When I heard the news that a novel called Barren Island by Carol Zoref had been long-listed for this year’s National Book Award for fiction, my first reaction was Oof! Had another writer beaten me to the punch? There can only be one Barren Island, I told myself. It’s a wafer of sand and scrub in New York City’s vast Jamaica Bay, so named by the early Dutch settlers for the bears that may or may not have roamed there, and later destined to live up to its Anglicized name when it became the final destination for the city’s garbage and for its dead horses and other animals that were brought there by barge to be skinned, dismantled, boiled, and turned into fertilizer and glue in the ghastly factories of Barren Island. Those factories were manned mostly by immigrants from Eastern Europe, Greece, Italy, and Ireland, and by African-Americans up from the South. Diphtheria and typhoid epidemics were frequent visitors. The stench and filth and vermin were appalling. “Horrors,” recalls one man who grew up there. I happened to know this obscure history because for the past dozen years or so I’ve been gathering string, off and on, for a novel I am (was?) hoping to set on Barren Island. Its central character is based on a schoolteacher named Jane Shaw, who rode the trolley from her home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to the boat that carried her to Barren Island every Sunday night. She then spent the weekdays teaching the children of the immigrants who worked the factories. She brightened their lives by helping them plant vegetable and flower gardens, sew curtains, dress up homes that were little more than shacks. She bought a piano with her own money, gave lessons, held dances. On Friday nights she returned to her Brooklyn home, where she invited her eighth-grade graduating class to a proper tea every year, the first time many of them set foot off their isolated island. She did this from the end of the First World War until 1936, when the city’s ruthless master builder, Robert Moses, evicted the residents and bulldozed the settlement to make way for his Marine Park project. Jane Shaw got Moses to agree to let her students finish the school year before the bulldozers moved in. The people of Barren Island revered Jane Shaw, which gave me a working title for my novel: The Angel of Barren Island. So I opened Carol Zoref’s novel with a feeling of—no other word for it—dread. On the very first page I learned that, yes indeed, there is only one Barren Island, and Carol Zoref had beaten me to it. The novel is narrated in the first person by 80-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, who is looking back on her coming of age on Barren Island’s smaller, fictional neighbor, Barren Shoal, where her father, an immigrant from Belarus, works in the factory dismantling horses and other dead animals so they can be transformed into such valuable commodities as glue and nitroglycerin. Marta’s tale unfolds amid horrors, tenderness, and beauty that have the iron ring of truth. One day Marta’s mother fails to save Marta’s infant sister from drowning in a washtub full of scalding water. Another day there’s a devastating explosion in the factory. Marta also experiences grace notes, fishing and picking berries, witnessing a rally at Union Square, seeing Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, tasting first love and watching, from a distance, as the Depression grinds toward another World War. Jane Shaw even makes a cameo. This is Zoref’s first novel, and there is some implausible dialog (and a few unfortunate typos), but it’s an assured and deeply felt work. By the end of the book, my initial dread had given way to delight—that another writer shares my belief that stories from a forgotten place, a blend of the made-up and the real, can be worthy of telling. After I finished the book, I phoned Carol Zoref in her office at Sarah Lawrence College, where she teaches creative writing. (She also teaches at New York University.) First, I asked Zoref how she became aware of Barren Island. “A long time ago I saw an article in The New York Times about a book about the trash of New York, and it mentioned Barren Island,” she replied. “The article had a picture of a guy who had grown up on Barren Island, and I thought that was an extraordinary thing. So I bought the book and read it. And I had a question: what would it have been like to live there on Barren Island? It’s one thing to work in that sort of setting, but to actually live there as a child, to grow up there, so close to the city and but so far from the city—I just couldn’t imagine what that would have been like.” Amazing. That newspaper article was my introduction to Barren Island, too. It was written by Kirk Johnson and published on Nov. 7, 2000, under the headline “All the Dead Horses, Next Door; Bittersweet Memories of the City’s Island of Garbage.” I, too, read the book mentioned in the article, Benjamin Miller’s Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last Two Hundred Years. That book spawned a fascination with the city’s waste that’s still alive today. I asked Zoref, “What kind of research did you do? Did you do a lot of archival stuff? Was it mostly imagining?” “There was no archival research,” she said. “In fact, I never saw a photograph of Barren Island until the spring of 2016, when the book’s jacket designer and I started talking about what the cover should look like. The public library of New York had just digitized its collection, so I was able to see what the place looked like. Much to my relief, my imagination had served me well. As far as the rest of it was concerned, it was a combination of flotsam and jetsam stuff that I knew but wasn’t exactly sure when it happened. A simple timeline helped. Then looking at photographs, programs on television about the Depression, descriptions of the flora and fauna of Long Island. When I started, I knew the bookends would be 1929, when the stock market crashed, and 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. What happened between the World Wars? I ended the book a little after Barren Island was actually closed because the coming of World War II is present in the novel the entire time. People are escaping Europe because things are lousy for Jews and they need to get out. People are working these jobs on Barren Island because they’re working any jobs they can get. People are picking through the garbage because they’re starving. Those smokestacks and those rendering plants certainly are waving a flag saying the death camps are coming, and a different kind of oven is coming.” “What was the appeal of this spot and these people to you as a writer?” I asked. “The appeal to me had to do with power and powerlessness, and the ways in which the awfulness of quotidian life can’t be escaped. Each of these characters has their own lives and ambitions that aren’t that different from our own in the 21st century.” One of my favorite characters in the novel is Miss Finn, who teaches in the one-room schoolhouse. “Did you model her on Jane Shaw?” I asked. “Where did she come from?” “I knew Jane Shaw existed and I knew she stood up to Robert Moses, who I’ve always found an interesting character. I read The Power Broker and I thought, wow, what a brilliant crazy wonderful horrible human being—all those things rolled into one. We wouldn’t have parks if we hadn’t had Robert Moses, but we also wouldn’t have the Cross-Bronx Expressway running through the middle of people’s lives. I couldn’t believe Jane Shaw stood up to him and won. Nobody did that again until Jane Jacobs. Somebody teaching in this one-room schoolhouse could have a tremendous amount of influence. A lot of stuff got tucked into Miss Finn. What happened to these teenage girls in her classes? Well, girls got pregnant and had abortions—long before abortion was legal. It was dangerous and complicated. Miss Finn seems quiet and humble, but she’s worldly in her own way. Her sister was the doctor who performed abortions.” It was time for me to make an admission. “I read that article in The Times and I read Benjamin Miller’s book,” I said, “and I became totally fascinated by Barren Island. Now I’ve got my own Barren Island box. But I got busy with other things, and my idea of writing a novel about the place went on the back burner. When I heard that a novel called Barren Island was nominated for the National Book Award, my heart dropped into my shoes.” “Sorry!” she said, with a laugh. “So I got your book, and as I read I felt uplifted. Somebody else out there sees the potential of a story about a place, about a moment like this! It’s been an uplifting experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you.” “Well, thank you. I think there’s no place or no story that exists that wouldn’t be written about differently by different writers. And that’s fine. That’s good. As obscure as things can be, so what? Everyone’s interest comes from a different feeling.” And I have a feeling, a surprising feeling, that The Angel of Barren Island still has a pulse.
