and a widely panned horror movie. Yet, the case is as cold as ashes. One reason that the crimes remained disconnected a century ago was that information was disconnected. There was no FBI, no federal crime databases, and most investigations were left to small-town police or private detectives, some of whom were either amateurs or actual con men on the make for a quick buck. As the Jameses note, it was an era when cops relied on psychics and bloodhounds to unearth leads. Forensic science as we know it didn’t exist. Fingerprint records were still in their infancy. Crime scenes became mob scenes as neighbors and rubberneckers gathered to gawk and inadvertently taint evidence. Then there’s the matter of publicity. “Many people either never read the newspaper or skipped disinterestedly over stories about out-of-town murders,” the Jameses write. “Some people were illiterate. Farmers spent long days in the fields, particularly in midsummer, and went irregularly into town. Not everybody got the news.” In this kind of vacuum, crowdsourcing information or witnesses was like asking someone for directions to a town they’d never heard of. The third and most important reason that the crimes went unsolved, however, also explains the name of the book. The killer targeted houses that were a stone’s throw from railroad tracks. As the Jameses tell it, he rode the rails, roving from one murder to another, as anonymous and footloose as the hobos who still traveled by boxcar. He got work where he could, logging wood in some isolated camp for a few months before moving on to his next kill. His bloodlust took him as far afield as Florida, Washington state, Maine, Texas, Kansas, and points in between. But how do we know that these far-flung murders are related? The Jameses list 33 unique “signatures” that define the killer’s methodology and that recur with startling frequency at numerous crime scenes. Among them: victims’ proximity to railroad tracks, death by the blunt side of an axe, the killing of an entire family at once, the posing of bodies for erotic stimulation, blankets pulled over victims’ heads (perhaps to minimize blood spatter), covering windows and mirrors with cloth, doors locked or jammed shut, lamps without their chimneys left to light the crime scene—the list goes on. While any of these characteristics, or even a handful of them, might be observed at different crime scenes, it’s unlikely that they’d be observed at multiple crime scenes over several years and not be the handiwork of a single killer. And to their credit, the Jameses aren’t overeager to convince you that they’ve cracked the case. “I am not here to argue with you, and you can believe what you want to believe,” they write. Although the Jameses speculate that the killer began murdering people in 1898 and continued over the next decade (whereupon he either died, was imprisoned, or emigrated), they pinpoint 1911 and 1912 as “an aneurism” for axe murders. There were approximately 248 familicides in the U.S. between 1890 and 1920, an average of about eight families murdered per year. In general, entire families aren’t often killed together, and when they are there’s usually a suspect and a motive. By 1911, though, “axe murders start appearing like dandelions.” Besides the eponymous man from the train, an unrelated axe murderer simultaneously terrorized New Orleans (recounted in Miriam C. Davis’s excellent The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story), and a string of family murders rattled Acadia Parish, La. A creole woman named Clementine Barnabet confessed to the latter crimes, relating a gothic tale of voodoo, human sacrifice, and backwoods religion. The Jameses doubt that Barnabet actually killed anybody. It seems that the authorities may have agreed, since she was released from prison in 1923, only 10 years into her life sentence, never to be heard from again. The idea that axe murders somehow represented America’s id during a period of runaway modernization is one of the book’s many fascinating theses. “There are trends and fashions in crimes as much as in any other area,” the Jameses write. They cite the gunfighters of the 1870s, the train robbers of the 1880s, the celebrity gangsters of the 1930s, and the political assassinations of the 1960s. To that list we can add the airplane hijackings that were a hallmark of the 1970s, the rightwing extremists of the 1990s, the suicide bombings of the 2000s, the terrorism that is ubiquitous still, and our current national moment of white male rage. A similar point is made in Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, which tells the story of a troubled couple who burned down dozens of abandoned buildings on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 2012/13. “America fretted about its rural parts,” Hesse writes, itemizing the region’s economic backslide, “and the arsons were an ideal criminal metaphor for 2012.” Likewise, at the dawn of the 20th century, axe murder was a visceral rebuke to a period of technological disruption, including the spread of automobiles, airplanes, telephones, and electricity. Of course, it’s easy to overstate the symbolism here. Axes were a common household tool