Strange. In a year when more than 330,000 Americans died from Covid-19, just one person on this highly selective list of literary obituaries is known to have died after contracting the novel coronavirus. Maybe that’s not so strange. This was, after all, the year when everything stopped making sense.
Mary Higgins Clark must have done something right. She didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her forties, but every one of her 57 mysteries after that became a bestseller, selling a total of more than 100 million copies before she died on Jan. 31 at 92. Like other brand-name authors who dominate the best-seller lists (Steel, Patterson, King, Grisham, Roberts, Child), Clark found what worked for her, then stuck with it. In her case, she set out to answer the question: “What happens after bad things happen to good people (usually women)?” It worked so well that in 1988 she became the first American writer to sign an eight-figure deal — a $10.1 million, multi-book contract. She sometimes collaborated with her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, and she amassed a fortune that afforded her luxuries few novelists ever experience outside their imaginations, including Cadillacs, jewelry, and homes in Manhattan, New Jersey, Cape Cod, and Florida. Though her fans venerated her, few critics confused her books with literature. She could not possibly have cared less. “Let others decide whether or not I’m a good writer,” this Bronx-born daughter of Irish immigrants said in a 2017 video. “I know I’m a good Irish story-teller.”
A quartet of venerable editors died this year — a woman and three men I have come to think of as The Fantastic Four of the Blue-Pencil Set. Alice Mayhew, who died Feb. 4 at 87, got her start by editing 1974’s All the President’s Men by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the chronicle of their investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up; 55 days after the book was published, President Richard Nixon resigned. That book birthed a genre that might be called Inside-the-Beltway Lit, and Mayhew went on to edit bestsellers by scores of D.C.-centric writers, including Jimmy Carter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Kitty Kelley, Frances Fitzgerald, John Dean, and Richard Reeves (who also died this year, see below). The aptly named Robert Loomis loomed over American publishing for half a century, a reign that put him in a league with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. In his long career, Loomis, who died April 19 at 93, edited Maya Angelou, William Styron, Shelby Foote, Pete Dexter, and Neil Sheehan, among many others. Sheehan, whose nonfiction book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, described Loomis’s approach to editing to the New York Times: “He would help me to understand what he would have done, and then do it his way to make it a better book. That book would not be the book it is without Bob.” Harold Evans, the most recognizable name among the four, died Sept. 23 at 92, after a two-act run that began with a distinguished newspaper career in London and then crossed the Atlantic for a second act that included stints as president and publisher of Random House, magazine editor, and writer of histories and a best-selling memoir — all the while leading a glittery social life with his wife, Tina Brown. And Fred Hills, who died Nov. 7 at 85, edited more than 50 New York Times bestsellers that ranged from the shamelessly commercial to the loftily literary, by writers as different as Jane Fonda, Raymond Carver, Phil Donahue, and David Halberstam. But it was a Russian émigré who most impressed Hills. After working with Vladimir Nabokov on his last completed novel, Look at the Harlequins!, Hills said: “Having worked with many other writers, I still believe that Nabokov was the most dazzling of them all.” These four editors lived an average of just under 90 years, which surely says something about the salutary effects of spending your life trying to improve the writing of others.
Roger Kahn was a member of a small tribe who took sports writing to a new level. The tribe counted Ring Lardner, A.J. Liebling, Bernard Malamud, Roger Angell, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese as members, and Kahn, who died Feb. 4 at 92, merited membership for The Boys of Summer, a classic that mined his Brooklyn boyhood and his time covering the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s. The book, one of some two dozen Kahn wrote, ranged far beyond the baseball diamond to offer meditations on civil rights, fathers and sons, teamwork, and the curveball thrown to all of us by heartbreak. And Kahn knew heartbreak. He, like millions of his fellow baseball-obsessed Brooklynites, never recovered after the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1958.
