Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
1. Wisdom in the Wit
If you share my fascination with the mysterious ways writers get made, you’ll be thrilled by a new book called Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. Edited by a long-time Portis devotee, the Arkansas-based writer Jay Jennings, this collection is a virtual connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in the newsrooms of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Arkansas Gazette and the New York Herald Tribune, the papers where Portis worked as a reporter and columnist from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s. After a year as the Herald Tribune’s London correspondent, Portis left newspapering in 1964 and went back home to Arkansas to set up shop as a novelist. Over the next quarter-century, he produced five novels that are universally regarded, by those who bothered to read them, as classics.
The move — up? — from journalism to fiction puts Portis in good company. The list of American novelists and short story writers whose careers were hatched in the clattering typhoon of a newspaper city room is both long and lustrous. It includes, to name a few, Twain, Hemingway, Dreiser, Steinbeck, Ring Lardner, Margaret Mitchell, Tom Wolfe (a colleague of Portis’s at the Herald Tribune), and the criminally under-appreciated Ward Just. Now, thanks to dogged Jay Jennings, we can add Charles Portis to the list.
Here’s how Wolfe described his former colleague’s transition from journalist to novelist: “Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific…. A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.”
Wolfe’s trademark hyperventilation is meant to imply that it’s unthinkable that anyone could write successful novels in a backwater like Arkansas. The truth is that novelists can work absolutely anywhere, and more than a few people think they’re better off far away from the media hum, high cost of living, and obsessive mirror gazing that go on in places like Wolfe’s adopted hometown of New York City. Besides, Portis didn’t write fiction about Arkansas; he wrote fiction out of Arkansas.
In his introduction to Escape Velocity, Jennings cites, chapter and verse, the many instances when Portis’s funny, sharply observed — and occasionally heroic — newspaper reporting presaged his fiction. Jennings rightly notes that Portis was blessed with two tools vital to every successful reporter and novelist: an ear for the music of spoken language, and an eye for illuminating physical details. So in an article about a PR stunt by a gaggle of Memphis Jaycees dressed up in Confederate uniforms, Portis reports that one of them was “wearing a Harry Truman shirt and Japanese sandals.” It is precisely the sort of detail Portis would make up, by the long ton, in his fiction.
At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Alabama, Portis watched the flames from two enormous crosses lick the night sky. “There were a lot of bugs in the air, too,” he wrote, “knocking against the crosses and falling into open collars.” Surely Portis was remembering that scene when he wrote these lines about Norwood Pratt’s family in his first novel:
They later moved to a tin-roof house that was situated in a gas field under a spectacular flare that burned all the time. Big copper-green beetles the size of mice came from all over the Southland to see it and die in it. At night their little toasted corpses pankled down on the tin roof.
Though it’s not mentioned in Escape Velocity, I feel sure Portis was forced to sit through some hellish gatherings of Southern bluebloods during his stint as a reporter in Little Rock. This description of an elderly lady in Norwood, with its mention of an obscure fallen hero of the Confederacy, has the ring of lived experience:
She claimed descent from the usurper Cromwell and she read a long paper once on her connections at a gathering of Confederate Daughters, all but emptying the ballroom of the Albert Pike Hotel in Little Rock. This was no small feat considering the tolerance level of a group who had sat unprotesting through two days of odes and diaries and recipes for the favorite dishes of General Pat Cleburne.
The following description of the media mob that descended on Little Rock in 1959, for the reopening of the public schools two years after they’d been shut by tensions over integration, captures Portis’s scorn for his fellow journalists: “They came early to Hall High School, about 100 of them, and stood around in little groups of wilted Dacron and damp mustaches, chattering and picking each others’ brains. The photographers diddled with their cameras and shot everything in sight. The reporters engaged in small talk, shop talk and speculation, occasionally taking notes on nothing.”