Two years ago I published an essay here called “How the West Was Lost.” In it, a handful of gifted writers—Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison—offered their takes on how Americans have despoiled their frontier. Harrison and Abbey decried environmental degradation, especially the damming of rivers so cities could bloom in deserts, where no city belongs. Didion punctured the myth of pioneer grit by pointing out that federal tax dollars have underwritten most signature western ventures, including the railroads, the aerospace industry, and big agriculture. And Doig, a product of the “lariat proletariat,” lamented the sacrifice of old ways and individual freedoms on the altar of spurious progress. Now I would like to nominate Deanne Stillman for admission to this distinguished group. Over the past three decades, her nonfiction and journalism have probed the violence Americans have done to the people, wild animals, and lands of the West. Her books include a devastating account of a double murder, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (2001); Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (2008); and the story of a hermit turned cop-killer, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (2012). Stillman has just published Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Through the unlikely reconciliation of two adversaries from the Indian Wars, the book explores “the fault line that runs through the national story”—the subjugation and repeated betrayals of Native Americans. Like all of Stillman’s work, the new book is deeply researched, a work of passion and rich insight. She spoke with me by telephone from her home in Los Angeles. The Millions: Let’s start with a stupid question. Where did you grow up? Deanne Stillman: I grew up in Cleveland. I’d been writing since I was a little girl, and I just knew I had to be in New York to start pursuing the creative life and I moved there in the ’70s. I was writing first for the underground press, and then began writing humor and satire and comedy, including working on projects for Saturday Night Live. In the early 1980s I began going back and forth between L.A. and New York because I had gotten a series of television jobs. And then I was hired for a TV series called Square Pegs. I was aboard that train for a while and didn’t like it and in fact at some point it started making me physically ill. One day my personal apple cart collapsed. Writing humor is all about reacting and pretending everything’s fine and everything’s funny, but things had really come to a complete halt in my life and nothing was basically funny anymore. Once I got in touch with that and got back to some earlier desires, my writing moved in another direction. TM: In the introduction to Blood Brothers, you state that all of your books are about “acts of violence, the killing of people and wild animals, assaults on the land that have unfolded on a very big canvas, the American West.” Did you decide to work on this canvas after you moved west, or did you move west to be part of the canvas? DS: All of the above. It all has to do with my upbringing and with my father teaching me to be a writer when I was a little girl. My first submissions were to Mad magazine, actually, under the name Dean Stillman because I saw that they were only publishing boys. The West was an escape for me as a little girl because there was a lot of turmoil in my household, and I was escaping into books about the West. And we grew up around horses, too. My mother was one of the first women in the country to ride professionally on the racetrack, and she taught me how to ride. That had a lot to do with fueling my wanderlust—hanging out at the racetrack and coming into contact with a lot of strange characters. And also moving from the right side of the tracks to the wrong side of the tracks after my parents got divorced, and finding out that there was a working class and that they were kind of persona non grata. When we moved from very comfortable surroundings to the wrong side of town, even some of our relatives stopped talking to us. So I found out at a very early age that America has a class system. TM: So reading and fantasizing about the West was an escape for you even as a girl? DS: Fantasizing and living inside books which my father read to me. That became a landscape I started living in. TM: When did you move to L.A. full-time? DS: The late ’80s or so. When my personal life fell apart, I began spending more and more time in the desert. I was kind of on automatic pilot with my writing because I had to continue making a living, and I had reached a dead end there. And then one day the story I wrote about in Twentynine Palms crossed my path and it took over my life and I knew that I was going to follow it wherever it went. So that’s how the next phase of my writing life began. TM: Your earlier books, Twentynine Palms included, are deeply reported. There are also flashes of fiction writing in Desert Reckoning, where you get into the brains of people, which I loved. But Blood Brothers is closer to straight history. You traveled all over, reading in archives, visiting sites, looking at newspapers. I wonder if you could talk about the differences in researching and writing these different kinds of books—one is reportage, the other is almost straight history. DS: Blood Brothers involved more archival research, for sure. But I do bring elements of fiction into all of my writing. I did have to recreate characters in Blood Brothers, and I did recreate scenes, such as when [Buffalo Bill] Cody and Sitting Bull meet for the first time—in Buffalo, New York, of all places. That draws from actual reporting, but I do weave in other elements, what they might have been feeling and how the conversations played out. TM: So the researching and writing of this book were not all that different from the books that came before it? DS: Most of Blood Brothers takes place in the 19th century, so I was obviously not able to talk to associates of the main characters, which does make things different. I rely on many historical accounts, some of which are from the white man’s point of view and some of which are from the Native American’s point of view. But there are plenty of things that weren’t written down that we don’t know about. TM: I didn’t realize just how vast the literature is on the subjects you write about here. It seems like just about everybody has either written a memoir or been the subject of a newspaper or magazine article, or a biography. I laughed out loud that Tim McCoy, a cowboy turned movie actor, published a memoir ghost-written by his son. What rock hasn’t been turned over? With so much stuff available, I’m wondering if your challenge was finding something new to say—or did you not see it that way? DS: That’s part of what I was dealing with. You’re right, there’s so much that’s been written about many, many characters of that era. But the image that drew me into writing this book was the dancing horse outside the cabin where Sitting Bull was murdered. I always follow my instincts when it comes to my work, and I knew that that image would take me somewhere, exactly where I didn’t know. But isn’t that the allure of writing?—finding out the answers to these questions? I didn’t find very much about that image of the horse tied up outside Sitting Bull’s cabin at the time of his assassination. That dancing horse was in effect taking bullets for Sitting Bull as he was being killed—that’s an insight that came to me from Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who I called to ask about the dancing horse and what it meant. So I couldn’t find out much about that horse or the image because there wasn’t much on the record. That kind of confirmed my instinct that the image could take me through the writing of this book. TM: So that image propelled you to write the book? DS: Totally. It totally propelled me. It haunted me for years. TM: One of my favorite things in the book was that Buffalo Bill got sick of the “sham-hero worship,” as he puts it. Then he sets out to make a movie that captures the real spirit of the West, including the Seventh Cavalry’s massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee. But the movie turned out to be a failure because it was too real. People couldn’t handle it—even though he left out the fact that women and children were among those massacred. I thought that was a powerful irony. DS: I’m glad you brought that up. Here was Cody near the end of his life telling people he was sick of this whole thing, referring to the fact that he was trapped in this persona of Buffalo Bill. I think it’s kind of a universal situation—that sooner or later we often find ourselves accepted for being one thing, but in our hearts we’re something else. Here was Cody who’d become this mythological character adored around the world by kings and wastrels. But as he began to feel remorse for his role in the closing of the West, he says many times to reporters that we haven’t done right by the Indians. Even when he was talking about Sitting Bull to reporters, he would make a point of talking about how he was the Napoleon of his people. After the Wounded Knee massacre, Cody wanted to set the record straight by making this documentary, using actual survivors and members of the cavalry. It was so real that some of the Native American re-enactors in the documentary thought that actual bullets were going to start flying. TM: But the movie failed, as I say, because people didn’t want to hear it. DS: We’re such an Action Jackson country. People just wanted to see a shoot-’em-up, they didn’t want to take a look at the victims. But also we Americans have a problem looking at what really happened, period. I think Cody making that film was a metaphor for the fact that we haven’t reconciled our original sin, which is the betrayal of Native Americans. TM: This leads to another thing I wanted to ask you about. There’s a subtext in the book about celebrity in America. Look at Sitting Bull—he’s involved in the battle of Little Bighorn, he has to flee to Canada, he comes back and joins the Wild West show. He goes from fugitive to star. DS: [Laughs.] That’s true! TM: He and Buffalo Bill were superstars. When all else fails in America, you can always become a celebrity. These guys weren’t the first American celebrities, but I think they’re a template for what’s happening to this day in this country. DS: I completely agree. They were hardly the first celebrities, but they were arguably two of the most famous men in American history. Without the Wild West show, our national story may well not be what it is. TM: To go back to your book’s introduction. You mention that you’ve witnessed several recent moments of atonement and forgiveness between Native Americans and descendants of the soldiers who fought against their ancestors. These are contemporary events—the renaming of sacred lands, the fight against the pipeline—and you wrote something that I like: “Perhaps the brief time that Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull were together can serve as a foundation upon which this rift can be repaired.” That’s a wonderful thought. I like to think you’re right, but I wonder if that’s hoping for too much, given our history. DS: That’s a good question. We have choice here: we can hope for too much or scale it back. What’s going on now in terms of Trump’s policies regarding the environment, the rollback of wildlife protections, the assault on the wilderness, the call to euthanize all of America’s wild horses, this nonstop assault on what’s wild—this, to me, is the end game of the Indian Wars. TM: So do you think there’s a chance for this rift to be repaired and for this country to become healthy? DS: Over time, yes, there is a chance. You look at Standing Rock last December—descendants of soldiers who fought at Little Bighorn apologizing to Lakota elders about their role in the decimation of Native Americans, and the elders giving their acceptance speech. That was a very powerful event, in my opinion. It was covered, but it was overshadowed by the politics of the pipeline. Behind all of that, there was this spiritual shift involving this apology. It’s been happening for the past two years in other ways across the Great Plains and the West. Native Americans also apologized for wiping out Custer. The ramifications of that down the line are beyond words. It’s all to the good.
