One of America’s greatest writers has died. He was a three time National Book Award winner and Nobel Laureate. Obit here.
● ● ●
The last time I saw Elmore Leonard alive was in 2004 at a now-defunct New York bookstore, where Leonard had come to promote his latest novel and I had come to pay homage to a literary hero. The novel was called Mr. Paradise. I lurked in the back of the store while a long line of fans waited to get their books autographed, maybe exchange a few words with the author. The atmosphere was more like a church than a place of business, for Leonard had developed a large, loyal, and nearly reverent following during a career that had been chugging along for more than half a century by then and kept on chugging until Tuesday, when Leonard died at 87 at his home near Detroit. As Leonard signed books that day in New York, I noticed that he rarely looked up and he exchanged a minimum of small talk with his fans. He was well into his 70s by then, and the book-flogging drill had obviously lost its luster for him long ago. In that moment I realized my act of homage was going to be even trickier than I'd feared. I had been a fan of Leonard's writing for years,so I didn't doubt my sincerity. But I could see that paying homage to a writer as famous and seasoned as Leonard was a fraught transaction. It's almost impossible not to come across as sycophantic and fawning. Or, worse, creepy. When the last fan had gotten his book signed, I took a deep breath and stepped up to the table. Leonard gave me a look I took to be frosty. ALWAYS A STRAGGLER, it seemed to say. I held out a signed copy of my own first novel, Motor City, and said, "Mr. Leonard, my name is Bill Morris. I played football with your son Pete at Holy Name School back in the '60s. I wanted to give you this copy of my first novel and let you know I've loved your writing for years." Leonard's face changed. A warm smile melted the frost. He thanked me for the book, asked after my parents, who he claimed to remember, told me with evident pride that his son Pete had started publishing novels of his own, which I knew. Terrified of pressing my luck, I cut the conversation short, thanked him and left the store. Leonard's warmth had been palpable. So had his relief that his duty was done --- until next time. The first times I saw Elmore Leonard were in the 1950s and '60s, when we were living near each other in a Detroit suburb and I was playing football with his kid. All I knew about Pete's dad back then was that he wasn't like my father and most of the other fathers in the neighborhood, who boarded big shiny cars in the morning and went off to make money making cars. Mr. Leonard was different. He worked in something mysterious called advertising -- then came home and wrote stories and novels. Even as a grade schooler, this struck me as impossibly romantic and exotic. It was possible for a respectable middle-class man to be a writer, an artist! Leonard was rightly revered for his impeccable ear for spoken English, his clean prose, his insistence that the author must remain invisible, and that writing should never be writerly. But I think his achievement went well beyond what was in his books -- and in the uneven movies they inspired. Leonard won the favor of some high literary types, including Walker Percy and Martin Amis, a sign that he had accomplished something that once seemed unthinkable: he lifted genre writing out of the ghetto and made readers and critics see that fine writing cannot be bottled or diminished by labels. Loren D. Estleman, another prolific Michigan-based author of high-quality crime and western fiction, was saddened by the news that his friend Elmore Leonard had died. "All he cared about was his work," Estleman said by phone on Tuesday. "He was the absolute last of the ad men --- the Mad Men --- who went from writing ad copy to writing for the pulps and then on to the world market of writing quality novels." Leonard was among a handful of pioneers -- Philip K. Dick, George V. Higgins, and John le Carré also come to mind -- who opened the world's eyes to something that now seems self-evident: the quality of the writing is the only thing that matters. I've often wondered if Elmore Leonard read that novel I gave him back in 2004. Probably not. I don't care. It was enough to spend a few moments in the presence of an immortal. Image Credit: Wikipedia
The New York Times is reporting that Maurice Sendak has died at 83. In part because I shared a name with its main character, Where the Wild Things Are was a beloved book of mine. Sendak's last book Bumble-Ardy, full of chaotic drawings of mischievous pigs, is a favorite of 19-month-old son's. May Sendak's bountiful imagination and heart live on for many generations in his books.
It would be a shame if the death of the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov yesterday got lost in the welter of cultural losses that surrounds it. Aksyonov is one of the towering literary figures of the postwar era - one who might have been more widely recognized as such were it not for the strictures of Soviet publishing culture. In his novels The Burn, The New Sweet Style, and especially Generations of Winter (which we have championed at this site), Aksyonov synthesized the Tolstoyan legacy of the 19th Century with the innovating impulses of the revolutionary generation. In making Russian literary tradition his own, and re-opening its dialogue with the rest of world literature, he pointed the way for the novelists who would succeed him. I can think of no more fitting way to honor him than to read him.
● ● ●
Studs Terkel died at 96 on Friday. In Chicago, Terkel's adopted home, he was regarded as a local treasure. Terkel had a long radio career hosting shows on which he conducted wide-ranging interviews, but he was perhaps best known for his series of oral histories.The genre is now quite popular, encompassing topics from punk rock to Saturday Night Live to George Plimpton, but Terkel was, if not its inventor, then its popularizer and most accomplished practitioner. He used his oral histories not to get the inside dirt on celebrities, but as a way to illuminate the lives of everyday people. Terkel's best known books include Working, in which he found the everyday dramas in the working lives of dozens of Americans, and The Good War, a Pulitzer winning oral history of World War II. More recently, Terkel's Hope Dies Last was published. The book is a study of a subject at the core of Terkel's efforts in preserving the voices of the 20th century, America's collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it.Bonus Link: The Chicago Tribune tells us "Why Studs Terkel Mattered".