Anyone who has worked as a newspaper reporter covering a non-news event, as I have, will tell you that there’s wisdom embedded in this wit. But there was nothing funny about the way Portis ended his account of a 1962 boiler explosion that killed 21 workers, mostly young women, in a New York Telephone Company building: “A pair of high-heeled shoes stood upright in a bare spot where there must have been a desk. A disembodied phone was on the floor ringing, its little red extension light winking. I wondered who was calling but I did not answer it.”
Portis’s most impressive, even astounding, journalism was his coverage of civil rights unrest in the South for the Herald Tribune. One Saturday night in May of 1963 he was in Bessemer, Ala., covering the aforementioned Ku Klux Klan rally — a dangerous assignment given the Klan’s hatred for the news media, especially a reporter from the Yankee snake pit of New York City. After returning to his hotel in Birmingham, Portis and other reporters were jolted by the “dull whoomp” of an explosion. They rushed four blocks to the damaged Gaston Motel in time to see the birth of a long night of rioting. Portis dodged thrown bottles and bricks, even the police department’s armored vehicle, while gathering material. The next day, working under brutal deadline pressure, he filed a lyrical, vivid story of nearly 2,000 words, along with a sidebar about the Klan rally that included this wry passage:
One of the favorite speakers was a man in red who warned of sickle-cell anemia, “a deadly organism lurking in all nigger blood.”
“If so much as one drop of nigger blood gets in your baby’s cereal,” he said, “the baby will surely die in one year.” He did not explain how he thought a negro would come to bleed in anyone’s cereal.
But Portis reserved his most withering scorn for the sidebar’s closing lines: “By 10:30 p.m. one of the crosses had collapsed and the other was just smoldering. Everyone drifted away and the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.”
It is a masterpiece of deadline reporting — of newspaper writing — of writing — that has rarely been equaled in American journalism.
2. Teardrops, Adultery, Diesel Trucks
In addition to these revelatory newspaper articles, Escape Velocity contains travel writing, four short stories, a “one-off” memoir, a play, a rare interview, and tributes from Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, Ron Rosenbaum, Donna Tartt, and Wells Tower.
The interview, a long conversation between Portis and fellow Gazette alumnus Roy Reed, will delight fans who have become accustomed to Portis’s maddening reticence. Here, for once, he opens up, talking about some of the prosaic stories he covered in addition to the school integration wars — “State Fair stories, murders, ice storms…a big cock-fighting meet in Garland County.” When Reed asks what got Portis interested in studying journalism in the first place, he replies, “I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college. Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.”
While that interview and the newspaper writing are, for me, the meat of the book, there are tasty bits throughout, including a travel piece called “The New Sound from Nashville,” which was the cover story of the Saturday Evening Post on Feb. 12, 1966, a few months before Portis’s first novel came out. I approached this article more as a fact checker than as a casual reader, for I had worked as a morning-drive disc jockey in Nashville in the 1980s, and I like to think I know a few things about the place. I was eager to see if Portis’s reporting rang true. He won me over with his opening:
Nashville, the Athens of the South, is home to Vanderbilt University, Fisk University and at least half a dozen other colleges, as well as a symphony orchestra, a concrete replica of the Parthenon and a downtown beer joint called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Tootsie’s is where the country music people hang out — those who don’t object to beer joints…. On Saturday nights, performers on the Grand Ole Opry step out the stage door and cross an alley and go in the back door of Tootsie’s to get aholt of themselves between sets with some refreshing suds.
Tootsie’s was still in business when I lived in Nashville, though the Opry had decamped from nearby Ryman Auditorium to a glittering new palace way out on Briley Parkway. Portis’s sketch of Tootsie’s was still valid nearly two decades after he wrote it: “Tootsie’s is like a thousand other beer joints in the South with such names as Junior’s Dew Drop Inn and Pearl’s Howdy Club, and a certain type of country boy feels right at home there, whether he has $250,000 in his pocket or just came in on the bus from Plain Dealing, La., with a guitar across his back and white cotton socks rolled down in little cylinders atop his grease-resistant work shoes. And a song in his heart about teardrops, adultery, diesel trucks.”