Writers have been writing about their families since forever. But two fine new books—one by newcomer Rafe Bartholomew, the other by literary lion Richard Ford—suggest that maybe it’s time to carve out a niche for a new sub-genre on the long shelf of Family Lit. Let’s call it Memoirs by Sons Who Grew Up to Become Writers and Wound Up Looking Back at Their Parents With a Fondness That Will Melt Your Heart. Of the two, Bartholomew has the tougher selling job with me. That’s because his memoir, Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me, is spun around his experiences hanging around and then working alongside his bartender father, Geoffrey (known as Bart), in New York City’s oldest saloon. John McSorley opened the place in 1854, and his motto still hangs on the wall: Be Good or Be Gone. I used to drop by in the 1970s and ’80s, long before the place became another New York theme park for tourists, and given the way the surly waiters were constantly urging customers to drink up and order a new round, I thought the motto should have read: Be Drinking, Be Drunk, or Be Gone. As Bartholomew admits, “Half of New York City seems to know us as the bar where they kick you out when you stop drinking.” Also on offer were mediocre ale and bad food. I never became a fan, let alone a regular. Bartholomew’s father, the son of an abusive alcoholic, came to New York in the 1970s full of dreams of making it as a writer, but after studying under Anthony Burgess and Kurt Vonnegut and producing a couple of unsold novels, he took a turn so many failed writers have taken—and became a quart-of-vodka-a-day drinker. Eventually he made his way to an A.A. meeting, where he met a twice-divorced woman battling snakes of her own. They got married and became that genuine rarity: 12-steppers who climbed aboard the wagon and stayed put. Geoffrey also clung to his job as a bartender at McSorley’s, which became his counter-intuitive refuge. Though the place was undistilled temptation for a reforming alcoholic, it had a strange virtue: its owners and staff remained so true to John McSorley’s original vision that the place might as well have been frozen in amber. For Bartholomew père, the saloon became the still point in a turning, treacherous world. It took a federal court ruling in 1970 to force the owners to allow women to enter the bar for the first time. Bartholomew fils dutifully mentions Joseph Mitchell’s famous 1940 New Yorker profile of the place, “The Old House at Home,” which was intended as high praise but winds up making the place sound like an adult daycare for Irish rummies. Mitchell, a North Carolinian who loved anything that smelled of Olde New York, was, like Bartholomew’s father, drawn to McSorley’s because it was a sanctuary. Bartholomew quotes an entry in Mitchell’s journal from the 1970s: “McSorley’s, middle of the afternoon, sit at table in the back and have a few mugs of ale and escape for a while from the feeling that the world is out of control and about to come to an end.” Mitchell was no stranger to such apocalyptic dread. He hadn’t published a word in a decade, and he was on intimate terms with feeling blocked, written out, washed up. Two and Two is full of “characters” named Frank the Slob and Dead Eddie and Bunghole Thompson, but they’re far less interesting to me than the descriptions of the “mechanics” of working as a bartender. These passages, full of stress, physical punishment, rudeness, humor, and projectile vomiting, serve as a reminder that the act of working, especially at blue-collar jobs, is rich subject matter that too few writers explore. (See On Fire, Larry Brown’s superb memoir about working as a firefighter.) Another joy is the single chapter about Bartholomew’s mother—and her battle with cancer. Though Bartholomew’s bond with his father forms the meat of the book, these pages about his mother pack an emotional punch that makes the doings inside McSorley’s seem like child’s play. Which is not an unfair description of what goes on there. Nowadays, police saw horses corral the tourists lined up to get into the place, which is no small source of dismay to Bartholomew and his father. “When half the tables inside McSorley’s on an average weeknight have Lonely Planet guides on them,” Bartholomew writes, “the place feels a little bit less like part of a neighborhood and instead starts to resemble a gimmick. Were we genuine McSorley’s barmen? Or just historical re-enactors playing dress-up in a tourist trap?” His father, who eventually won vindication by publishing two well-received volumes of poetry based on his life inside the Old House at Home, replies, “I don’t know. Feels like the whole business is changing.” For anyone devoted to McSorley’s ethos of constancy, change is the true killer. Richard Ford’s memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, isn’t spun around garrulous barroom characters. This book is so understated it’s nearly whispered, as Ford explores his remarkable devotion to parents who were, on the face of it, thoroughly unremarkable people. His father, Parker Ford, was “a large man—soft, heavy-seeming, smiling widely as if he knew a funny joke.” He’s an Arkie with a seventh-grade education who travels the Deep South in a Ford selling laundry starch wholesale for the Faultless Company out of Kansas City. He’s frequently accompanied on the road by his wife, Edna, also an Arkie from “just a rural place” in the northwest corner of Arkansas, a vivacious, pretty woman who loves her husband. Their joint travels end when they have a surprise son, their only child, 15 years after their wedding. By now they’ve settled in Jackson, Miss., where the boy will grow up. Between Them is sprinkled with question marks, with the words “maybe” and “possibly” and “might have” and (my favorite) “Imagine it. You have to, because there’s no other way…”— admissions that authorial imagination is the only way to fill in the inevitable gaps in the story of a married couple who led largely undocumented lives. When the novelist in Ford takes over, the book hits its high notes. Here’s Ford imagining—or possibly remembering—his father making a sales call: “His customers occupied murky, back-street warehouses with wooden loading docks and tiny stifling offices that smelled of feed by the bushel.” And here’s the son imagining his father alone on the road: And how was it for him? Driving, driving alone? Sitting in those hotel rooms, in lobbies, reading a strange newspaper in the poor lamplight; taking a walk down a street in the evening, smoking? Listening to the radio in the sweep and hum of an oscillating fan. Then turning in early to the noise of katydids and switch-yards, car doors closing and voices on the street laughing into another night. How was it being a father this way—having a wife, renting a house in a town where they knew almost no one and had no friends, coming home only weekends, as if this were home? Maybe the most remarkable thing about this quiet book is the way its focus remains on its two subjects, never on its author. Though Ford is present on many pages, he is rarely the center of attention. So this is not, mercifully, another account of a writer’s beginnings. Ford mentions glancingly that an only child “absorbs a great deal,” and that his has been “a life of noticing and being a witness. Most writers’ lives are.” He’s intent on trying to understand what existed between his parents, and only secondarily on what existed between him and them. He writes: “Incomplete understanding of our parents’ lives is not a condition of their lives. Only ours. If anything, to realize you know less than all is respectful, since children narrow the frame of everything they’re a part of.” Ford’s refusal to narrow the frame is beyond selfless; it is generous. This comes through when Ford reports, without regret, that his largely absent father did not teach him to read and never read to him. Given the paucity of reading material and introspection in the Ford household, it’s astonishing that Richard would grow up to become a celebrated writer. Or maybe it’s not so astonishing. In his memoir about growing up dirt poor in south Georgia, Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Harry Crews noted that the only things to read in his house were The Bible and the Sears, Roebuck catalog. And so he made up stories about the “beautiful” people he saw in the catalog, and that was how he began to become a celebrated writer. The quality of early influences, it turns out, is less important than the quality of the person they influence. Like Bartholomew, Ford does some of his most affecting writing when he turns his attention to his mother. After his father suffers a second, fatal heart attack in 1960 when Ford is 15, his mother’s life begins to branch outward for the first time. She takes on a string of jobs—with a company that makes school pictures, as a rental agent in a new high-rise apartment building, as night cashier at a hotel, as an admitting clerk in the emergency room at the University of Mississippi hospital. She acquires a boyfriend, a married man who treats her well. She travels to Mexico, to Banff, to “various warm islands.” She has always been difficult, but her son’s love for her never wavers, and, like Bartholomew, he is there for her when she fights a losing battle with cancer. Yet there is no denying that there’s a gulf between this country woman and her ambitious literary son. This comes to light after he has published his second novel and is teaching at Princeton and she asks him, “When are you going to get a job and get started?” Ford, to his credit, does not express dismay over the question. Instead of judging others’ lives, he writes, “We must all make the most of the lives we find.” Richard Ford and Rafe Bartholomew have both done this, and they’ve both done it beautifully.