Charles Portis died Feb. 17 at 86 in an Arkansas hospice, quietly, out of view, without fanfare — the same way he chose to live. One of the most reclusive, original, and flat-out hilarious writers ever produced by America, Portis is best known for his novel True Grit—which was adapted for the screen and resulted in the only Academy Award of John Wayne’s career, then was remade in 2010 by the Coen brothers, with Jeff Bridges in the outsize role of the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Portis’s other four novels have won a zealous fan base that shades toward a cult, but his journalism, travel writing, memoirs, and drama were shamefully neglected until Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany appeared in 2012, lovingly curated and introduced by Jay Jennings. It was an overdue reminder that Portis was, first and last, a brilliant reporter with a laser eye, an unerring ear, and an ability to turn anyone and anything into grist for his delightfully skewed take on life. That grist included dump hotels, country singers, civil rights activists, Civil War veterans, Ku Kluxers, road trips, and Elvis’s mama. Jennings, in his introduction to the miscellany, notes that Portis’s strengths were evident in his very earliest writings: “unpretentious diction, an expert ear for the spoken word, deep knowledge worn lightly, stoic acceptance of trying circumstances, skill with internal combustion engines.” And, I would add, the rare ability to make readers laugh until it hurts.
Grace Edwards published her first novel at the age of 55, then waited another decade to publish If I Should Die, which introduced Mali Anderson, a female cop turned sociologist and amateur sleuth, a stylish black woman who’s better at guiding readers around her beloved Harlem than she is at solving crimes. No matter. Edwards, who died Feb. 25 at 87, knew the hood, as witnessed by this passage from the first of her six Mali Anderson novels: “The women and the old men gathered for comfort where folks were known to do the most talking: The women drifted into Tootsie’s Twist ‘n’ Snap Beauty Saloon, where the air was thick with gossip and fried Dixie peach. The men congregated in Bubba’s Barber Shop to listen to orators, smooth as water-washed pebbles, alter history with mile-long lies.” The woman knew how to write.
One week after Edwards’s death, a kindred soul named Barbara Neely died at 78. A former social activist, Neely turned to writing fiction in her fifties and had an instant hit with Blanche on the Lam, the first of four mysteries starring Blanche White, a heavyset, dark-skinned black maid who solves a murder while working for a wealthy white family. Blanche had enough mother-wit to turn her liability — her invisibility — into an advantage, and she also knew the score far better than her employers did: “For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she really was her own boss, and her clients knew it. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around.” Neely was named the 2020 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.
Richard Reeves never achieved the fame of Alice Mayhew’s best-selling authors, but he produced an impressive body of reportage and commentary, plus biographies of presidents and other lesser scoundrels during a long and lustrous career that ended with his death on March 24 at 83. To his credit, Reeves wasn’t afraid of tackling second-rate subjects, which he proved with his witty and insightful — and surprisingly gentle — biography of our 38th president, A Ford, Not a Lincoln. A syndicated columnist and PBS regular, Reeves ranked George W. Bush on a par with three presidents who were forgettable, execrable, or both: James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon. But Reeves saved his frothiest bile for the lame duck now waddling around the White House, calling Donald Trump “a hyperactive kid who’s lived in a bubble for his whole life,” then adding: “The irony that people who voted for him think he relates to their lives — yeah, he’s been above their lives a hundred thousand feet in his private jet flying over Youngstown.”
Christopher Dickey made his name as a globe-trotting war correspondent, wrote nonfiction books about expats, the Civil War, and the New York Police Department, and finally, for good measure, produced a couple of novels. But the book that gut-punched me was his 1998 memoir, Summer of Deliverance, which chronicles his tortured coming to terms with his father, the impossible James Dickey. As I read the book, I kept thinking, “And I thought my father was a monster!” Both men were alcoholics, egomaniacs, and philanderers, but James Dickey, unlike my father, possessed a prodigious literary gift, which brought fame and fortune to Dickey and misery to everyone in his orbit. Given all that, Summer of Deliverance is a surprisingly equable book. Christopher Dickey, who died July 16 at 68, never stoops to whining and never wraps himself in the shroud of the victim so common among today’s memoirists. The book, almost miraculously, winds up being a begrudged homage to a deeply flawed man, a hard-won reconciliation, a laying to rest of a lifetime of grievance. In short, a triumph. “Chris was weirdly objective about his dad,” says Malcolm Jones, who worked with Dickey at Newsweek and more recently at The Daily Beast. “He could talk about the monster stuff, but he didn’t go on about it. And he seemed to genuinely like the work. I think he was really proud of his dad’s writing.” I hope he was at least as proud of his own.