This bus rider from Louisiana hints at Portis’s understanding of the central fact of Nashville: by 1966 the city was already on its way to becoming what it is today, a songwriter’s town. I knew dozens of songwriters just like that guy from Plain Dealing, La., with his white cotton socks and his grease-resistant work shoes. One of them lived downstairs from me — a lot of late-night beer drinking and guitar thwanking and unpromising singing. “At one time, in true folk tradition,” Portis writes, “just about every country singer wrote his own songs…. The singer-songwriter is still very much around — Roger Miller sings his own material — but in recent years there has been a proliferation of nonperforming writers. It is a precarious trade.”
While I was living on 17th Avenue in Nashville, the singer Lacy J. Dalton had a hit song about the dreamers of this precarious dream then flocking to nearby 16th Avenue, otherwise known as Music Row. Went like this:
From the corners of the country,
From the cities and the farms,
With years and years of livin’
Tucked up underneath their arms,
They walked away from everything
Just to see a dream come true.
So God bless the boys
Who make the noise
On 16th Avenue.
Another thing Portis got exactly right is the deep gully that separates the citizens of Nashville from the country music crowd. “The Athenians of the South go one way, and the country music people another,” he writes. “Less than 10 percent of the Opry audiences come from the Nashville area. Middle-class Nashvillians, anxious lest they be mistaken for rubes, are quick to inform the visitor that they have never attended the show. It is not for them, this hoedown.”
I attended the Opry just once — with a backstage pass from a keyboard player I knew. I did not encounter Loretta Lynn, as Portis did. She told him all about her recent trip to Europe, then pleaded, “Put in your article about how bad the toilet paper is over there. I wish you could see it, hun, you wouldn’t believe it.”
On the night I attended the Opry, I got invited onto Mel Tillis’s idling tour bus between sets. Mel was drinking a can of Stroh’s beer and playing poker with some of the boys from his backup band, The Statesiders. Mel and I were introduced, and we chatted for a while about the screenplays we were writing. He was collaborating with Roy Clark; I was going solo. The ice broken, I ventured the opinion that Porter Wagoner, another performer that night, sounded like a drowning duck.
“S-s-s-say what you w-w-w-w-w-wanna say about Porter’s s-s-singin,” Mel replied in his famous stammer, “but he’s g-got the b-b-b-b-biggest d-dick in country music.”
The drummer flung his cards in the air and fell to the floor of the bus, cackling till he had a coughing fit. I didn’t have the wits to ask Mel how he knew about the size of Porter Wagoner’s penis. This is a true story. I feel sure Charles Portis, who has been backstage at the Opry, would believe it in a New York minute.
3. I Can’t Breathe!
In his introduction, Jennings remarks that another of Escape Velocity’s travel pieces, “An Auto Odyssey Through Darkest Baja,” showcases all the elements that make Portis’s writing so unique and timeless: “unpretentious diction, an expert ear for the spoken word, deep knowledge worn lightly, stoic acceptance of trying circumstances, skill with internal combustion engines, and more pure reading pleasure than I’d enjoyed in a long time.” I would argue that deep knowledge worn lightly is the rarest and most valuable of these virtues. Skill with internal combustion engines should not be underestimated, as in this piece of high praise for a smooth-running Buick Invicta: “The engine was idling but making no more noise than a rat peeing on a sack of cotton.”
The “Auto Odyssey” article was the result of a 1966 roadtrip Portis and a buddy took from Los Angeles to La Paz, located near the tail end of “that empty brown peninsula” known as Baja California. They rode in a “rat-colored 1952 Studebaker half-ton pickup.” Again, this crazy mission roused the fact checker in me, for I have also driven the grueling length of the Baja peninsula — as the wheelman on a used-up Isuzu Trooper, carrying a German film crew from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas as they shot a travel documentary.
I can report that Portis nails the surreal experience — the heat, the dust, the tendency for tires to blow out on the washboard side roads (the main road was paved all the way when I made the trip, a major improvement over the conditions Portis encountered in the 1960s); the tendency for motor vehicles to throw up their hands and quit under such trying conditions; the fact that the empty brown peninsula is full of colorful characters (including one we found living alone in a teepee in a canyon next to a gigantic ceramic iguana); the fact that everyone you meet is a mechanic who is happy to work on your rig but never quite seems to fix it. (Travel advisory: the citizens of Cuba are much better shade-tree mechanics.)