David Shields has just published his 20th book, a rambling collection of essays called Other People: Takes & Mistakes. Though he acknowledges that the book is in keeping with his metamorphosis from “a writer of novels and short stories to a writer of nonfiction books and personal essays,” he’s quick to add this disclaimer: “(Never mind, for the moment, that I don’t of course believe in the validity of these generic distinctions.)” Of course the author of Reality Hunger doesn’t believe in the validity of such archaic distinctions. He has moved beyond all that. Nevertheless, Other People reads a lot like straight nonfiction that’s firmly grounded in the “real” world, to use the quotation marks mandated by Vladimir Nabokov. Shields’s real-life source material here includes his family, his college mentors and classmates, baseball and baseball-stadium cuisine, his bad back, his teenage acne, bad reviews of his books, sports clichés and sports movies, Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley, Curt Cobain and Bill Murray, love and sex and porn stars and ’60s TV shows, and the pleasing remoteness of his current hometown, Seattle. From its Philip Roth epigraph to its final page, this book is tied together by what Shields calls his “favorite idea”—that “language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite.” By page 29, I’d begun to realize that this book was going to be personal to me in a way no book has ever been before. The essay called “The Groundling” begins with this sentence: “As a student at Brown in the mid-1970s, I admired my writing teachers, John Hawkes and R.V. Cassill, but both of them were more than 30 years older than I, so I admired them as father figures, from a distance.” My eyes widened. I, too, was a student at Brown in the mid-1970s, and I, too, took a creative writing course taught by R.V. Cassill. I didn’t admire the man as a father figure; in fact, I disliked him for any number of reasons. First, his weekly classes—I suppose they would be called “workshops” today—were a refined form of physical and psychological torture that consisted of sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours as Cassill and my fellow students took turns tearing our undercooked short stories to shreds. For good measure, Cassill chain-smoked Gauloises cigarettes and wore a beret, surely a hangover from his Fulbright year at the Sorbonne. Cassill also assigned his own manual, Writing Fiction, to his students year after year, which struck me even then as shameless self-dealing, the academic racket’s version of an annuity. To make matters worse, Cassill’s latest novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, a yeasty yarn about the John Profumo sex scandal in Britain, had just hit The New York Times bestseller list, a sure sign of mediocrity in my idealistic young eyes. I still believed that good writing did not make money, and writing that made money could not possibly be good. Riding the bestseller list with Doctor Cobb’s Game was Erich Segal’s Love Story. I rested my case. And finally, during the one-on-one student-teacher conferences at the end of the semester, my girlfriend reported that Cassill tried to seduce her over half a dozen Gauloises and a “bottomless” pot of coffee at the off-campus IHOP where I worked as a dishwasher. This, you must realize, was the age when sleeping with students was a professorial prerogative, like sabbaticals and tenure. The seduction attempt failed, according to my girlfriend, but Cassill had the final say when he used just six words to sum up my literary potential: “Works hard but possesses limited talent.” Up yours!, I remember thinking. I never took another writing course. Instead, I got a job as a newspaper reporter after graduation and embarked on a tortuous, self-taught apprenticeship that led to the publication of my first novel 15 years later. It wasn’t until much later in Other People, in an essay entitled “The Smarter Dog Knows When to Disobey,” that Shields really hit me where I live. This longish recounting of Shields’s formation as a writer opens with a description of Brown’s much-vaunted New Curriculum, which was instituted in 1969 but had begun to feel dated to Shields by the time he arrived on campus in 1974: “no distribution requirements, optional pass/fail, fewer total courses required to graduate, the freedom to direct your own education, the encouragement to go deep rather than wide.” The New Curriculum was a primary attraction when I applied to Brown, and, after that disastrous class with R.V. Cassill, it afforded me the freedom to go deep—researching and writing a book-length history of the city of Providence under the guidance of two inspiring professors, Tom Gleason and Howard Chudacoff. Shields’s formation as a writer had less to do with the New Curriculum than with postmodernism, the experimental novelist John Hawkes, and the fledgling semiotics program founded by Robert Scholes during Shields’s freshman year. To establish the school’s literary atmosphere and aesthetic, Shields ticks off the writers who have trod the campus down through the years, including Nathanael West and his brother-in-law S.J. Perelman, Cassill and Hawkes and Scholes, Robert Coover and C.D. Wright, Nancy Lemann, Jaimy Gordon, Rick Moody, Susan Minot, Ira Glass, Thomas Mallon, Joanna Scott, Mary Caponegro, Jeffrey Eugenides, Andrew Sean Greer, A.J. Jacobs, and many more. Shields states flatly that he never would have become a writer without the encouragement of Hawkes, who preached that the “true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.” As much as it’s an exploration of the personalities and ideas that shaped Shields as a writer, “The Smarter Dog” is also an exploration of the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity bred into students at Brown, “that nervous self-awareness that never turns off.” Small wonder that Brown was (still is?) the anti-Ivy Ivy League school, a place with an “overdog/underdog ethos,” the fallback (or “safety school,” in Shields’s preferred term) for those who didn’t make the cut at Harvard or Yale or even Princeton. “In the work of a striking number of creative artists who are Brown grads,” Shields writes, “I see a skewed, complex, somewhat tortured stance: antipathy toward the conventions of the culture and yet a strong need to be in conversation with that culture.” This leads him to wonder “to what degree, if any, Brown can be seen as an incubator of American postmodernism.” A piece of an answer comes from Brown grad Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life,” who makes an astonishing admission: “Semiotics is how I defined myself. To a large extent, it still is. Most of what I understand about how to make radio is all filtered through what I learned in semiotics at Brown.” What Glass learned in semiotics at Brown was that “language itself was actually a system designed to keep you in your place.” What I learned at Brown was that language, specifically the English language, is a limitlessly versatile tool for expressing oneself, and the only way to learn how to use that tool is to fail again and again, until you are finally able to call yourself a beginner. Most of what I understand about writing has come from watching people and listening to them (and of course from reading). I learned to interview people not by understanding that language is a system designed to keep me in my place, but by sitting down with people and interviewing them (and of course by reading such masters of the form as Studs Terkel, Oriana Fallaci, and The Paris Review). One of my very first interviews became the closing chapter of my history of Providence—a taped Q&A in the palatial offices of the city’s brash young Republican mayor, a felon-in-training with a bad toupee named Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. The interview was a hash, but the point is that I believed in learning by doing, and I wasn’t afraid to fail. Semiotics was all the rage during my last two years at Brown, and I wouldn’t have dared admit to anyone that I didn’t know exactly what it was, had only a vague notion that it had something to do with signs and symbols. Thanks to Shields, I now realize I was not alone. When Scholes was invited to a semiotics conference in Italy in the late 1960s, he had not yet heard the term. When he founded the program at Brown, Scholes chose to call it semiotics, according to Shields, precisely because the word was so imprecise. “It didn’t have a lot of baggage,” Scholes said. “It was almost a blank signifier.” When Shields’s mother learned that he had taken up this obscure new line of study, she said, “Semiotics? What the hell is that?” The novelist and Brown grad Samantha Gillison provides one answer: “Semiotics was an exclusive, self-contained puzzle for super-smart, super-rich kids.” Shields wound up switching his major to British and American literature. Which brings us to this essay’s punch-in-the-gut line. After parsing Brown students’ self-consciousness and insecurity, their uneasily co-existing pride and dismay that they don’t go to Harvard, Shields writes this paragraph: My junior year an essay appeared in Fresh Fruit, the extremely short-lived and poorly named weekly arts supplement to the Brown Daily Herald. A Brown student, writing about the cultural clash at a basketball game between Brown and the University of Rhode Island, referred in passing to Brown students as “world-beaters.” I remember thinking, Really? World-beaters? More like world-wanderers and-wonderers. This time my eyes didn’t just widen, they nearly popped. My first thought was: I was the Brown student who wrote that article! My second thought was: Shields got it all wrong. Coming in a distant third, but still in the money, was the rueful realization that Shields neglected to mention me by name. I had become the lowliest link in the literary food chain: a U.F.O. or Unidentified Footnote Object. What Shields got wrong was that the culture clash described in my article took place at a basketball game in the downtown Civic Center between Brown and Providence College, not the University of Rhode Island. The distinction is important, at least to me, because this sketch fed into the history of Providence I was writing. It was an attempt to describe the chasm that separated Brown, perched on College Hill, from the surrounding city, with its rotting waterfront and ghostly downtown, its tap rooms and abandoned textile factories and crumbling triple-decker neighborhoods, including Federal Hill, where Raymond L.S. Patriarca ran the New England mob out of the ramshackle offices of a vending-machine company, aided by colorful, cold-blooded lieutenants named Baby Shacks, the Frenchman, and Luigi Manocchio. Another thing Shields got wrong was saying I called Brown students “world-beaters.” Actually, I contrasted Providence College’s “pre-dental” students to Brown’s “pre-earth-ruling” students. It’s a formulation I stand by. Compared to the home-grown, Narragansett-swilling, blue-collar fans of the Catholic college on the far side of town, the Brown students at the Civic Center the night of February 4, 1975 were indeed a pampered posse of super-smart super-rich kids poised to rule the worlds of literature, art, politics, academia, and business. Shields was interested in comparing Brown students to Harvard students, while I was interested in comparing Brown students to the people of Providence. This is not a knock on Shields—or me—because all writers are free to choose their subject matter and use their source material as they see fit. Frankly, I’m more than a little flattered that a writer as prolific and brainy as Shields bothered to notice a trifle I wrote during my apprenticeship four decades ago. His inadvertent conflating of Providence College and the University of Rhode Island is probably not significant to anyone but me, and his failure to mention me by name is forgiven. To harp on the omission would be to risk parroting that schlemiel Bob Uecker in the old Miller Lite ad where he’s sitting alone way up in the nosebleeds at a baseball stadium, bellowing at the umpire: “He missed the tag! He missed the tag!” The umpire can’t hear him, of course, and it’s a sure bet he wouldn’t care even if he could. Which is as it should be. It’s not all bad here in the purgatory of the Unidentified Footnote Object. The pay’s not great, but we pretty much get to write whatever we want to write. And best of all, we never have to take—or teach—classes in creative writing or semiotics.
