They keep coming – novels, short stories, memoirs, journals, oral histories, documentaries and feature films that feed off the decade that goes by many names. Tom Wolfe called it the "Me Decade." Martin Amis called it the "Joke Decade." Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris called it a "Kidney Stone of a Decade." I call it the "Cockroach Decade"; the 1970s have become an unkillable source of inspiration for writers and filmmakers, the scummy well that refuses to run dry. What is the secret of its durable appeal? The answer, I think, comes in three flavors. 1. Primary Sources These are first-person, boots-on-the-ground accounts of how lives were lived in the ’70s or, in some cases, how those lives are remembered from a distance of many years, after the fog of booze and ’ludes has drifted out to sea. There’s a scabrous new entry to this sub-genre called 20th-Century Boy: Notebooks on the Seventies, an eyewitness account by Duncan Hannah, an aspiring painter who arrived in New York from Minneapolis (by way of prep school and Bard College) in the early 1970s and proceeded to take a swan dive into the bubbling downtown scene of art and punk rock experimentation. He drank and drugged heroically, hit every club and party, fucked anything that walked upright (well, in Hannah’s case, anything female that walked upright, since he claims he was 100 percent hetero, to the chagrin of many of the guys.) Hannah had the good sense to write everything down “as it happened,” which gives the book its pungent, sometimes sick immediacy. Here, for instance, are Hannah’s thoughts after accompanying an acidophilic girlfriend to an abortion clinic: “After the fifty acid trips this girl had taken from eighth grade on, what would she have given birth to…a fish? Stan Laurel?” Students of history and fans of Balzac will learn valuable things about how life was lived – and how much things cost – in New York City in the 1970s. It took just $60 to hire somebody to kill somebody. A loft rented for $350 a month. A double feature of foreign films at the Carnegie Hill Cinema cost $1.50. The World Trade Center loomed in the distance “like twin phosphorescent robots.” Fifty-third Street and Third Avenue was the gay hustlers’ corner. The twin lodestars of downtown nightlife were CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where Hannah was a fixture, and farther uptown it was Studio 54, “the elegant playground for the international jet set,” where Bianca Jagger famously rode a white horse onto the dance floor and where Hannah once spotted Truman Capote, pickled on booze and prescription drugs and looking like “a waxwork from Madame Tussauds. A zombie.” After a while you begin to realize that this was a small world, virtually a club, and Hannah was able to join it and live the dissolute boho life partly because he was pretty, partly because he had artistic dreams, and partly because he got regular checks from home. The name-dropping gets tiresome eventually, and Hannah comes across, more than once, as a rich-boy dilettante, a trust-fund punk. The club is so hermetically insulated from the outside world that the era’s searing traumas, Vietnam and Watergate, get glancing mention. And here is Hannah’s insight into his struggle to become a painter: “It’s hard.” Such remarks give new depth to the meaning of the word shallow. Despite all this, 20th-Century Boy will stand as valuable source material for anyone hoping to understand the 1970s. If it did nothing else, the book confirmed two of my long-held beliefs: that Iggy Pop is a genius, and Lou Reed was a five-star asshole. And it ends almost sweetly, with Hannah’s stubbornly conventional paintings winning him a solo gallery show, where he arrives sober, gets treated like a prince, and actually sells a bunch of pictures. Hannah has come to realize that the coolest thing of all is the courage to do what’s uncool. It’s a grace note of an ending to a long grubby harrowing wallow. Somehow, it feels perfect. Hannah, it turns out, is quoted frequently in another primary source from the era, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, first published in 1996, two decades after the facts. Absolutely everybody who was anybody is here, yakking away about the bands, the booze, the backbiting, the brawls, the record deals, the nihilism, the hard drugs, the sex, the joy of making it up as you went along, with no expectations, no limits, no rules. The punk movement, which was never a true movement, took all of five years to eat itself alive. But reading about the cannibalistic banquet is the equivalent of passing a ghastly car crash: you cannot look away. A far more expansive primary source is Will Hermes’s superb Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. Using a wider lens than McNeil and McCain, Hermes examines the hot house scenes in the mid-’70s that produced not only punk but also hip-hop, salsa, loft jazz, minimalist operas, superstar DJs. In a review of the book, David Gates echoes one of the lessons from 20th-Century Boy. “Of course we get the headline-news boilerplate: Son of Sam, the 1977 blackout, the opening of the World Trade Center,” Gates writes. “But more important, Hermes gives us a sense of what a small town New York used to be.” 2. Embellished Experience Then there are writers and artists who journey back in time, ransack their memories of the ’70s, and embellish them to create a sort of time-lapse portrait. Michael Zadoorian’s fourth book, the terrific Beautiful Music, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that is usually the stuff of first novels. A nerdy white teenager named Danny Yzemski is living with his unhinged widow mom in northwest Detroit in aftermath of the 1967 riot (or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion). It’s 1974 and Detroit has just elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, and racism and the related tensions on the city streets and in the hallways of Redford High School are prompting many white families to pack up and get out of town. Danny’s salvation is his discovery of rock ’n’ roll, which helps him survive tough times in a tough town. I called Zadoorian at his home in Detroit and asked him why he revisited the ’70s four decades after his 1975 graduation from Redford High. “I don’t know what drew me to write a coming-of-age story when I was in my late fifties,” he replied. “Maybe it’s a matter of trying to understand your path, this place, the way life was back then, including the toxic things like racism, anger, fear, white people moving out. There’s something fascinating about the ’70s, especially to people who weren’t alive then. Things were so outrageous and ugly that there was an audacity and a beauty to it. It was a time of ferment when the world went kind of crazy. It’s interesting to find those moments in time when things shift.” For Zadoorian, one of the most seductive shifts in the ’70s was the music. “I wanted to be unashamed about the music I loved then, including stuff that would be considered crap now – like Foghat,” he said. “Punk rock was a reaction to bloated stadium rock and all the excess.” Joey Ramone addressed this split in Please Kill Me when he