Now that Jennings has gathered together this magnificent miscellany, I say it’s time for him to follow it up with a chrestomathy of Portis-isms. It would be easy to fill a volume with the names of the characters, places, business establishments, clothing items, food, shopping lists, motor vehicles, aircraft, firearms, and tourist attractions sprinkled like hot ingots throughout Portis’s fiction and non-fiction.
Here are the names of just a few of his characters: Ray Midge, Sherman Lee Purifoy, Norwood Pratt, Lamar Jimmerson, Dub Polton, Professor Cezar Golescu, President Eutropio Melanoma, Rooster Cogburn, Dr. Reo Symes, Whit and Adele Gluters, Grady Fring the Kredit King, and the midget Edmund B. Ratner, the world’s smallest perfect man. The heroic members of Fox Company in the Korean War short story, “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” are named Sgt. Zim, Neap, Dill, Vick, Bogue, Ball, and Sipe. Sounds like a law firm staffed by lunatics. Yet here lies the key to Portis’s success as a novelist: he feels tremendous tenderness for every one of his characters, like the forbearing father of some unruly but loveable brood.
Here’s a pair of signs that Portis says should have been alternately flashing outside a motel called the Ominato Inn where he once stayed:
NOT QUITE A DUMP
AT DUMP PRICES
And, finally, here’s a smorgasbord from a 1992 short story called “Nights Can Turn Cool in Viborra.” It’s the story of Chick Jardine, “winner of five gold Doobie Awards for travel writing!”, and how he hooks up with Jason and Mopsy Crimm on the Tessair Fokker flight into that paradise known as Viborra, where they stay at the deluxe Pan-Lupus Hotel. The travel writer and the tourists hunt for bargains on “belts, yo-yos, fishnet tank tops, heavy woolen shower curtains, and tortoise-shell flashlights.” They admire “the slavering ferocity of the women gnawing on leather (to soften it) at the Arses Lupus Belt and Purse Co-op.” They enjoy a leisurely stroll along the bay front promenade, where, Chick reports, “We ate flavored ices and watched the children clubbing rat fish in the shallows.”
Chick offers the Crimms some savvy tips for enjoying Carnival in Viborra: “Wear casual clothes…beware the melon ambush…keep a sharp lookout for boulders and burning tires rolling down the hillside streets.” Like Portis, Chick holds his fellow members of the fourth estate in less than the highest regard: “We went to the bar to kill some time and found it filled with English travel writers in suede shoes and speckled green suits. What a scene! They were laughing and scribbling and asking how to spell ‘ogive’ and brazenly cribbing long passages of architectural arcana from their John Ruskin handbooks, which are issued with their union cards.”
All this from one little bitty nine-page short story. Imagine what Jay Jennings could do if he mined the entire Portis oeuvre! What a scene! What a book! Or, to quote Ring Lardner, another journalist who tried his hand at fiction: I can’t breathe!
This is the first book review I’ve written in nearly three years, since I hung up my reviewing socks following a stint at Publishers Weekly’s online division, where I was paid handsomely in American currency to review books about sports and music. Those books were assigned to me based on a rough affinity for the subject matter. I liked baseball and Phil Spector music and funny writing, so I was assigned books about baseball, Phil Spector and the music industry, naturally.
Despite my purported interest in the subject matter, however, I often disliked the books assigned to me. Perhaps this was a residual effect of years of assigned reading at school. These books, looming over my reading list like a colonoscopy, found me angry and tired. Still, I gave them a fair shake. A few rose above to really impress me. Others offered diversion or momentary entertainment before lapsing into unrelenting mediocrity. Several were nearly too dreadful to finish.