Like the Abstract Expressionists, the Beats were almost exclusively a boys’ club. One of the most dazzling of the female gate crashers was the poet Diane di Prima, who ranged far beyond the Beat movement and produced some 50 books before her death on Oct. 25 at 86. Her career opened with the poetry collection This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, two years after Allen Ginsberg rattled the world with Howl. Di Prima soon became a supernova in the hothouse of Greenwich Village, an avatar of the Beats’ urge to burst out of the beige Eisenhower conformity that was supposedly coating the land. In 1961, The Floating Bear, a literary magazine she published with her lover LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), was seized for obscene content. Eight years later, after the Beat movement had played out and di Prima had decamped to San Francisco, she showed that she wasn’t above cashing in on her adventures in the freewheeling late-’50s, early-’60s counterculture. Her novelistic Memoirs of a Beatnik was commissioned by the French publisher Maurice Girodias, who kept scrawling “MORE SEX!” on the manuscript and sending it back to di Prima for revisions. She obliged. The book was revered as a rare account of a free-spirited woman navigating a subculture dominated by men. Di Prima proceeded to leave that subculture in her dust. “I don’t mind that people use the Beat label,” she told a newspaper reporter in 2000. “It’s just that it’s very much of one time, a long time ago.”
Jan Morris will probably be best remembered for Conundrum, her 1974 account of her gender transition. Fair enough. Conundrum was a shocker when it was published, and it still bristles with insights that speak to our gender blurry times. But Morris, who died Nov. 20 at 94, was much more than a gifted memoirist. She was a travel writer in a class of her own — and, not incidentally, an accomplished historian, biographer, and novelist. She roamed the world, diving into local history, architecture and street life wherever she went, bringing people and places to pungent life on the page. Her best-known travel writing is about obvious glamorous spots, including Manhattan, Venice, Hong Kong and Oxford. But to her credit she said her personal favorite was Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, a loving portrait of the overlooked Italian port on the Adriatic. Here is a writer who roamed the world, looking everywhere for that most elusive of places: nowhere.
Chuck Yeager will be forever known as the first man to break the sound barrier, but he also wrote a best-selling autobiography in 1985 (with the help of Leo Janos). And he was the beating heart of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the elite cowboy test pilots — those swaggering possessors of the right stuff — who were being overshadowed by cool technicians known as astronauts in America’s space race against the Russians. Yeager shot down five German planes in one day during World War II, a total of 13 overall, and he was, in Wolfe’s telling, “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.” (He was played in the movie adaptation by Sam Shepard, then at the peak of his heartthrob phase.) But as his memoir revealed, Yeager bristled at the suggestion that he and his fellow test pilots possessed some gift from the gods. “All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.” Yeager also punctured the myth that possession of the so-called right stuff rendered a man fearless in the face of death. “I was always afraid of dying,” he wrote. “Always.”
My introduction to John le Carré came when I was a teenager, soon after his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, had turned the former British spy into an international literary sensation. Having already made the acquaintance of James Bond, I picked up the novel expecting a hero who drove flashy cars, bedded countless women and swilled bone-dry Martinis. Instead, le Carré, who died Dec. 12 at 89, took me deep into a world of moral murk, duplicity, and tragedy—where nothing is what it seems and good people can be made to serve bad causes, and vice versa. The novel’s hero is no James Bond; he’s Alec Leamas, a worn-out spy at the end of his string who is coldly manipulated by his own handlers. What a revelation! Le Carré taught me that, in the right hands, even the tawdriest genre can be made to rise to the level of art.
Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day at 75 after a half-century producing a long shelf of fiction, nonfiction, and essays that strove to reconnect human beings to the miraculous natural world we inhabit. A fool’s errand, perhaps, but Lopez won the 1986 nonfiction National Book Award for Arctic Dreams, his account of five years spent with indigenous Inuit people in a world of lunar barrenness; a frigid, forbidding world that offered its own special magic; a place where “airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars.” In Of Wolves and Men, Lopez sought to set the record straight on an animal that had been demonized for centuries. As part of his research, he raised a wolf pup.
And let’s not forget (in alphabetical order): Stanley Crouch, a member of a dying breed in our kid-glove literary world: the hard-punching iconoclast. Crouch, who died at 74, was a former Black Nationalist who championed jazz and didn’t hesitate to attack such black icons as Toni Morrison, gangsta rap, Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Al Sharpton, Alex Haley, and even post-1960s Miles Davis. Crouch considered himself a “radical pragmatist” on a mission to move “beyond the decoy of race.” In a syndicated newspaper column, criticism, fiction, and biography, he stepped on an unknowable number of toes while striving to remain true to his intellectual lodestars: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Albert Murray.
New York City lost two of its greatest street-level journalists with the deaths of dogged Jim Dwyer at 63 and venerable Pete Hamill at 85.
Shirley Ann Grau’s best-known novel, The Keepers of the House, is the story of a wealthy white widower who has a 30-relationship with his black housekeeper, which produces three children. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights movement, and its taboo subject matter stoked the fury of the local Ku Klux Klan, which burned a cross on Grau’s front lawn. Grau, who died at 91, dismissed the episode as a “Groucho Marx” stunt. Her other five novels and four short story collections, redolent of the weathers and ways of her native Deep South and every bit as unflinching as Keepers, also explored the collisions of that potent quartet: race, class, power, and love.
Poor Winston Groom, who died at 77, was no one-trick pony — he published eight novels, plus histories and biographies, and was a finalist for a nonfiction Pulitzer Prize — but he will be forever locked into the pigeonhole as “the man who wrote Forrest Gump.” The man deserves way better.
Allison Lurie, on the other hand, was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for her 10 novels, plus short story collections and essays that meticulously dissected the amorous follies of smart people who have mastered the art of self-destruction. Lurie, who died at 94, won comparisons to Jane Austen and Henry James and also won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs. Along the way, unlike Groom, she managed to dodge all pigeonholes.
Michael McClure, who died at 87, was present at the beginning: the poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 1955 that has become enshrined as the Beat movement’s blastoff. McClure, who went on to a long career as a poet, playwright, lyricist, and novelist, later wrote of that night: “We had gone beyond a point of no return… None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void — to the land without poetry — to the spiritual drabness.”
Terrence McNally wrote three dozen plays as well as the books for 10 musicals, librettos for operas, and screenplays for movies and TV during a five-decade career that mapped gay America’s journey from the closet to the mainstream. McNally, who won four Tony Awards, died at 81 from complications of the coronavirus.
Maybe the literary world’s cruelest loss in this cruelest of years was Anthony Veasna So, a son of Cambodian immigrants who died at 28, just months before the publication of his highly anticipated debut story collection, Afterparties. When he died, So was working on a novel called Straight Through Cambotown. One of his last pieces of published writing was his posthumous entry in The Millions’s Year in Reading wrap-up earlier this month. In it, So wrote about the futility of reading books in an effort to locate his own novel’s voice, structure and ancestors: “I realized how hopeless it was to locate heirs for my stoner novel about queer Khmer Americans. Might as well be my own daddy.” Wise words from a promising talent gone too soon.
Image credit: Pexels/Markus Winkler.