I have had some dim and unformed sense, a sense which strikes me now and then, and which I cannot explain coherently, that Joan Didion is an extraordinarily gifted and prescient writer whose enterprise seems to me to be poisoned by something that may or not be fatal: she can be cloyingly precious. Didion’s preciousness is on full display in her new book, South and West, a sampling of notes for two magazine articles that never got written. The “Notes on the South” section consists of observations Didion made as she drove aimlessly from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama in a rented car with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in the torpid summer of 1970. The shorter “California Notes” section is a series of stray reflections while Didion was trying to write about Patty Hearst’s trial in San Francisco in 1976. The prescience that justifies this slight book’s existence is contained in a single sentence: I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. This “unformed sense” may have seemed outlandish in 1970, but the election of Donald Trump has anointed it with an aura of prophecy. But was it so outlandish? In Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1964 -- the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act -- five of the six states that voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, were in the Deep South. Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not. So 1964 marked the beginning of the wholesale tipping of the country to the right, toward the Republican party, toward the red-state ethos that spread from the South and became strong enough to elect the unlikeliest of presidents. Joan Didion was one of those rare people who voted for Goldwater. After segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace took up Goldwater’s far-right mantle in the 1968 election, with nearly identical results, Didion would write, “The thought that the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.” Six years after the 1964 election, Didion and Dunne set out on their road trip along the Gulf Coast. One day the couple drove through Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which Didion calls “peculiar country.” Here’s why: There were run-down antiques places, and tomato stands, and a beauty shop called Feminine Fluff. The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station. I had a visceral reaction to this passage, something close to anger. I thought, Get out of the car and pump the fucking gas, already, or catch a plane back to L.A. where you belong. Later, Didion reports: It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody? My anger resurfaced. What horseshit, I thought. You couldn’t bring yourself to kill a mosquito. After reading South and West three times, I have come to realize that my visceral reaction to such passages misses the central point. The central point is that ever since she burst onto the scene in 1968 with her stunning collection of New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion has been playing a role. Her fragile, remote, bewildered, haughty persona is a construct, a fiction, a way for her to give voice to the writing. She is not the first writer to do this -- Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come immediately to mind – but she is arguably the first to get readers to conflate reality with her fictionalized persona and its hardware: the cigarettes, the Corvette, the cool gaze, the Céline sunglasses ads, the perpetual drip of dread. As Emmett Rensin wrote recently in The New Republic, “Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.” I believe he’s right about this, and I also believe that this is the central problem with Joan Didion. She gets a pass because, well, because she is capable of prescience, wisdom, and gorgeous sentences. She is allowed to inhabit a constructed -- and frequently annoying -- personality because legions of readers are convinced that the payoff has earned Didion a suspension of judgment, a disinclination to remain aware that her constructed personality is merely a pose. In his introduction to South and West, Nathaniel Rich writes words that are intended as high praise but that strike me as an unintended exposure of the source of this problem. Rich lauds “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance.” The operative words here are cool and empyreal. “Cool” has long been the default adjective to describe Didion’s personal style and her approach to observing people and turning her observations into sentences. But “empyreal” seems to me to be the true killer -- this notion that a writer operates from on high, far above the grubby lives of people who set their husbands on fire in Volkswagens, people who live in trailers with the air-conditioning on all night, who go to cosmetology school and wear pink Dacron housedresses and drink beer out of cans and name their daughters Kimberly or Sherry or Debi. There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed. At the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention in Biloxi, for instance, Didion writes: The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all if Taos is not in Mississippi? And yet Didion’s aloofness from these people has gotten her snared in a trap. “When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.” In her best books -- among which I would include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From – Didion is obsessed with the very things she disparages here about New Orleans, particularly the absence of style. The San Bernardino Valley, as she wrote in the ground-breaking essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is “the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.” Style doesn’t get any more absent than that. This obsession with class, heritage, style, and the absence of style has opened Didion, inevitably, to charges that she is an “elitist.” This is a serious sin in a society that tells itself it is “classless,” but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to be, provided it doesn’t negate the capacity for empathy or lead to preciousness. Was any writer more of an elitist than Marcel Proust? Or Henry James? Or Virginia Woolf? Or Flannery O’Connor? Arguably not, but that didn’t stop the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison from writing a takedown of Didion way back in 1979, in an essay so dyspeptic that it flirts with both lunacy and hilarity. “Didion’s lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz,” wrote Harrison, who went on to call Didion “a neurasthenic Cher” and “a lyricist of the irrational” whose “imperialist mentality” led her to vote for Goldwater, among other unpardonable sins. Grizzuti identified Didion’s preciousness as a source of her popularity: “That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion.” But in Grizzuti’s eyes, there is no worse sin this: “Didion’s heart is cold.” The charges have merit, but since South and West is a Joan Didion book, you know there will be gem-like sentences. Here are a half-dozen random samples: “A little girl with long unkempt hair and a dirty periwinkle dress that hung below her knees carried around an empty Sprite bottle.” “A somnolence so dense that it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi at two or three o’clock of that Sunday afternoon.” “When I left Basic City a train was moaning, the Meridian & Bigbee line. One is conscious of trains in the South. It is a true earlier time.” And: “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.” “We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river. I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South. A sense of water moccasins.” “On weekday afternoons in towns like Winfield one sees mainly women, moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.” “The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape.” “The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.” Another of the book’s delights is Didion’s portrayal of the Deep South through its motel swimming pools. Like Neddy Merrill swimming home through a string of Westchester County pools in John Cheever’s indelible short story, “The Swimmer,” Didion swims her way across Dixie, filing regular reports on the water quality. In Biloxi: “The swimming pool is large and unkempt, and the water smells of fish.” In Birmingham: “I went swimming, which occasioned great notice in the bar. ‘Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.’” In Winfield: “There was algae in the pool, and a cigarette butt.” In Oxford: “Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing. I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’” In addition to such gems, this book produces an outsized irony. The meat of the book -- if a 126-page book can be said to be meaty -- was supposed to lead to a magazine article, a “piece” in Didion-speak, that her editors at Life magazine referred to as “The Mind of the White South,” a nod to W.J. Cash’s masterpiece, The Mind of the South. Indeed, Didion doesn’t talk to a single black person, preferring instead to spend her time with New Orleans aristocrats, white women in laundromats, the white owner of a black radio station, and Walker Percy, who serves up gin and tonics. The closest Didion comes to acknowledging the plight of black people in the South is a memory of a girlhood visit to her father’s military posting in Durham, N.C., when a bus driver refused to leave the curb until the Didions had moved to the front of the bus, where white people belonged according to the iron dictates of Jim Crow. Here is Didion’s closest encounter with a black person during her 1970 trip: “On that same afternoon I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.” Tellingly, Didion doesn’t bother to ask. This section ends with a simple epitaph: “I never wrote the piece.” The irony is that the 13-page section of the book called “California Notes” also failed to produce the hoped-for magazine article, but it led to something much bigger. “This didn’t lead to my writing the piece,” Didion reports, “but eventually it led to -- years later -- Where I Was From (2003).” That book, a reappraisal of Didion’s long-held myths about her family, her native California, and the rugged individuals who settled the place, is among her very finest writing, and it’s entirely driven by her thoughts on class, heritage, style, and the absence of style. With deadpan scorn, she sums up the bankrupt myth of the “frontier ethic”: “Show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.” The inconvenient reality, from the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford on through big agriculture and the aerospace industry, is that the rugged individualism of the frontier ethic has always been supported by generous infusions of federal tax dollars. Where I Was From is such a richly reported and deeply reasoned book that it’s hard to believe it grew from the closing pages of South and West. But one thing must be believed: the fact that a major publisher has brought out these jottings in a handsome $21 hardcover is proof that Joan Didion can do no wrong because, quite simply, she was canonized a long time ago and readers have come to love her constructed personality and its coddled singularity/superiority.
My father’s father, John Morris, was born at a place called Goochland Court House, Virginia, on June 23, 1863. Nine days later an uncle of his, also named John Morris, got his left leg blown off and died fighting for the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. At the time, my grandfather’s father, Charles Morris, was serving as a quartermaster in Richmond, supplying Southern troops with food and ammunition and horses, safely removed from the escalating slaughter. The family home was a place called Taylor’s Creek, built in nearby Montpelier in 1732 by a Welsh immigrant named William Morris, and worked by slaves. There is a black-and-white family photograph taken in November of 1952, the month the United States detonated the first thermonuclear device, precursor to the hydrogen bomb. The photograph shows my grandfather, hair as white as sugar, wearing a three-piece suit and an expression of delight mixed with terror, for on his right knee he’s balancing a swaddled infant who has the bewildered, bug-eyed look of a space alien. I am the infant. Three years later, my grandfather died at the age of 92. I have no memories of the man, but even as a boy I marveled at the changes he must have witnessed in his long lifetime. He was born during the Civil War and died at the peak of the Cold War. When he was born, the dominant technologies were the railroad, the telegraph, and photography. He grew up in a world lit by kerosene and candles, he traveled by foot and horseback and wagon on dirt roads, drank water hauled from a well, used an outdoor privy. He went on to study Latin and Greek and German, and he became a lawyer, a philologist, and a college professor first in Virginia and then, for more than half a century, at the University of Georgia. Along the way, he lived through Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, urbanization, Prohibition, labor unrest, the Great Depression, two world wars, the atom bomb and the Korean War. He was among the original users of the telephone, radio, automobile, phonograph, airplane, elevator, moving pictures, typewriters, subways, safety razors, television, penicillin, pasteurized milk, electric lights, refrigeration, antibiotics, and central heat and air-conditioning. He endured the grim rigors of Jim Crow, unhappily. He was in Germany to witness Adolf Hitler’s rise, also unhappily. He wrote scholarly articles for obscure journals and spent decades producing a German-English dictionary that never got published. It seems that he dealt with all this dizzying change by remaining firmly rooted in the 19th century, an unapologetic member of the old school, a sugar-haired gentleman scholar in a three-piece suit. For all that, he held remarkably progressive beliefs on race, child rearing, women’s rights, and religious freedom. As I grew older, my boyish sense of wonder spawned an allied suspicion: I came to doubt the oft-repeated mantra that, as a Baby Boomer, I was living in a time of unprecedented change. Yes, we curled up under our school desks as a pathetic way of preparing for nuclear Armageddon, and, yes, I lived to see the civil rights movement, interstate highways, the Vietnam War, a man on the moon, the flowering of feminism and gay rights, Watergate, personal computers and the Internet and the smart phone. These are not trifles. But my inventory led to an unassailable conclusion: not all that much has changed in my lifetime, really, and certainly not in the fundamental ways my grandfather’s day-to-day life changed. For years I carried around these vague ideas until, by chance, I discovered a new book that put flesh on the bones of my theory. The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon is that rarest thing: a work of densely researched macroeconomics that is compulsively readable. (Thomas Piketty’s surprise 2014 hit, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is another exception to the rule that macroeconomics tends to be a snore.) Gordon’s monumental book is guided by two central premises: that the years from 1870 to 1970, very nearly the dates of my grandfather’s birth