compared the making of the first Ramones album with the working method of Fleetwood Mac, the richest band on the planet: We did the album in a week and we only spent sixty-four hundred dollars making it – everybody was amazed. At that time, people did not have that much regard for money. There was a lotta money around. Money circulating around for absurd things. Money wasn’t tight yet – some albums were costing half a million dollars to make and taking two or three years to record, like Fleetwood Mac and stuff. Another talking head in Please Kill Me is Patti Smith, the poet rocker whose 2010 memoir of the era, Just Kids, won the National Book Award. The book spins around her relationship with a fellow aspiring artist, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, as the two become soul mates, lovers, and each other’s muses. The book stops when they reach the crest of fame – a wave she’s still riding, one that snuffed him out in 1989 when he died of AIDS at 42. Spike Lee’s 1999 movie, Summer of Sam, is set in the incendiary summer of 1977, the poster-boy season of the decade, when New York City was bedeviled by a serial killer, arson fires, a blackout, riots, near bankruptcy, the discordant rise of punk and disco – a citywide fever that seemed like it would never break. Here’s how a young woman identified as Keelin remembered that summer for the New York Times: What with the heat, the fire hydrants fanning out big sprays across the streets full of sweaty people, the looting, no subways, little work, no elevators, no refrigerators, Son of Sam roaming around, boyfriend sick, and punk rock as sound track in my head, Blackout ’77 was a surreal, fun, scary holiday in New York City during its glorious nadir. While Lee’s movie is supposedly about the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, the thing about the movie that sticks with me is its evocation of the era – winking disco balls, easy sex and plentiful drugs, bad fashions, the racist clannishness in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, with Ben Gazzara perfectly cast as the white neighborhood’s Mob boss patriarch. The movie is both a snapshot of a moment in time and an indictment of a timeless American urge: the need to find a scapegoat, to pin blame on someone outside the clan. Full disclosure: I, too, got bitten by the Cockroach Decade. Last year I published a nonfiction book called American Berserk: A Cub Reporter, a Small-Town Daily, the Schizo ’70s, which chronicled my time working at a Gannett newspaper in a central Pennsylvania tank town during the Summer of Sam. When I started writing the book, I saw the decade as pure cheese, a grim jumble of water beds, Ford Pintos, shag carpets and shag haircuts, leisure suits made of petroleum-based fabrics, Peter Frampton’s talking guitar, disco, the Captain and Tenille. By the time I finished writing the book, however, my memories and research had helped me realize something Will Hermes and Michael Zadoorian understood from the start. The ’70s was a time of ferment and pushback, the era that gave us Earth Day and the Alaska pipeline, gay rights and women’s rights and Nixon’s call for “law and order,” the grime of CBGB and the glitz of Studio 54, a brief burst of brilliant auteur-driven movies, people scrambling to get on the last helicopter leaving Saigon while others drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown. “Amid the cheese and the kidney stones,” I concluded, “there was a staticy vibe, a disconnect, a dissonance that has proven strangely alluring. The times were anything but homogeneous; they were cracked, crazed, schizo. For some writers – myself included, as it turns out – bad times can be the best times.” 3. Fruits of Research and Imagination And then there are those artists who missed the party but are drawn to its irresistible afterglow. One of the most stunning recent examples was 2015’s City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions who was not yet born when many of the depicted events took place. This sprawling, 911-page novel is packed with detail about New York City in the ’70s, including squatters, punk bands, DIY zines, heroin, sexual experimentation, real-estate exploitation, trust-funders in the Duncan Hannah mold, all of it bubbling toward the cataclysmic night of the July 13, 1977, when the lights went out and New York burned. The novel is a stunner, a testament to the power of research fueled by a rich imagination. Reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote, “New York felt empty…and out of control. But, in part because of the collapse, the city also felt open, liberated, available. Anything seemed possible.” Including this magisterial novel, so many years later. Rachel Kushner, who was born in 1968, pulled off a similar feat with her 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers. A woman motorcycle racer from Nevada named Reno – “the fastest woman in the world” – lands in the downtown New York art scene of the ’70s and proceeds to paint a fly-on-the-wall portrait of all the hustlers, poseurs, talkers, minimalists, frauds and geniuses. Kushner takes the reader on side trips to World War I battlefields, South American rubber plantations, the gilded enclave of Lake Como, and the violent streets of Rome. There’s a rare fearlessness at work here. As I noted when the book was first published: “Kushner doesn’t just write what she knows; she writes what she knows and what she is able to learn and what she is able to imagine truthfully from all of it.” In his 2009 National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, Irish-born, New York-based Colum McCann used Philip Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 as his narrative glue. Around that magical moment McCann spins stories of the interlinked lives of an Irish monk, a Guatemalan nurse, socialites, artists, judges, hookers, the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Vietnam. We travel from the burnt-out Bronx to Park Avenue to downtown and, yes, to Max’s and Studio 54. We’re a long way from Duncan Hannah country; we’re in a time and place that has failed utterly to insulate itself against bankruptcy, crime, grime, racism, abandonment, grief – or the quivering possibility of redemption. The Irish monk might be the perfect emblem of why the ’70s continue to draw us back: “he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.” Bringing us right up to date, there were three 1970s-infused premiers at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Mapplethorpe, directed and co-written by Ondi Timoner, is an intriguing new biopic that flips the equation of Just Kids by pushing Patti Smith into the background and making the case that what actually killed Robert Mapplethorpe was his insatiable hunger for fame. The documentary Studio 54, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, attempts to bottle the exuberance and decadence of the famous disco, which led to the downfall of its two creators, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. (In his 2009 book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, Anthony Haden-Guest noted that the guests on the club’s frenzied opening night, April 26, 1977, included Donald Trump and his new wife, Ivana.) And Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, a concert documentary filmed in Los Angeles in 2016, draws its title from Smith’s 1975 album. The iconic photograph of svelte, mop-haired Smith on the album’s cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe. So the Cockroach Decade is still alive and very much with us. It was a time when everything was sucky and broken and therefore anything was possible. The stakes were so low that the potential was unlimited – and people were ready to get on and ride. As Ian Schrager said of those pre-AIDS days and nights: “We rode it for all it was worth.” It was this wide-open, anything-goes, more-more-more ethos that makes the ’70s simultaneously so appalling and so appealing. Nothing succeeds like excess; nothing fails like excess. That’s what the decade keeps telling us, and that’s why artists will keep going back for more, more, more. Image credit: Wikimedia