back then, left visible and easily filched in a woodpile near a family’s house or barn. It was a weapon of convenience rather than connotation. Still, you can’t help but read these murders as a parable of alienation. The lone drifter stalking the country by train, itself a mode of transport from a bygone era, to literally smash apart families with an instrument that evoked America’s timbered frontier. The murders suggest a melange of sexual frustration, dislocation, nostalgia, and anomie. It was one of the last criminal sagas in our national history to exploit the idea of America as a wilderness unspoiled by modernity, a country where you could still get away with murder. Indeed, “murder leaves the idea of murder hanging in the air,” the Jameses write, and in certain places it can also leave the residue of racism. The killer haunted the Deep South at a time when lynch mobs and vigilante justice were waning but still possible. “When a terrible crime occurred, people immediately assumed that black people had done it,” and local newspapers were often quick to parrot that notion. At least seven men were lynched for the killer’s crimes, and The Man From the Train records their names and suggests that they were innocent. The most unexpected (almost breathtaking, really) moment of the book comes 400 pages in when the Jameses tell us the name of this mysterious killer. The disclosure attests to the heroic nature of archival research. Chasing a reference from a 1901 Boston Globe article, Rachel McCarthy James used Google Books to browse an obscure 1904 history of the Worcester, Mass., police department, and there, in a brief note about the 1898 murder of the Newton family, was the name of a suspect who was last seen boarding the 1 a.m. train. “Not a trace of him has been found since,” the note added. The Jameses have found more than a trace of this vanished killer, and The Man From the Train is a riveting, evocative feat of reportage and historical sleuthing. It’s a true crime thriller, but it’s also an audacious whodunit in which the mystery is both who the killer was and how the authors managed to excavate his identity more than a century later. It’s also, finally, a testament to the forgotten casualties of history, those unlucky victims who were murdered and buried without justice, and blameless people who were accused of the crimes.. The book serves as an epitaph for them. Ghosts are written into its pages.
Everyone knows war is hell, but those in war have their own versions of hell to tell. Spoils, the debut novel from Brian Van Reet, weaves together three narratives of three combatants in the Iraq War to show with profound depth and power just how complicated hell can be. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t really address many of the controversies leading up to the war, such as the Bush administration’s false claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or the false claim/implication that Hussein was allied with Al Qaeda and thus somehow involved in the 9/11 plot. In fact, Van Reet doesn’t much acknowledge at all that the war was essentially a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation based on false pretenses. But still, his purpose is to craft a narrative of the war on the ground as it happened, to capture its vicissitudes and the moral crises they beget. And that he does remarkably well. Cassandra Wigheard, a 19 year-old American gunner, is a strong-minded and strong-willed soldier with an acute sense of purpose complicated by the cruel ambiguity of the war. Like her mythological Trojan namesake, she is a prophet of calamity. Her narrative—the only one in the third person—emits a palpable heat that at times is almost unbearable in its rapid, deliberative intensity, as if it were a rendered frenetically under the unremitting glare (and clarity) of the Iraqi sun. It succeeds in connecting the unsentimental reality of grinding warfare with the tragic hubris of military aggression, whether the theatre of war be Troy or Baghdad. The wariness and infirmity Cassandra sees pervading the local population is a surreal realm of suffering and deprivation, and it’s not clear to her how or if the war effort will ultimately turn these long-suffering people’s lives around. You get the sense she has deep-seated doubts, but she’s also there, there’s no way out, and there’s a war on. She’s duty-bound, whether she believes in the mission or not. The insurgent Abu Al-Hool is a sharp contrast to Cassandra. His narrative is a morose, reflective account of the mind of a committed jihadist whose ideas have changed as he’s aged. Whereas Cassandra’s deliberation is razor-sharp and urgent, Al-Hool is melancholy and conflicted. He’s a veteran of the wars against the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but now he sees jihadism as having been perverted by unscrupulous, murderous actors. “The war on the ground is secondary to the greater jihad: the more difficult, inner struggle,” he reflects. Al-Hool is the soul of what has in effect become a soulless movement. He thinks the atrocities of 9/11 were a terrible mistake and that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are corrupted and