and death, comprised “the special century,” a spurt of great inventions and economic growth in the United States that is unmatched in human history; and that since 1970, change has been far slower and it has been confined to the much narrower spheres of entertainment, communications, and information. Gordon argues persuasively that future growth and innovation will continue to be stunted by a relatively recent, and seemingly irreversible, development: “the rise of inequality that since 1970 has steadily directed an ever larger share of the fruits of the American growth machine to the top of the income distribution.” In other words, the game has been rigged for years, and with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the federal government it’s not going to get unrigged anytime soon. The rich will keep getting richer, the middle class will continue to wither, innovation will continue to stagnate, and we’ll all be poorer for it. The “special century,” it turns out, was a one-off. Books come out of books, and the best books lead us to new books. American Growth has led me to more than a dozen titles – histories, memoirs, reportage, novels. One of the closest in spirit to Gordon’s enterprise is Victorian America, a delightful work of popular history by Thomas J. Schlereth, who is guided by Sigfried Giedion’s dictum that “for the historian there are no banal things.” Indeed Schlereth, like Gordon, is determined to write history from the bottom up rather than from the top down, focusing on the way day-to-day life in America changed in the four decades leading up to the First World War. Schlereth’s chapter headings reflect his approach: “Moving,” “Working,” “Housing,” “Communicating,” “Striving,” “Living and Dying.” The book opens with the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and ends with the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. On the eve of the First World War, Schlereth writes, “Americans played more, put greater stock in education and engineering, and found themselves living in a culture more homogeneous and urban, more incorporated and interdependent, than their counterparts who had visited Philadelphia in 1876.” In 1915 the sun was setting on American isolation and innocence, an underlying theme of E.L. Doctorow’s great novel Ragtime. The San Francisco Exposition, according to Schlereth, “reflected a final sentimental, opulent display of American Victorianism.” After that, the deluge. My grandfather lived to see it all -- the bloodbaths of two world wars, the Holocaust, the dawn of the nuclear age, the gargantuan horrors of Jim Crow. But he did miss one truly momentous change. Less than a month before my grandfather died, a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till was brutally tortured and murdered by white men in Money, Miss. Till’s sin? He was accused of grabbing a white woman who worked as a cashier in a local market then whistling at her. Till’s killers were acquitted. In The Blood of Emmett Till, a new book by Timothy B. Tyson, Till’s white accuser, Carolyn Bryant, has finally admitted that she lied on the witness stand during the trial of Till’s murderers. Bryant tells Tyson that Till never “grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities,” as she had testified in court. Bryant added, “You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true.” Two months after my grandfather died, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, as required by Jim Crow statues in place since the turn of the century. A year-long boycott of the city’s buses by black citizens ensued, and finally, grudgingly, the Montgomery bus system was integrated. Far more important, the death of Emmett Till and the courage of Rosa Parks provided the match that ignited the smoldering civil rights movement. So my grandfather missed one of the most uplifting, violent, disappointing -- and ongoing -- narratives in all of American history. Other than the civil rights movement, though, John Morris didn’t miss much. His century was more than merely special. It was an astonishment.
This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved. Happily for them all, their books live on. C.D. Wright C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas -- she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” -- but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.” Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all. About persons of small means.” Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines: AC or DC You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned Your pick you’re the one condemned Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay. In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world.” Read: Several Millions Year in Reading contributors on Wright's work. Umberto Eco Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols -- religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery. Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said. In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story. Man is a storytelling animal by nature. I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.” Read: An account of an in-person Eco sighting or our review of Confessions of a Young Novelist. Harper Lee Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder. No wonder. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land. The love was enormous but not universal. Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair. In 2015, Lee's lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman. Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist. Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death. Read: An account of a visit to Lee's hometown; an analysis of Lee's symbolism; or our review of Watchman. Jim Harrison When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid. Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be. No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way -- all the way to the brim. Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison. Michael Herr Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock 'n' roll absurdity. That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.” Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.” A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing. Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired. James Alan McPherson James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room. After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014. Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.” Read: A note on McPherson's skill as a eulogist. Edward Albee George and Martha --- sad, sad, sad. It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.” Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really). Gloria Naylor With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty. Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the "ebony phoenix," she rose and was saved by her writing. William Trevor William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people -- mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.” Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site -- and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him -- until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new. Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor. And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order: Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom. Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize. Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner's considerable charms. David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness. A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration. “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.” Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island -- only to be undone by some nasty habits. He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor. After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs. After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost. His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta. Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci. Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers. he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans. Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.” He forgot to add: and lots of them. Read: Conroy's reaction to having his books banned. Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever. Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker. The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story. It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims -- “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.” Read: A Year in Reading on Jones. Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész. Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness. Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.” Wow. Read: A detailed look at King's work and life. W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball. His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.” Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball. Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
In a land where most magazines have the lifespan of a fruit fly, how is it possible for one magazine to survive -- and thrive -- for 75 years? Janet Hutchings has a theory: “The great power that Frederic Dannay gave this magazine was its variety and its reach.” Hutchings was referring to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and she was invoking the name of its founding editor, Frederic Dannay, who, along with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, collaborated to produce the short stories and novels of the pseudonymous mystery writer Ellery Queen, selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million books. Hutchings is now the magazine’s editor, and she offered her theory about its longevity at a symposium that launched a delightful new show, “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine 75th Anniversary Exhibition,” which is now at the Butler Library at Columbia University in New York. The exhibition is a little gold mine for mystery fans in particular and book lovers in general. There are typed manuscript pages by Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Isaac Asimov, and others. Sitting there behind glass, they have the look of Scripture. There are letters, photographs, and book and magazine covers, including the inaugural issue of EQMM from the fall of 1941, which featured stories by Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and, of course, Ellery Queen. The cover illustration of the 75th anniversary issue is by venerable Milton Glaser, whose very first published illustration was a cover for EQMM in 1954. Among its many delights, the anniversary issue features a new story by Joyce Carol Oates, a frequent contributor, and a classic from 1948 by Stanley Ellin, “The Specialty of the House.” Dannay made no secret during his lifetime that he and his collaborating cousin had their disagreements -- “We fight like hell,” was how he put it -- and this show offers an amusing glimpse into their creative differences. As a rule, Dannay cooked up the plots, Lee did the storytelling, then Dannay did the editing. When Lee complained about Dannay’s heavy use of the blue pencil, a letter in the exhibition at Columbia reveals Dannay’s indignant reaction: “Do you know that I am considered one of the most perceptive and astute detective-story editors in the business? By everyone but you.” In another letter, Dannay added, “Manny, you are emotionally, physically and mentally incapable of taking criticism.” For all the friction, the magazine was a smooth-running machine from day one. The inaugural issue sold more than 90,000 copies, and it contained a note from Dannay that expanded on Janet Hutchings’s “variety and reach” recipe for its success: “We propose to give you stories by big-name writers, by lesser known writers, and by unknown writers. But no matter what their source, they will be superior stories.” True to Dannay’s word, the magazine has published the work of more than 40 Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, countless mid-listers, and more than 800 writers who broke into print in the magazine’s Department of First Stories. The Passport to Crime series has showcased the work of international writers. Jorge Luis Borges was first published in English in the pages of the magazine. “One of the things about EQMM is that it made a major change in publishing,” Hutchings told me. “The only criterion for inclusion in the magazine was quality. Dannay was determined that the magazine be general -- with hard-boiled stories, classic English mysteries, noirs, suspense, cozy mysteries, the work of literary writers. That really hadn’t been done before, and it had the effect of mainstreaming the mystery. Now academics are starting to write articles about this.” Indeed, EQMM can be seen as a pioneering force in what is now a fact of life in American fiction -- the blending of supposedly “high” and “low” literary forms, the blurring of genre boundaries, the growing sense among writers and readers that the old strictures and snobberies hampered free and fruitful cross-pollination. Now, writers of every stripe gleefully plunder one or more genres, stitching together scraps or horror, pulp, crime, fantasy, ghost stories, mysteries, westerns. In 2011, the literary novelist Colson Whitehead published Zone One, in which a plague has turned most of the world’s population into zombies. A decade earlier, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon’s exuberant mash-up of comic books and high lit, won the Pulitzer Prize. Loren D. Estleman, primarily a writer of crime and western fiction, just published a short story collection called Desperate Detroit that features a western with vampire cowboys. In a related vein, the movie Cowboys & Aliens sets extraterrestrials loose in the Wild West. Elmore Leonard and Stephen King, unapologetic genre writers, both penned well-regarded advice on how to write well. “Nowadays,” Kurt Anderson recently wrote in The New York Times, “esteem isn’t much withheld from people who write thoughtful, first-rate novels that also happen to be page-turners, like [Jonathan Lethem’s] A Gambler’s Anatomy. The boundaries between high and low -- or between serious fiction and 'entertainments,' in Graham Greene’s binary classification of his work -- are no longer prissily enforced. That’s progress.” I agree. All the while, such literary writers as Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, and P.G. Wodehouse have made rich contributions to EQMM. The magazine’s 75th anniversary edition features a story by Charlaine Harris, who, in Hutchings’s estimation, “has done more than any other recent writer to break down the boundaries between mystery and fantasy.” On and on it goes, to the delight of every reader who hates the formulaic and loves unfettered, unpredictable writing. “There’s still some snobbery left in certain areas,” Hutchings said, “but there’s much more openness, and I do think EQMM played a role in that. And still does.” Don’t take her word for it. Go see “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s 75th Anniversary Exhibition” at Columbia. It will be open through Dec. 23.