When I reviewed books, I tried to find their best qualities first. To do so, I often imagined a book’s ideal reader. Every book, after all, has its intended audience, and maybe an underemployed, poorly paid book reviewer wasn’t it. Perhaps somebody else, someone with a different background and no taste, might find merit in a memoir about the early days of off-shore gambling. Stranger things have come to pass. Still, it seems rare that a book finds it ideal reader, and rarer still that said reader is also in a position to write a long and self-referential review of it.
Occasionally, though, God reaches down and places the right book in the right reader’s hands. Such a moment occurred a few weeks ago when I received a new book in the mail. In this particular scenario, however, God was a New York publicist named Kate.
This prelude exists largely to explain why you might not like Richard Rushfield’s memoir Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost as much as I did. You might not be able to access its bleak, wintry setting. Perhaps the events of the narrative, the college experiences of the wayward young Rushfield, won’t appeal to you. If so, I understand. Maybe you went to a state school.
On the face of it, Richard Rushfield and I are not that similar. I went to a competitive academic school in the late 1990s while Rushfield toiled (figuratively) at weirder-than-thou Hampshire College in the 1980s. I made friends relatively easily and dragged myself to class with frequency. Rushfield joined an infamous band of outsiders, The Supreme Dicks, eventually achieving full pariah status in only a few years. And yet, of all the people in the world who might read this book, none would enjoy it as much as I. For one thing, I love campus literature. My favorite novel is Lucky Jim, and my favorite Updike story is “The Christian Roommate.” I also enjoy books whose characters simply can’t get out of their own way. Toby Young (who blurbed this book, I notice) wrote an excellent memoir in much this fashion, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. There’s just something about people lighting themselves on fire, I suppose.
Rushfield begins to self-immolate almost immediately upon setting foot on the Hampshire College campus. Located in Amherst, Massechusetts, Hampsire is part of the five college system, along with Amherst, UMass, Smith and Mount Holyoke. It’s committed to alternative education, meaning it gives no grades and offers its students the opportunity to craft their own education around the subject matter that interests them. It’s this freedom that attracts him. Well, that and the promise of a single room.
Hindered in part by his aversion to marijuana, Rushfield has some difficulty navigating the social world of Hampshire, with its abundance of Hippies and “Preppy Deadheads”: students who came from elite prep schools but embraced aspects of hippie culture, such as hackysack, the Grateful Dead and dreadlocks (another term for this demographic is the Frisbee Elite). Rushfield drifts along on the periphery of the school, skipping nearly every class and living a mostly solitary life.
When he’s caught scrawling some graffiti on someone’s Bob Marley poster, he’s exiled from the dorms and forced to find a new place to live. He turns to The Supreme Dicks, the most reviled people on campus.
It’s here that the book hits its stride, finding its heroes and establishing a rich mythology that few memoirs ever achieve. One part commune, one part experimental post-punk band, The Supreme Dicks live in one of the college’s modular housing units deep in the woods. From their remote location, they operate as their own world, complete with its own philosophy, a bastardized version of the teachings of Wilhelm Reich.
Richard, it turns out, had been warned about the Dicks from the very beginning:
Back in my first week at Hampshire, Lonnie had taken me aside, in his characteristic manner that was the more terrifying for its seeming concern that he was anxious for my safety, and warned me that there was a group of evil, despicable people at the school. Horrible, dreadful, terrible, he said, spitting adjectives until he was gasping for breath. He didn’t want to scare me but he had reason to believe that these people, who called themselves “the Supreme Dicks,” might try — he kneaded my shoulder with a caring hand — might try to talk to me. You see, he continued, he had noticed that I bore a resemblance to one of them — one of their leaders who had left the school after, Lonnie went on, eyebrow arched, his brother had died…My heart raced. Weird people, with some tragic secret, will want to talk to me?
Talk to him they do, and eventually Rushfield takes refuge in their ranks. It’s there, in the woods, that he discovers that life with the Dicks is a surreal and often directionless experience. For instance, roughly thirty pages is given to describing a night when the group, hungry and cold, plots a trip to the new Denny’s two towns over. Despite a mounting panic about whether they’d have anything to eat that night, their inability to organize an expedition, even in the face of hunger pains, takes on an hallucinogenic quality, as they wander around the campus like Bedouin scavengers, looking for the path of least resistance.