Derek B. Miller caught the eye of readers of The Millions with his 2013 debut novel, Norwegian by Night, lauded by Richard Russo in his Year in Reading and staying atop our Top Ten for months. The novel featured an octogenarian ex-Marine, Sheldon Horowitz, who has lost his son in Vietnam and who tries to save another boy from his father, an Albanian war criminal. Set in Norway, the novel also introduced the wily cop Sigrid Ødergård; Miller followed it with The Girl in Green, in which two men involved in the Gulf War get a chance at redemption decades later. Now Miller is publishing American by Day, which sends Sigrid Ødergård from Norway to upstate New York to find her brother, who has disappeared after being named the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s mysterious death. Miller spoke with The Millions, via Skype, from his home in Oslo. The Millions: You have a background in International Studies, I think. Derek B. Miller: The short version is that I got a master’s degree from Georgetown in National Security, in conjunction with Oxford, where I finished my degree. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate, so I stayed in Europe, futzed around for a while working for a newspaper, and then I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I got a second master’s and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. TM: What did you do after earning your degrees? DBM: I spent about a decade in the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research. Basically I was looking at countries recovering from war—jump-starting the economy, trying to collect weapons after a war, establishing a transitional justice system. So I worked on that for a long time, trying to push the elephant of the United Nations in a direction that I thought was both more pragmatic and ethical. TM: That wasn’t exactly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was it? DBM: No [Laughs]. TM: So how did you become a novelist? DBM: Well, I think the idea of creative writing was planted in my head back at Sarah Lawrence, which at the time, 1988 to '92, had the only undergraduate creative writing program in the country. I didn’t actually do creative writing there, but I think it demystified the notion that writing is something only geniuses or crazy people do. When I tried to write, my first manuscript took me three years. It wasn’t very good, but some of the tone, my approach to characterization, my approach to the relationship between tragedy and comedy—I can look back on my efforts from my mid-20s, and it’s clearly my writing. I found that short stories weren’t for me. So I just kept writing. TM: So all these years you’re traveling around working for the U.N.—and you’re writing fiction on the side, as an apprentice? DBM: I was writing. I have a good education for finding patterns in data and building theory, and I think I approached writing from both a creative perspective and an analytical one. I asked fundamental questions I felt I needed to ask in order to write better, such as: What is a story? What differentiates a story from a mere sequence of events? What is the nature of dramatic tension, and where does it come from? How do you deal with large gaps of time? Lots of architecture and craft issues. So I asked these questions, I interrogated the material I was reading to see how different authors achieved that. I wasn’t trying to copy them, I was trying to learn. And it took me a long time to figure it out. TM: Norwegian by Night, your first novel, resonated with readers of The Millions—and a lot of other readers. Do you remember, was there a day you started writing that book, or did it sort of morph into shape over the years? DBM: What happened was, I had written a manuscript prior to that, and it didn’t work. There were two reasons why. The architecture of the story was all over the place, and my protagonist was too milquetoast. He just wasn’t interesting enough. Sheldon Horowitz was a minor character in that failed effort, and what I found was that my secondary characters were great. They were relieved of the burden of having to be the protagonist, and that let them be far more decisive and funny and wild and everything else. So when it came time to try again, I decided to move Sheldon Horowitz forward. The reason was because I was very close to my grandfathers and they were dying at that time, and my son Julian was born in 2008, which was when I wrote Norwegian by Night. The ending of the book came to me while I was at the hospital waiting for Julian to be born—it was by C-section, so it was scheduled. I was sitting there and I probably should have been thinking about my wife, Camilla, but the fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the ending of the book. And once I realized how the pieces fit together, I wrote that book in about a year. TM: Your protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Marine veteran who lost is son in Vietnam, feels guilt but has a second chance to redeem himself. Guilt seems to be a big engine in your fiction. Is that a fair thing to say? DBM: Guilt is a funny word. It comes about from making decisions that in retrospect you feel were fundamentally wrong—getting drunk and running over a kid, pretty straightforward. Sheldon’s guilt over his son is far more complex than that—it’s tied up with patriotism, his Jewish identity, things that are too complex to pin on a bad decision. They’re the consequences of a long life lived. I think loss is a stronger word. TM: Let’s bring it up to your new book, American by Day. Marcus Ødegård, the brother of the protagonist Sigrid, an Oslo cop—he’s off in America and he’s feeling guilt or loss or regret over his mother’s death from cancer years ago. And now his lover in America dies under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to give too much away—but again I’m thinking about Sheldon Horowitz. Here’s something that happened years ago that a person’s carrying around like a stone in his stomach—and trying to figure out how to come to terms with it. I guess you could call that loss. DBM: I think in Marcus’s case he feels he should have spoken up and he didn’t—and that led to his mother’s death. With Marcus I was