Three years after his National Book Award, I am pleased to report that James McBride has outdone himself. His new book, a delicious stew of styles called Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, is part memoir, part biography, part history, part journalistic investigation, and part musical exegesis. But mostly it’s a scorchingly honest examination of the racial divide that explains why America continues to be a bloody and schizophrenic place. As its subtitle suggests, this book is a quest both for a man and for how he helped shape our national soul through his music and politics and personal style. McBride goes to some lengths to state the case for Brown’s importance. “For African Americans,” McBride writes, “the song of our life, the song of our entire history, is embodied in the life and times of James Brown.” He adds, “James Brown was our soul” and “one of the greatest American forces in modern musical history.” But importance does not always lead to understanding, and McBride acknowledges this as a further reason for writing this book: “[James Brown] is also arguably the most misunderstood and misrepresented African American figure of the last three hundred years, and I would speculate that he is nearly as important and influential in American social history as, say, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass.” One reason Brown was misunderstood, as McBride reveals, is because of the nature of the world that made him. He grew up poor and parentless in an impoverished swath of the Jim Crow South, raised mostly by relatives, largely unloved, frequently despised, and clearly headed nowhere good. He was busted for stealing car parts and served three years in juvenile prison before he was out of his teens. He was no stranger to loneliness. As Brown said of his early years in the first of his two memoirs, The Godfather of Soul: I was left by myself a lot. Being alone in the woods like that, spending nights in a cabin with nobody else there, not having anybody to talk to, worked a change in me that stayed with me from then on: It gave me my own mind. No matter what came my way after that -- prison, personal problems, government harassment -- I had the ability to fall back on myself. Shortly after his release from juvenile prison, Brown formed a group called The Famous Flames, and in 1955 they cut their first record, Please, Please, Please. There were to be major bumps in the road, but the fledgling singer was on his way to becoming The Star of the Show, Mr. Dynamite, America’s Soul Brother Number One, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business -- Jaaaaaaaames Brown! McBride plays saxophone and leads the gospel/jazz/blues Good Lord Bird Band, and his understanding of how music gets made is a key to this book’s power. He offers a deft dissection of the differences between jazz and funk, likening jazz to basketball and funk to baseball. “Jazz requires a blend of split-second timing, skill and training,” he writes, while funk requires “specific learned skills that have to be exercised flawlessly [and] can only be learned through years of practice.” He adds, “That’s why funk is as challenging as jazz. You must know when to enter the groove, and what to play [as well as] when not to play.” I would venture to take McBride’s sports analogy a step further into the realm of visual art and say that jazz, with its soloists’ squabbling improvisations, is akin to abstract expressionism, while funk, with its pared-down precision and stress on what to leave out, is more akin to minimalism. Compare Jackson Pollock’s volcanic eruptions to Donald Judd’s simple plywood boxes. Compare John Coltrane’s lushly rambling “Traneing In” to James Brown’s precisely chiseled “The Payback.” Though it’s a celebration of a remarkable life and career, Kill ’Em and Leave is also a sad book. Brown’s lonely and largely loveless childhood produced a grown man who was deeply suspicious and withdrawn. He routinely hid money and carried thick wads of cash because he didn’t trust banks. He drove his musicians mercilessly. A long-time friend said of Brown: “I’ve never met anyone in my life that worked harder to hide his true heart.” And Brown himself admitted to his trusted manager, Charles Bobbit: “Mr. Bobbit, you’re the only one I let know me. You’re the only man that knows I don’t know how to love.” But mainly Brown was driven by fear. McBride describes it with this marvelous mash of metaphors: That fear – the knowledge that a single false step while wandering inside the maze of the white man’s reality could blast you back home with the speed of a circus artist being shot out of a cannon -- is the kryptonite that has lain under the bed of every great black artist from 1920s radio star Bert Williams to Miles Davis to Jay Z. If you can’t find a little lead-lined room where you can flee that panic and avoid its poisonous rays, it will control your life….Keeping the pain out was a full-time job, and Brown worked harder at it than any black star before or after. Here’s Henrietta Shackleford, the narrator of The Good Lord Bird, speaking in his/her wised-up vernacular about the source of this fear and pain: Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Like many who bring themselves up out of poverty by force of will, talent, and hard work, Brown was disdainful of handouts, any hint of shiftlessness. He became an icon of the civil rights and black pride movements, and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” became an anthem during the incendiary summer of 1968. I saw James Brown perform in Detroit that summer, and the crowd’s delirious shouting of the title lyric nearly popped the roof off of Cobo Hall. For Brown, the civil rights movement was all about getting equal opportunity, not special treatment. He summed this up nicely in the lyric: “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.” Brown was demanding, prickly, impossible, and eventually just about everyone abandoned him -- wives, lovers, musicians, family -- and he wound up isolated, in physical pain, hounded by the IRS, with a mean streak and an angel dust habit to boot. The lonely boy in the cabin in the piney woods wound up walled away inside his mansion, alone with his genius and his irascibility. As a crowning insult, greed and legal wrangling have seen to it that, a decade after his death, not one dime of his $100 million estate has yet reached its intended beneficiaries, the impoverished schoolchildren of South Carolina and Georgia. This may be the true tragedy of James Brown’s life. I already knew that McBride was a gifted writer and musician, but this book proves that he’s also a tireless shoe-leather reporter. He does the legwork, finds the right people, gets them to open up to him. These writing and reporting skills dovetail to produce some startling insights, including an epiphany about race that McBride has while eating in a soul food joint called Brooker’s in Barnwell, S.C., not far from where James Brown was born and where he died. This epiphany is worth quoting at length because it captures the essence of McBride’s unorthodox method: They laugh and smile and make you feel good. But behind the laughter, the pie, the howdies, and the second helpings, behind the huge chicken dinners and the easy chuckles, there’s a silent buzz. If you put your ear to a table, you can almost hear it; it’s a churning kind of grind, a rumble, a growl, and when you close your eyes and listen, the noise is not pleasant. It’s nothing said, or even seen, for black folks in South Carolina are experts at showing a mask to the white man. They’ve had generations of practice. The smile goes out before their faces like a radiator grille. When a white customer enters Brooker’s, they act happy…and howdy ’em and yes ’em to death. And you stand there dumbfounded, because you’re hearing something different, you’re hearing that buzz, and you don’t know if it’s coming from the table or the bottom of your feet, or if it’s the speed of so much history passing between the two of them, the black and the white, in that moment when the white man pays for his collard greens with a smile that ties you up, because you can hear the roar of the war still being fought -- the big one, the one the northerners call the Civil War and southerners call the War of Northern Aggression, and the more recent war, the war of propaganda, where the black guy in the White House pissed some people off no matter what he did. It’s all about race. Everybody knows it. And there’s no room to breathe… If you wait till the white man leaves and ask about that space, the space between white and black folks in South Carolina, the black folks say, “Oh, it ain’t nothing. Such-and-so is my friend. I’ve known him forty years. We all get along here.” Only at night, when they get home, when the lights are down and all the churchin’ is done and the singing is over and the TV is off and the wine is flowing and tongues are working freely, only within the safety of home and family does the talk change, and then the buzz is no longer a buzz. It’s a roaring cyclone of fury laced with distaste and four hundred years of pent-up bitterness. Kill ’Em and Leave is full of such tough truths. Every person living in America today needs to hear them, fruit of the hard work of one of our most gifted and important writers.
