Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.