thinking specifically of a scene from a Saul Bellow book called Seize the Day. A middle-aged guy is having a breakdown, saying, “Are you telling me that I’m not who I think I am? That I’ve lived my life under an illusion of who I thought I was?” If you wake up and you’re 50 years old and you find out you’ve been living under a delusion since childhood and clearly you’re never going to recover the life you might have led, if only—that was a very interesting and powerful theme that I wanted to explore as a way of looking at the way tragedy and crime can go together. I wanted the story of Marcus and his American girlfriend, Lydia, to be about the result of these rich but incredibly different lives, that the collision of those lives created this moment of possibility that ended very, very badly. That felt like an interesting way to create a story—not so much a crime, but to create a story that on the surface looks like a straightforward mystery, but the ultimate mystery is the way these two lives collided to create a tragedy. TM: You’re living in Oslo now? DBM: Right. TM: How did you wind up there? DBM: I met a Norwegian girl and she outsmarted me. TM: Aha. Where did you two meet? DBM: Geneva. We were both working in the same think tank on weapons. Basically it was an office romance. [millions_ad] TM: The Scandinavian literary tradition is of course gigantic—from Ibsen to Knut Hamsun to Astrid Lindgren up to Jo Nesbø. As an American writer in Norway, is that a cloud over your head? Something you don’t think about? An inspiration? I’m curious what it’s like writing in a place that’s very different from where you grew up in New England. DBM: I’ve been living abroad for 22 years now. The fact is, I still haven’t read Jo Nesbø and he’s not on my short list. That kind of crime novel—where something horrific happens and somebody’s investigating and everybody’s miserable—it just bores me. I see myself as an American writer, and what I mean by that is that I’m writing into the American literary tradition and drawing quite heavily from it. Though I’m happy to be included in a global conversation on literature as well, that’s the footing from which I have that conversation. When Don DeLillo published Underworld, it was came out in France. At the beginning of the book, it said, “translated from the American.” Right? And DeLillo said in an interview that he actually quite liked that because while he and everyone else knows that American is not a language, it was nice to emphasize the vernacular. It’s kind of a compliment, if you choose to see it that way. TM: You’re not reading Jo Nesbø. So what are you reading? DBM: What’s on my desk is Richard Russo’s debut, Mohawk. After that I want to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, who I have not read before but I read the first chapter and loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides, which I quite liked. I just finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I thought was exquisite. I do not write reviews, but I did write to her and tell her I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I haven’t checked in with Nick Hornby in a while. Then there’s Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis—he wrote The Martian, which became the movie with Matt Damon. TM: I guess that leads to the inevitable question: What are you working on now? DBM: I’ve written two things. I’ve written a draft—I don’t know if I should call it science fiction, maybe speculative fiction—of a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic story set a couple hundred years in the future. It’s called Radio Life, and I’m going back to revisions of it. I haven’t shared it with anybody but my agent. And I’m writing a contemporary inter-family drama set on the coast of New England called A Simple Arrangement. I’m hoping to have both of them done, in draft form anyway, by the end of the year. TM: Are you a full-time writer now? DBM: I would say yes. I feel the novelists around me are extraordinarily good, and while you’re always competing against yourself to be the best writer you can be, you’re also competing against the market in order to survive, and I can’t write this stuff on my knee on the way to class anymore. Which isn’t to say you try to anticipate the market, because that’s almost pointless. TM: But you are trying to make a living. DBM: Yeah, I have a wife and two kids and this is what I’m doing. So if I can’t pull it off, we don’t eat. It has gone extraordinarily well. I’m not a bestseller so I don’t have bestseller money, but I’m writing full time now and have been for about two years. TM: Is it a good life? DBM: It’s wonderful. It’s like walking a high wire without a net, but it’s a second career and it’s a chance to turn a corner. I feel I can really appreciate it at this point in my life because it’s the first job I’ve ever had where it’s just absolute blue sky, where instead of being penalized for being creative, I’m encouraged to do it. It’s an amazing space to be in. This interview was produced in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Poets, editors, songwriters, teachers, journalists, novelists—some great writers and some under-sung ones left us this year. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2017. Bharati Mukherjee Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, educated in England, Switzerland, and India; she earned advanced writing degrees in the United States, and lived more than a decade in Canada—a peripatetic life she mined to write fiction about the aspirations and dislocations of immigrant life. Mukherjee, who died Jan. 28 at 76, grew up in a rich Hindu family, “bubble-wrapped in innocence,” as she would say later. Shortly after arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Philip Roth, Mukherjee informed her parents that she was not going through with the marriage they had arranged for her and that, in fact, she had recently married a white American writer, Clark Blaise. Her first-hand knowledge of the immigrant’s yearnings was captured in the title character of her breakthrough novel, Jasmine, a poor girl from Punjab who arrives in America “greedy with wants and reckless with hope.” Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, explored the immigrant experience through the stories of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Middle East. As she was writing those stories, she was developing a credo: “Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.” Given that we now live in a world with 60 million refugees, driven from their homes for reasons ranging from terror to desire, it’s hard to argue with Mukherjee’s claim that “the narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.” Derek Walcott Some writers are lucky to have a singular place that forever nourishes their art. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. Patrick Modiano has Paris. And Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, had his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It provided Walcott with ample raw materials for his vivid, musical poems—the sea, the pulsing sun, the land and its fecund vegetation, and the people who live there in the wake of slavery, colonialism, and forced exile, snagged in the mesh of commingled cultures. Walcott, who died March 17 at 87, published his first poem when he was 14 while operating under the influence of Christopher Marlowe and John Milton. Over the next seven decades he became an accomplished poet, playwright, and watercolorist, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, producing a body of poems that ranged from compact to epic, always spun from the weather, the history, and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott was also a wanderer, and, like all exiles, he knew the twinned aches of leaving home and returning. These lines are from In a Green Night, the 1962 book that announced him as a major writer: The hospital is quiet in the rain. A naked boy drives pigs into the bush. The coast shudders with every surge. The beach Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam. There is a belt of emerald light, a sail Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef, The hills are smoking in the vaporous light, The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief. It could not change its sorrows and be home. Jimmy Breslin Though he’ll be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist of the New York City persuasion, Jimmy Breslin, who died on March 19 at 88, was also a gifted novelist, memoirist, biographer, and writer of nonfiction books about subjects both light and dark, from the ineptitude of the early New York Mets baseball teams to the sins of sexual predators in the Catholic priesthood. His biography of Damon Runyon reads like Damon Runyon on acid. Breslin produced more than 20,000 newspaper columns in his long and fluorescent career—a staggering number, I can attest, having produced about 600 of the things myself. Many of Breslin’s were written on behalf of the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten. When someone asked him why he kept going back to the well, he replied: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.” Breslin’s was an only-in-New-York life. Born in Queens, he knew the streets and the saloons, the mobsters and the cops like nobody else, and he was among the vanguard of writers who birthed what has come to be known as the New Journalism, though he scoffed at the term. Too high-minded for this burly son of the outer boroughs. He ran (unsuccessfully) for New York city council the same year Norman Mailer ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. His fame reached its peak in 1977, when the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, began sending letters to Breslin, which he published in the New York Daily News. For all the warmth he felt for the little people, Breslin could be as cold and hard as iron. His father abandoned the family when Jimmy was young, and when his father died, the son paid for the cremation. “Good,” he said afterward. “That’s over.” Jean Stein Jean Stein died on April 30 at 83, an apparent suicide. She grew up amid Hollywood luxury—her father founded Music Corporation of America—and she returned to that milieu in her later work. But it was her 1982 book, Edie: An American Biography, that upended my understanding of what a book can be. It tells the story of Edie Sedgwick, who also grew up wealthy, became a Andy Warhol superstar, then spiraled into drug addiction and death by overdose at 28. Her story is told by dozens of people whose lives crossed hers (and her patrician family’s). Stein does not elicit conventional answers to conventional questions, as in Studs Terkel or Oriana Fallaci; instead she acts like a camera, unflinching, mutely watching and listening as people talk. There is no authorial intervention, seemingly no point of view. In time, the lack of affect becomes the affect. The book is a flat yet sneakily rich portrait of squandered American privilege and the cult of celebrity. It’s an act of dissection. An X-ray. A masterpiece. Stein was not a one-hit wonder. She worked at The Paris Review (where she interviewed William Faulkner), Esquire, and the literary quarterly Grand Street. She produced another oral history, American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, and West of Eden, a study of the influences of Hollywood, oil exploration, and real estate on the city of Los Angeles. Stein was shy by nature but she threw glittering parties, including one at which Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a fistfight. She was an unobtrusive but brilliant interviewer. Of the technique behind Edie, she once said, “Each person is speaking directly to you…Nobody is ever telling you, the reader, what to think.” Denis Johnson The news that Denis Johnson had died on May 24 at 67 sent me back to two pieces of writing. The first was Johnson’s masterly short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” from his 1992 collection about drug-addled drifters and losers, Jesus’ Son. Like all great fiction, “Car Crash” conjures a world that’s unlike any other and yet instantly, even shockingly, familiar. Words pop out of nowhere and ambush the reader. It’s the story of a lone hitchhiker stuck in a downpour who gets a lift from a young couple. As the hitchhiker dozes in the back seat with the couple’s baby, the car is involved in a ghastly crash on a rain-slicked bridge. Clutching the baby, the hitchhiker staggers from the wreckage and is taken to a hospital, where this unforgettable scene unfolds: Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere. The second piece of writing was Geoff Dyer’s review of Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. Dyer makes the point that nothing in Johnson’s earlier output, not even Jesus’ Son, had prepared readers for this teeming, meandering mind-fuck of a novel about America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Dyer compares Johnson to Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Graham Greene. Far more astutely, he calls Johnson “a junkyard angel,” a writer who, “at some level, did not know how to write at all—and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” I can’t imagine more apt, or higher, praise. Gregg Allman Three days after Johnson’s death, Gregg Allman died at 69. If Bob Dylan is worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature, then Allman, the keyboardist and lead songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, surely merits inclusion in a list of noteworthy literary obituaries. He wrote many of the band’s signature songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Melissa.” Some of his song lyrics rise to the level of art, including these from “Ain’t Wastin’ No More Time,” written shortly after his beloved big brother, Duane, the band’s lead guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia: Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain. Week before, they all seemed the same. With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly. And oh, I ain't wastin’ time no more 'Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things. The news of Gregg Allman’s death, like the news of Johnson’s, sent me back to a piece of writing—in this case, “Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band,” Grover