1. American book publishers have forever been on the lookout for the next hot young thing. In a country built by people who shucked the old world in favor of a new one they got to make up on the fly, this hunger for newness -- in books and just about everything else -- was probably an inevitable strain of the national character. And it hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. A very cursory list of American writers who got published before they turned 25 includes Truman Capote, Michael Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Karen Russell, Gore Vidal, and David Foster Wallace. Not a single dog in that pack. But for every hot young thing who went on to a long and venerable career, there are dozens, hundreds, who blazed briefly and then vanished. Moreover, publishing’s abiding obsession with fresh voices ignores a curious fact about our current literary scene: a startling number of the finest writers at work today are not twentysomethings; they’re eightysomethings. Yes, we’re witnessing the unlikely rise of the octogenarian hottie. (Fellow staff writer Sonya Chung explores and celebrates the work of later-in-life writers at our sister site, Bloom.) Here are sketches of a half-dozen members of this implausibly durable and prolific tribe. 2. Gay Talese At the age of 84, Gay Talese has just published his 14th work of non-fiction. As we have come to expect from one of our greatest living journalists, The Voyeur’s Motel is richly reported, elegantly written -- and deeply disturbing. Above all, it’s a testament to the payoffs when a skilled reporter stays in for the long haul. Talese, who once wrote for and then wrote a book about our newspaper of record, calls himself “a man of record.” In bulging file cabinets in his subterranean bunker in New York City, he tucks away every scrap of research for possible use at a later date. He discards nothing because he understands that everything has the potential to become a story. This obsessive collecting accounts for the existence of The Voyeur’s Motel. The titular character is Gerald Foos, who bought a motel near Denver in the 1960s for the express purpose of spying on his guests. He cut holes in the ceilings of several rooms, then installed fake vents that allowed him to climb into the attic and observe everything that happened in the rooms below. In 1980, Foos wrote an anonymous letter about his project to Talese, who was about to publish his best-seller about sex in America, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not just as some deranged voyeur,” Foos wrote, adding, “I have logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I have watched, and compiled interesting statistics on each…” Intrigued, Talese eventually visited the Manor House Motel and accompanied Foos into his attic observatory for several voyeuristic sessions. But since Foos was not willing to reveal his identity -- and since Talese insists on using real names -- the notes went into Talese’s file cabinets, along with the copious journal entries Foos began to send. Foos insisted that his retrofitted motel was not the lair of “some pervert or Peeping Tom,” but rather “the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state.” He saw himself as a “pioneering sex researcher” in a league with Masters and Johnson. Foos’s journals chronicled every imaginable kind of participant in every imaginable scenario: sex between happily and unhappily married couples, group sex, swingers, cross-dressers, a nun, drug dealers, prostitutes, con artists, wounded Vietnam veterans, and one guy who had sex with a teddy bear. Foos even witnessed a murder. But since the voyeur remained unwilling to go on the record, Talese filed away the journal entries and eventually forgot about Gerald Foos. Then in 2013 -- 33 years after he first wrote to Talese, and several years after he sold his two motels -- Foos called Talese to announce that he was finally willing to go public with his story. Talese was ready. He had everything he needed in chronological order in his file cabinets, including the fact that the voyeur’s experiment became a long slide into misanthropy. After decades of peeping, Foos concluded: “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest. They are part of a fantasy world of exaggerators, game players, tricksters, intriguers, thieves, and people in private who are never what they portray themselves as being in public.” When Talese made one last research trip to Colorado in the summer of 2015, Foos took him to the site of the recently demolished Manor House Motel. Foos was hoping to find a souvenir in the fenced-in platter of dirt, but after a while he gave up. When his wife suggested they go home, he said, “Yes, I’ve seen enough.” There was to be one major hiccup. As the book was going to press, a Washington Post reporter dug up the fact that Gerald Foos had failed to tell Talese that he had sold his the Manor House Motel and then repurchased it in the 1980s -- after the events recorded in The Voyeur’s Motel. Talese warned in the book that Foos could be “an inaccurate and unreliable narrator,” adding, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.” Despite these clear caveats, Talese blurted to a Post reporter that his book’s credibility was “down the toilet” and he would not be promoting it. Happily, Talese quickly came to his senses and disavowed his disavowal, then vigorously set about promoting a book that only a “man of record” and a gifted journalist could have written. Cynthia Ozick At the age of 88 -- “piano keys,” as she merrily puts it -- Cynthia Ozick has just published her seventh volume of criticism, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, the yin to the yang of her high-minded novels (read our interview with Ozick here). A self-proclaimed “fanatic” in the cause of literature, Ozick is not ashamed to be wistful about the passing of a time when “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event.” In a sense, Ozick is a keeper of a guttering flame, but she presses on, living in the bedroom community of New Rochelle where she has lived since the 1960s, not far from her girlhood home in the Bronx. She rarely ventures beyond the neighborhood supermarket these days, and she still writes late into the night at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood. One sign of greatness in a writer of fiction is the ability to make readers care about characters and worlds that would ordinarily be of no interest to them. I approached Ozick’s 2004 novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, with more than a little trepidation. It’s the story of a young woman named Rose Meadows who accepts a job as assistant to Rudolf Mitwisser, an imposing scholar of a medieval Jewish heresy known as Karaism. The novel unfolds in the Bronx in the mid-1930s, amid an enclave of refugees from Europe’s gathering storm. Not exactly my kind of set-up, but my trepidation vanished before I reached the bottom of the first page. I was beguiled, swept away. The publication of that novel also served as a reminder that Ozick can be funny in a brazen, Buster-Keaton kind of way. Thirty-eight years after publishing her first novel, Ozick got sent out on her first book tour to promote Heir, a form of exquisite torture and humiliation that she chronicled for the New York Times in a story that should be required reading for every aspiring novelist and every comedy writer. Yes, high literature may be all but dead in America, but it helps that a keeper of the flame is still able to make us laugh out loud. Toni Morrison Last year, at the age of 84, Toni Morrison, our only living Nobel laureate, published a slender novel called God Help the Child. Unlike her previous 10 novels, this one avoids large historical themes -- particularly slavery and its unending repercussions -- and instead tells a fable-like story of a well-off cosmetics executive named Bride living in modern-day California. The damage done to children has been an abiding preoccupation of Morrison’s, going all the way back to her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which an 11-year-old girl is pregnant after being raped by her father. In God Help the Child the damage is less brutal but no less insidious. Bride’s mother, Sweetness, was instantly and forever appalled by her daughter’s dark skin: “It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black.” While God Help the Child is not Morrison’s finest work -- how many novels rise to the level of Beloved? -- it offers an insight into the sources of one writer’s late-career flowering. Arthritis has put Morrison in a wheelchair, and writing is not only a way out of physical pain, but a way to control her world. As she told The New York Times Magazine last year: I know how to write forever. I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It’s control… Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing. It is dangerous because I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place. Philip Levine This fall, nearly two years after he died at the age of 87, the poet Philip Levine will posthumously publish a slim but sumptuous miscellany called My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. A former U.S. poet laureate who came up through the infernos of his native Detroit’s auto factories, Levine was productive right up to the end of his long life, producing the essays, speeches, journal entries and verse fragments that make up this welcome new collection. It is, in essence, the story of how one poet got made, and it’s best read in tandem with Levine’s only other book of prose, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, from 1994. The new book offers a lovely description of Levine’s very first poems, composed when he was a teenager, at night, in woods near his home in Detroit. He called them “secret little speeches addressed to the moon.” Years later, on a return visit to his hometown, Levine encounters an elderly black man who is scratching out a garden and an existence amid the city’s ruins. As the two men talk, life and poetry merge. As Levine put it: “There are those rare times in my life when I know that what I’m living is in a poem I’ve still to write.” Joan Didion Now 81, Joan Didion has produced three fairly recent memoirs that prove beyond all doubt that she is a master stylist and one of our keenest social observers. The first of the three books, Where I Was From, is my favorite, a cold-eyed reassessment of the myths and assumptions Didion once held about her family and her native California, what she now scorns as “the local dreamtime.” The other two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are unflinching dissections of the grief Didion lived through after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Bravery, it turns out, is not the exclusive province of the young. Lawrence Ferlinghetti At the age of 97 -- which makes him the only nonagenarian in this tribe -- the poet, publisher and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti is shopping a new book called To the Lighthouse, a surrealistic blend of fiction and autobiography. Ferlinghetti, who has published some 50 volumes of poetry, including the million-copy-seller A Coney Island of the Mind, is still represented by his long-time literary agent Sterling Lord, who is a spry 95. 3. So why is it that some writers dry up while others keep producing good work deep into the twilight of their lives? There is no single reason for this late-career productivity, just as there is no single approach that unifies these writers. Talese and Ozick continue to plow the same furrows they’ve been plowing for decades, to great effect. For Morrison, writing is a way to escape physical pain and assert control. For Levine and Didion, the late years became a time of looking back, of revisiting origins and reassessing beliefs. For Ferlinghetti, it’s a chance to explore a new form. If their motivations and methods vary, it’s safe to say that all of these writers share Morrison’s need to write forever, that they’re in the grip of what the writer Roger Rosenblatt has called “the perpetually evolving yearning.” There will always be something new to say, maybe even some new way to say it. In his posthumous collection of essays, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said contended that late-life work isn’t always a summing up, or a display of accumulated wisdom, or a reassessment; it can also be “a form of exile” marked by “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.” Said cited Jean Genet and Ludwig von Beethoven, among others, as exemplars of this intransigence. Late style can also be a response to the breakdown of the body, as when Henri Matisse underwent colon surgery at age 71 and, no longer able to stand and work at an easel, gleefully embarked on what he called his “second life,” a 13-year flurry when he sat in a wheelchair and used simple scissors and sheets of colored paper to create the ebullient, child-like cutouts that would become the exclamation point of his long career. He kept at it until he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 84. The painter Chuck Close, who underwent a major stylistic shift of his own in his mid-70s, recently said, “The late stage can be very interesting. Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was.” The above list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. It omits countless octogenarians who are still doing fine work, as well as writers who were productive until they died in their 80s (and beyond), including: Maya Angelou, who died at 86 in 2014; the poet John Ashbery, still prolific at 89; Saul Bellow, who died at 89 in 2005; E.L. Doctorow, who died last year at 84 and will posthumously publish his Collected Stories next year; Elizabeth Hardwick, who died at 91 in 2007; Gabriel García Márquez, who died at 87 in 2014; the Canadian short story master and Nobel laureate, Alice Munro, still working at 85; Philip Roth, (who is currently in retirement but was productive into his 80s); James Salter, who died last year at 90; and Tom Wolfe (85). As different as these writers are, they do have one thing in common: they were all in for the long haul, and they all found a way to keep up the good work. Image: Wikipedia, Girolamo Nerli