misguided. Of all things, however, what truly haunts Al-Hool is the loss of his son, Hassan, to the war in Chechnya. Al-Hool’s narrative wearily reveals the prevailing nihilism of jihadist movements like ISIS and Al Qaeda, but it also dwells on something more familiar to all of us: the tension between loyalty to a cause and loyalty to family. Al-Hool left his own privileged life and family in Egypt to join the fight in Afghanistan, and his son did the same in Chechnya. The difference was that his son died and he didn’t, which forces him to come to terms with the reality of violent struggle itself, and whether it’s worth it at all. The third narrative is that of Sleed, a young U.S. service member lacking the compelling interest to the reader of Cassandra and Al-Hool. He experiences the killing of civilians, the ruin of Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds and their reclamation as the Green Zone, and, finally, the 2004 battles in Fallujah, some of the most fiercely contested of the entire war. At times Sleed’s narrative can feel tacked on, superfluous even, but it serves a significant purpose in the scheme of the novel. Through him, readers get the unvarnished perspective of a soldier with seemingly no preconceptions, strong values, or clear objectives. He’s just there, in essence, so his experience distills with clarity the fraught nature of the conflict, its moral dubiousness. It’s as if Sleed is just reporting about the war, but what he reports is as harrowing as it is hollowing. Yet the moment his narrative ends, you easily forget him. Cassandra’s narrative, on the other hand, reasserts itself powerfully throughout the novel, but war isn’t her only focus. She presents an unsparing view of the epidemic of sexual violence and harassment in the U.S. military. Before the war, she’s stationed in Kuwait, where she endures myriad misogynistic and homophobic slurs: “Goddamn men,” she thinks. As time goes on, her despair in the face of toxic masculinity deepens and she wishes she’d been “born a part of their little club. Not a wish to change gender, exactly, but that she’d been given an easier birthright to power.” Her anger peaks after the rape and beating of Sgt. Williams, a former bunkmate of hers. The perpetrator is never apprehended. When Cassandra hears some of male service members whispering about Williams, “the cruel innocence in how they talk about it” reminds her of the way “children sometimes torture each other.” She estimates it takes 48 hours for “untended men to descend to the level of beasts.” A Defense Department report from 2015 estimated 20,300 service members were victims of sexual assault in 2014 alone. The report also found 22 percent of active-duty women and seven percent of active-duty men reported being the victims of at least some form of sexual harassment. Rape and sexual violence are used all over the world by military aggressors against their enemies, and that of course is vile. Yet, casualties of war are rarely considered as victims of sexual violence perpetrated by their fellow soldiers. Van Reet exposes this damningly well through Cassandra’s unflinching account this heinous state of affairs. And sexual predators in the U.S. military are not the only examples of abject vileness in the novel. The morally bankrupt and ruthless Dr. Walid—nominal leader of the insurgent faction seeking conflict with the Americans—imperils everyone involved with him through his toxic ideology. Cassandra—for the better part of the novel a prisoner of Walid’s—awaits her fate. Al-Hool, disillusioned with Dr. Walid, betrays the latter’s location to American authorities and a battle between the insurgents and the Americans ensues. Separately, Al-Hool tries to reclaim a sense of purpose by entering the field of battle for the final time, without Walid and his minions—this time in Fallujah. “I’ve lived past my time,” he says, “and put this off much too long—long enough to know the hardest fight is the fight against your own anger. Compared with that, this will be easy. This I’ll do without anger. I’ll do it with something like longing in my heart.” But Cassandra comes to see the predicament of war in less certain terms than Al-Hool does. The dichotomy of soldier and enemy has long since collapsed by novel’s end. Unlike many ideologues with the comfort of a civilian life in government, those tasked with carrying out war may not end up seeing its reality in ideological terms. Cassandra shows repeatedly throughout the novel she’s a survivor, that she has guts. But let’s not get carried away. Ernest Hemingway once dismissed the notion of having “guts” in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris in 1926 when he wrote “guts never made any money for anybody except violin string manufacturers.” And surely Cassandra doesn’t think in terms of money, and she never loses her courageous resolve. But by the end of the novel, the only thought to “guts” she pays, maybe wisely, is how to not have them spilled in battle. War often becomes about survival; the rest is noise and silence. Cassandra knows how constricting, cruel, and empty the theatre of war can be. She knows war is hell, and that hell doesn’t discriminate.