Lewis’s Rolling Stone chronicle of being embedded on tour with the band in 1971, shortly before Duane’s death. It was a deep-pore examination of life on the road with a big-name rock band, a string of identical days and nights full of “pure listless boredom” and plane flights and concerts and groupies and TV and piles of comic books and cocaine. Despite the grind of the road, Gregg Allman’s life did not lack for color. He avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting drunk and shooting himself in the foot. He had a long solo career. He married, recorded with, and divorced Cher. (She was the third of his six wives.) He contracted hepatitis and arthritis. He got a liver transplant. Late in life he wrote a memoir, My Cross to Bear, with Alan Light. As a writer, Allman may not be in a league with Patti Smith, but the book has its moments, including a line that would have made an unbeatable epitaph: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life.” Clancy Sigal If you favor writers who live long colorful implausible lives, Clancy Sigal, who died on July 16 at 90, is your man. Sigal’s resume reads like overcooked fiction: he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; he was Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood agent; he was noteworthy enough to make the anti-Communist blacklist; he had to dodge FBI agents; he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he was Doris Lessing’s lover (and the model for Saul Green in her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook); he underwent therapy and dropped acid with the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing; he organized Detroit autoworkers; he was a popular commentator on the BBC. Somehow, Sigal also found time to write, producing essays, novels, memoirs, and the screenplay for the 1992 Salma Hayek movie, Frida. His best known book was 1961’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir, an autobiographical account of a blacklisted Hollywood agent’s picaresque cross-country trip aboard a DeSoto convertible, during which the hero discovers a fractured nation and his own fractured self. It was seen as a rebuttal to Jack Kerouac’s effervescence, and it became a finalist for the National Book Award. The critic John Leonard offered this praise: “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” Sigal never stopped working. He was busy blogging a couple of days before he died. Dick Gregory Dick Gregory didn’t hector or lecture about America’s racial divide but went at it sideways, with a dagger instead of a sledgehammer. Classic early Dick Gregory has him going into a restaurant in the segregated South, where the waitress informs him: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.” To which he replies: “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people nowhere. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.” Gregory, who died on Aug. 19 at 84, wrote a dozen books, and his 1964 autobiography, nigger, was built on this strategy for neutering an epithet through frank exposure and overuse: “I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?” Gregory was soon on the front lines of the civil rights movement, which led to beatings and a dozen arrests, a gunshot wound. Other issues that inspired his activism included the Vietnam War, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment, South African apartheid, and the rights of Native Americans. Sometimes he flirted with the bizarre, speculating that “whoever the people are who control the system” were behind the killings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then again, there are more than a few people don’t find anything bizarre about such suspicions. Gregory famously embraced various diet fads, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. At the end, he was still able to laugh. “Here’s how you can tell when you’re getting old,” he said late in life. “When someone compliment you on those beautiful alligator shoes you’re wearing—and you’re barefoot.” Kate Millett Kate Millett’s polemical bombshell, Sexual Politics, burst on the scene in 1970. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel soon graced the cover of Time magazine, which was then the gold standard of a writer’s anointment as Truly Important. Sexual Politics began as a doctoral thesis, and it used literary criticism and historical analysis to dismantle such supposed avatars of sexual liberation as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, and Norman Mailer. Millett, who died on Sept. 6 at 82, portrayed such men as cogs in a masculine machine designed to establish and perpetuate the inferior status of women. Patriarchy, Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy, the nuclear family—all, in Millett’s view, led to the “interior colonization” of women. [millions_ad] The book, out of print for many years, was reissued in a new edition last year—just in time for the avalanche of revelations of sexual misconduct that have borne out Millett’s original premise. The machine, as we seem to learn anew every day, was indeed set up to ensure the inferior status of women. It ran—until now—on women’s enforced silence. Nearly half a century after the original publication of Sexual Politics, the silence is finally being broken. Lillian Ross Lillian Ross, who died on Sept. 20 at 99, was the fly who came off the wall—with disastrous consequences. In a celebrated six-decade career as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Ross followed this reporter’s dictum: “Do not call attention to yourself.” Her unobtrusive interviewing techniques resulted in a tall stack of superb journalism, on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway to a group of rural Indiana high schoolers’ first trip to New York City. Some believe that the best book ever written about Hollywood was Ross’s Picture, from her New Yorker articles about John Huston’s tortured effort to bring Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, to the screen. But in 1998, the fly on the wall did something out of character: she called attention to herself by publishing a memoir, Here but Not Here, which revealed her 50-year love affair with the late William Shawn, the married editor of The New Yorker, whose widow and children were still alive. Many in the New York literary tribe were incensed. Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, dissed the book as “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions.” Jeremy Bernstein, a 31-year veteran of The New Yorker, called it “a deeply hurtful, self-indulgent, tasteless book that never should have been written at all.” Ross claimed to be mystified by the uproar. As she told the gossip columnist Liz Smith: “The controversy doesn’t make any sense to me.” Jim Clark Jim Clark may not be a household name, but for more than four decades, as a student, teacher, editor, then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clark was an outsize influence on generations of writers. He carried a torch passed down by the school’s earlier writing teachers—Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Bob Watson and, now, Michael Parker and Terry Kennedy, among many others. The word “generous” keeps popping up when people remember Clark, who died on Oct. 30 at 72. I experienced that generosity firsthand when Clark, who was also an ordained minister, helped me put together an essay about Greensboro’s peculiar allure for writers. Clark pointed me to a quote by Jarrell, who called the town “Sleeping Beauty,” adding that “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I join hundreds of writers in saying, “Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.” William H. Gass William H. Gass, who died on Dec. 6 at 93, is regarded by many as a father of postmodern writing (unless you think the title belongs to Miguel de Cervantes for that house of mirrors called Don Quixote). Gass, after all, coined the word “metafiction” for his favored ploy of inserting a character known as William H. Gass into fiction written by William H. Gass. But I think Gass should be remembered for four very different reasons. First, he believed sentences were sacred objects and every one should be as perfect as the writer can possibly make it. Second, while he will be remembered for his novels, especially The Tunnel, and his short stories, I’m partial to his essays, on everything from suicide to Malcolm Lowry’s epic (and suicidal) drinking, which are the work of a brilliant mind that wears its erudition lightly. Third, Gass was a metaphor machine; he said the things came at him in “squadrons.” Of the insane he wrote that “their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns.” Metal threads, he wrote, were “glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier.” And fourth, in our careerist, prize-drunk age, Gass had a refreshing disdain for literary awards, even as many were bestowed on him. “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” he wrote, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.” Simeon Booker My father was working as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1952 when the paper hired its first black reporter, a Baltimore native named Simeon Booker. But Booker lasted just two years at The Post, becoming frustrated by the limited assignments from his white editors in the nation’s rigidly segregated capital. He yearned to write about the black experience in America, and so he started contributing to the weekly Jet and the monthly Ebony, both aimed at black readers. Booker’s timing was superb. Over the next six decades, he covered many of the defining stories of the 20th century, including the brutal murder of the black teenager Emmett Till and the acquittal of his white killers, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the Bloody Sunday melee on the Pettus Bridge. He also wrote about politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people. Booker, who died on Dec. 10 at 99, found time to produce books in his long and decorated life, including Black Man’s America (1964) and Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were many courageous and talented reporters, black and white, covering the civil rights movement (see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s fine book, The Race Beat, or the memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter who also died on Dec. 10, at 87), Booker seemed to get there first, and he had access, guts, and drive that few rivals could match. And his words carried major weight. One long-time reader said she and others eagerly awaited Booker’s dispatches in Jet and Ebony, which they regarded as nothing less than “the gospel according to Simeon.” Other notables who left us this year, in alphabetical order: John Ashbery, 90, was a giant of American letters, an inimitable poet who was often imitated but never equaled. He was also an insightful art critic, and in 1976 he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award in the same year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. William Peter Blatty, 89, author of the 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, which sold 13 million copies. Blatty won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay two years later for the movie version of the book, which shattered box office records thanks to its ingenious use of projectile pea-soup vomiting and a girl with a spinning head. J.P. Donleavy, 91, whose bawdy 1955 novel The Ginger Man was banned and burned before it became a contemporary classic, with 45 million copies in print. Donleavy, who lived for many years in Ireland and was an accomplished painter, had this to say about old age: “It’s not nice, but take comfort that you won’t stay that way forever.” Paula Fox, 93, was dubbed one of America’s “least appreciated” novelists by The Nation, but she received some overdue recognition in 1999, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction to a popular reissue Fox’s signature novel, Desperate Characters. Nancy Friday, 84, author of the bestsellers My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, built her writing career on the earth-shattering premise that women have sexual fantasies. To the dismay of many feminists, Friday argued that it was by ridding themselves of shame that women can achieve professional, political, and economic equality with men. Some of Friday’s ideas have held up better than others. In 1996, appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she dismissed the importance of on-the-job sexual harassment. “The workplace,” she said, “is the meeting and mating place.” Try telling that to Salma Hayek. Sue Grafton, 77, didn’t quite make it to Z. Her so-called alphabet novels, featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, began with 1982’s A Is for Alibi and reached Y Is for Yesterday last summer. Grafton, whose influences ranged from Nancy Drew to Mickey Spillane, was at work on Z Is for Zero at the time of her death. Clifford Irving, 87, who became a millionaire, briefly, but then went to prison when his early 1970s book, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, was blocked from publication after it was proven to be one of the most sublime literary hoaxes of the 20thcentury. Robert M. Pirsig, 88, who captured the schizoid zeitgeist of the 1970s with his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies and remained on bestseller lists for a decade. Sam Shepard was that rarest thing: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—and an accomplished memoirist, musician, screenwriter, and songwriter—who became an Oscar-nominated, heart-throb movie star. His posthumous final work, Spy of the First Person, is narrated by a man suffering from a degenerative disorder much like the Lou Gehrig’s disease that killed Shepard at age 73. Robert Silvers, 87, was a founding editor of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life shaping it into one of America’s most influential literary publications. The self-effacing Silver had this to say about the editor’s role: “The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.” Richard Wilbur, 96, was a poet, translator, and opera lyricist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his meticulous, unshowy poetry. In 1988 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the nation’s poet laureate. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 83, was the un-Richard Wilbur, a Russian whose showy, defiant poems and theatrical delivery turned him into poetry’s version of an international rock star. Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism were early targets, though some grumbled that the Soviet government tolerated him while sending other dissidents to Siberia. Some went so far as to call Yevtushenko a sellout. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said of him, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Millions of fans worldwide disagreed.