To pigeonhole the Dicks as anti-hippie would be to simplify a mysterious movement, a group composed of people from across the racial, sexual and generational spectrum (several of the Dicks are approaching their second decade as Hampshire College students when the book begins). One couldn’t rightly call them nihilists, as they have a core of beliefs, what with their Reichian theories and their belief in celibacy and vegetarianism. And yet, they seem to oppose more or less everything and everyone else. And therein, I think, lies the greatness of this book.
At its heart, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a memoir of opposition, of resistance. Rushfield and the Dicks position themselves as the “other” at a school that is all about embracing that which is different or marginalized, so long as that marginalization feels earned by genuine oppression. The Dicks, a mix of rich and poor, white and non, straight and gay, defy easy categorization, and unsurprisingly, meet with scorn.
That the Dicks emerge as the unlikely heroes of the book is testament to Rushfield’s storytelling abilities. He has talent for exposing the hypocrisies and idiocies of the typical Hampshire armchair revolutionary. The more the college slides further and further into left-wing, politically correct fascism, the more Rushfield and his friends seem like the voices of reason.
Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost contains many elements of the typical college narrative: the confusion of orientation, the perils of dorm life, the relationships formed and dissolved in a matter of days or hours. There’s even a ridiculously ill-conceived trip to Daytona Beach for spring break. But nothing at Hampshire happens as one would expect. Every situation is coated with a thick haze of drugs and radical politics, rendering it both familiar and foreign at the same time. The effect is a small, messy, often infuriating world, a world I nevertheless enjoyed inhabiting for a few hundred pages. By the end of the book, I found myself agreeing with the graffiti Rushfield finds in the library soon after arriving at Hampshire: “Supreme Dicks rule, OK.” But then again, they’re preaching to the choir with me.
I first heard about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about twenty years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My classmates and I were all reading Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and our English teacher attempted to guide our reading choices to higher-brow material.”I think it’s great that you’re all reading so much,” she said. “But when you’re choosing books to read, try to read classics.” She mentioned, for example, that she had recently read Far From the Madding Crowd while recovering from surgery.I had no intention of abandoning King or Koontz, but I did check out a copy of Hardy’s novel from the public library. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. The first two paragraphs had enough unfamiliar vocabulary and tonal foreignness to repel me as a thirteen-year-old:When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people and the drunken section.It took me ten years to try another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I read and loved after my first year as an English teacher myself. The pleasures afforded by Hardy’s fiction, I realized, require patience, a more mature appreciation of language, wider knowledge of the adult world, and a sense of the past. (Google is helpful, too, in deciphering Hardy’s obscure mythological and Biblical references.)This summer, as I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd for another go, I was better equipped to appreciate Hardy’s wryly delicate humor in passages like the following: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”Funny – and, indeed, as in Tess and The Return of the Native, in this novel Hardy concerns himself with love’s entanglements. Bathsheba Everdene, a young and imperious beauty, named for the woman who occasioned King David’s sinful plotting, finds herself involved not in a romantic triangle, but a romantic quadrilateral, as three men vie for her affections. Their names, like hers, are evocative of their identities: Oak, the solid shepherd; Boldwood, the increasingly audacious farmer; and the Troy, the scoundrel as fallen as the citadel that is his namesake.There’s a reason that the romantic triangle is such a commonly-used fictional device: it has a geometric elegance, a pointedness that keeps a story moving. The romantic quadrilateral is harder to make work. Hardy does it well enough that 135 years later people are still reading the book. Compared to later works like Tess and Native, though, this one – the earliest of Hardy’s best – known novels – is a bit of a disappointment.For one thing, it lacks a narrative center. This romantic quadrilateral is nothing so neat as a square or a rectangle. It’s more ungainly – an irregular trapezoid, perhaps. It’s difficult work to set up three suitors in a reasonably rounded way, and while Hardy’s developing one, the other two tend to fade to the background. In the end, the male characters come perilously close to being as wooden as their names or, in Troy’s case, a bit too starkly villainous.At times the plot’s contrivances seem arbitrary, meant to force the narrative (originally published serially in a magazine) in its intended direction without especial regard for plausibility: Oak lies down in an apparently abandoned wagon, whose owners return and just so happen to be heading to Bathsheba’s farm; Troy nearly drowns and, believed dead, runs off to America to join the circus for a convenient span of time, returning just when his presence will cause the most upheaval.Bathsheba herself, vain, proud, described by one of the men who marries her as “this haughty goddess, dashing piece of womanhood, Juno-wife of mine,” seems to be a rough draft for Eustacia Vye, the more famous heroine of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Eustacia (a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s, you may recall) is, in Hardy’s description, “the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well,” he writes, for “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” In comparison to Eustacia, Bathsheba is too kind, too mortal, and less vivid.In other ways, too, Madding seems a rough draft of Native, which arranges its characters not in a triangle or quadrilateral, but in overlapping Venn diagrams of desire. In both novels, some characters come to tragic ends, some are seared by their experiences but survive, chastened but wiser. Return of the Native was published in 1878, four years after Far From the Madding Crowd, and in most ways it’s a better book. It has a sharper sense of place; a more forceful narrative arc; more emotionally weighty and realistic plot turns; and, despite a rather tedious beginning in which backstory is provided by the gossip of eccentric country folk, less of such stock characters, whose humorousness has not aged well.I guess you could say that my eighth grade teacher gave me a bad recommendation. After all these years, finally reading this novel was a bit anticlimactic. But in the larger sense, she was right: King and Koontz may have been fine for my adolescence, but ultimately they were bridges to more ambitious reading projects. My teacher’s offhanded remark about Hardy stuck with me, giving me a sense of the rewarding places to which those bridges might lead. Though I might have skipped this particular novel without much of a loss, Hardy’s best work is definitely worth the journey.
As a fellow English boarding school veteran, I have always felt a certain kinship with Roald Dahl. His famous autobiography of his childhood, Boy, memorably captures the hierarchical structure of boarding school life, and although Dahl’s experiences were somewhat more brutal than my own (I was never forced to thaw a frozen lavatory seat with my own posterior) there is a definite sense of recognition in reading about his childhood days.
However, upon reading Love from Boy, a newly published collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother, I feel as though I may have to discard any claim to familiarity. As it turns out, there are even more differences between the boarding schools of the 1930s and those of the 2000s than were previously evident to me, and, if I learned anything about myself reading Love From Boy, it is that, had I been unfortunate enough to live in Dahl’s day, I probably would have ended up like “poor little Ford,” a briefly-mentioned fatality of one of the school’s many measles epidemics.
If the measles did not claim me, there would have been no shortage of other possibilities for a premature snuffing-out. Dahl, made of far sterner stuff, and arguably the most effortlessly macho of all 20th-century writers (including the posturing Ernest Hemingway), survived them all: being forced to fight a fire in his boarding house and then spending the night in the “black and charcoaly” building on “brown and nasty” beds; coming under fire when a student accidentally used live ammunition instead of blanks in a field-day training exercise; and experimenting with eating boiled lichen on a school trip to Newfoundland due to a lack of sufficient food.
Dahl detailed all of these horrors in regular letters to his beloved mother, and continued to write to her faithfully up until her death. Donald Sturrock, author of the acclaimed Dahl biography, Storyteller, collects a selection of over 600 of these surviving letters, dating from 1925 to 1965, in this new volume, entitled Love From Boy, after the phrase Dahl affectionately used to sign off his letters from school.
After he left boarding school, Dahl’s adventures continued and became even more outrageous. He moved to Africa, working in Tanzania and Kenya for Shell, where he contracted malaria, fought off a black mamba snake, and invented the game of strip darts. When war broke out in 1939, Dahl trained to become a pilot in Egypt, Iraq, and Greece. He shot down at least five enemy planes during the war before crash landing in the Libyan desert and being sent home to England to convalesce.