It wasn’t planned, but 2017 turned out to be a year when my reading hopscotched happily between genres, styles, and voices. Here are half a dozen highlights, arranged by where you might find them shelved in your favorite bookshop. Memoir Joan Didion’s South and West is a string of stray thoughts and notebook jottings that reminded me why I find her such a mesmerizing and maddening writer. These 126 pages were compiled in the 1970s, when Didion was trying to conjure magazine articles about the deep South and the Patty Hearst murder trial. The articles never materialized, but this book reaffirms Didion’s mesmerizing prescience as a reporter, as well as her maddening tendency toward preciousness. The prescience comes from Didion’s observation that by 1970 the deep South had become everything California was not: “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” The remark now reads like a prophecy in a country that has elected Donald Trump president and has allowed itself to be reduced to a big fat gooey red center sandwiched between two wafer-thin blue coasts. The preciousness comes from Didion’s familiar, brittle persona, which makes it nearly impossible for her to get out of her rental car and pump gas on a “nightmare” stretch of Louisiana back road. The book’s most valid insight might be this: “In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.” Maybe the very best thing about this uneven book is that its section on the West morphed into one of Didion’s finest meditations on her native California, the 2003 memoir Where I Was From. Fiction Nominated for the National Book Award, Carol Zoref’s powerful first novel, Barren Island, tells the story of immigrant children who grew up on the titular island, a remote industrial hell in New York City’s Jamaica Bay, where the city’s garbage and its dead animals were sent from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Since I have been gathering string for more than a dozen years in the hope of writing my own novel set amid the horrors of Barren Island, the news that another writer got there first filled me with minglings of disappointment and dread. But Zoref’s book turned out to be both very fine and very different from the book I’ve been dreaming. Reading Barren Island reminded me that no writer owns a subject, and that no two writers could possibly write about a given subject in the same way. By the time I reached the final page, my dread had turned to relief, then resolve. There’s nothing stopping me from writing a book that now has a pedigreed predecessor, even if my book is still little more than a dream, a pile of notes, a central character, and a working title: The Angel of Barren Island. Thank you, Carol Zoref. History Deanne Stillman has spent the past three decades building an impressive body of work about the depredations visited on the land, the animals, and the people of the American West in the name of “progress.” She came out this year with a delightful hybrid, a sort of double-biography and cultural history called Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. When the great Lakota warrior Sitting Bull returned from exile in Canada and briefly joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, the promotional posters trumpeted the unlikely alliance of two men who were “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.” They were not merely friends, in Stillman’s telling, but “a powerhouse of mythology.” Drawing on the vast literature about the two men and her own prodigious research, Stillman has delivered a book that cements her reputation as one of the most astute and passionate chroniclers of that vast, blood-soaked canvas known as the American West. Macroeconomics It’s not every day that you crack open a deeply researched, thickly annotated, 762-page work of macroeconomics and discover you’re in the grip of a page-turner. But that’s what happened as I breezed through Robert J. Gordon’s magisterial The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. The book makes a compelling case that the years from roughly the end of the Civil War to 1970 were a time of profound change in Americans’ day-to-day lives that’s unmatched in human history. Moreover, the great inventions that propelled those changes were one-offs, which means the “special century,” as Gordon calls it, will never be repeated. This book, like Barren Island, struck a personal nerve with me: my paternal grandfather lived from 1863 to 1955, roughly the span covered by Gordon, and I had spent years trying to imagine what it was like to be born to a slave-owner during the Civil War and to die at the frosty peak of the Cold War. Thanks to Gordon, I now know enough to begin to imagine. Crime The Hard Case Crime series continues to surprise and delight. This year it introduced me to Max Allan Collins, a prolific crime writer who has just added the novel Quarry’s Climax to his long-running series about the professional assassin Jack Quarry, who gets the party started with this ice-breaker: “I’d been doing murder for hire for five years now—well, seven and change, if you include the two tours of Vietnam.” Quarry’s new mission has him headed to Memphis, where he’s been hired to kill the guy who’s been hired to kill Max Climer, a lovable Larry Flynt clone who runs a strip club, publishes a skin mag called Climax, and is launching a lucrative X-rated video line. Collins is a polished writer who keeps the story moving as the bodies pile up and the double-crosses go triple and quadruple. What a glorious moral cesspool!—where the cleanest guy in town is the one who gets paid to kill people, and always earns his paycheck. Budding Genius? As the year ends, I’m hip-deep in a belated first foray into the work of the decorated David Mitchell: his debut novel, 1999’s Ghostwritten, published when he was 31. So far the novel has transported me to Okinawa, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, with Mongolia, Petersburg, London, and other destinations up ahead. The writing is bracing, bewildering, and it makes me hungry to know where it will take me next and what kind of books come after it. To find out, I intend to spend the coming year reading all of Mitchell’s fiction in chronological order, something I’ve done with only one other writer, the prolific British fantasist China Miéville. If that immersion is any measure, 2018 is going to be another rich year in reading. [millions_ad] More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. 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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.