Following a chance encounter in a private London club, he was given a curious job offer and moved to Washington D.C. to work for the RAF. His military assignments there, as well as his own blossoming success as a freelance writer, soon launched him to the peak of American high society: he played tennis with Vice President Henry A. Wallace (winning 6-0, 6-0, 6-0), joined President Roosevelt for Thanksgiving dinner, went on a date with Ginger Rogers, attended a party with Charlie Chaplin, and worked on a major motion picture with Walt Disney. What is most extraordinary about this is the fact that it all took place decades before he found his ultimate success as a children’s writer, which would not come until 1961 with the publication of James and the Giant Peach.
These remarkable events (which must surely constitute one of the most interesting biographies of any writer) are all detailed in Dahl’s letters. Although one might feel a sense of unease reading or critically analyzing personal letters that were never meant for publication, Dahl’s may prove an exception since, as Sturrock argues, they were always written “primarily to entertain.” Therefore, although there might be a few personal details, such as inquiries about relatives, all in all the letters are highly accessible for those otherwise unfamiliar with Dahl’s life, and primarily document his extraordinary anecdotes in the ever-humorous style of a born entertainer.
My personal favorite of his many comical descriptions concerns the two elderly patients he shares a hospital room with after recovering from surgery, who fart “quite openly and unashamedly just as though it was like saying good morning.” For those (like myself) who are fond of these kinds of immature observations and jokes, there is plenty more to be found in Love from Boy, including Dahl’s description of a statue of a bison whose penis is painted bright red by vandals — “a very fine sight;” a picture by Dahl of “Hitler fucking himself,” annotated with an instruction to “note the smile of ecstasy on his face;” and a warning against the painting of toilet seats, lest some unfortunate “adhere to it,” followed by a conclusion that this would be “an excellent cure for constipation.” (Another difference between Dahl and myself: I would never dare to record any of these things in a letter to my mother, for fear she would be scandalized to the point of fainting, or worse.)
Although the letters themselves are fascinating and consistently funny, if the book has one flaw it may be that Sturrock tries too hard to force his theme of motherhood. It is clear that Dahl and his mother had a devoted relationship, but none of her letters survive, making the conversation in this collection entirely one-sided. Sturrock’s conclusion that Dahl’s mother “was an essential and invaluable foil” for the development of his writing is something we just have to take his word for. As a noted biographer of Dahl’s, it is likely that Sturrock is privy to more insights into her character than we are, so his conclusions may be valid — they are just not made immediately evident from what we have collected in Love from Boy.
Nonetheless, the book does a valiant job of collecting these letters for the first time and providing sound biographical context for them. For fans of Dahl’s writing there is also an additional layer of enjoyment, as one can seek out potential origins for elements later found in his fictional works. One obvious example is the cat, Mrs. Taubsypuss, whom Dahl and his fellow Shell workers took care of in Dar es Salaam — she later gives her name to the U.S. President’s cat in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Other more subtle details, such as Dahl’s descriptions of flying, may be the catalyst for scenes from his final book, The Minpins, which features miniature people flying on the backs of birds. Likewise, his eventual disillusionment with high society excesses (“Dinner of course was eaten off gold plate, but it tasted just the same”) may contain the seeds for the spoiled and greedy consumer-obsessed characters that populate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Reading Love from Boy, one gets the sense that it was inevitable that Dahl would become a great writer. Not only did he get plenty of practice, composing a huge number of letters, all in a style that served to sharpen his skill as a humorist; but he also lived more in the 10-year period from his leaving school to the end of the war than most of us do in a lifetime. He carried with him a rich memory of innumerable fascinating anecdotes and ideas — enough to fill countless books. Love from Boy provides a wonderful summary of this extraordinary life and an intimate insight into his development as a writer. It will prove a charming read for anyone who has ever enjoyed his work. Plus (did I mention?) it also has lots of rude bits, which is always a nice bonus.