Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.
Ivan Doig is dead. Long live Ivan Doig.
A writer who liked to say he sprang from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view,” Doig died on April 9 at age 75 at his home in Seattle. Now we have his posthumous novel Last Bus to Wisdom, his 16th and final book, a reminder that Doig (pronounced DOY-guh) was a guiding light in a loose but hard core of writers who have chronicled and lamented one of our great national sorrows: How the West Was Lost.
Doig was born in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” His father was a ranch hand and his mother a ranch cook — the lariat proletariat personified — and as a boy Ivan accompanied his father on ranch jobs, becoming familiar with the open spaces and the taverns, the bunkhouses and one-room schoolhouses of a western Montana way of life that was already vanishing. It is the ache brought on by this vanishing that was to become Doig’s great subject.
Last Bus to Wisdom is one of Doig’s more autobiographical fictions. Readers of his 1979 memoir, This House of Sky, a finalist for the National Book Award, will recognize some of the new novel’s situations and events. The story is narrated by 11-year-old Donal (“without the d”) Cameron, who, in the summer of 1951, is being farmed off to relatives in Wisconsin by his guardian grandmother, a ranch cook, as she prepares to undergo surgery for “female trouble.” The boy travels alone by Greyhound, “the dog bus,” and in his innocent yet wised-up voice he introduces us to the gallery of colorful characters he encounters on the road. These include a hot waitress, a trio of soldiers shipping off to the Korean War, Jack Kerouac (!), an Indian, oilfield roughnecks, hoboes, a parolee with sticky fingers, and a pint-sized sheriff escorting his own step-brother back to jail in handcuffs. On the return westward journey Donal is accompanied by his great uncle, Herman the German, a World War I veteran with a fondness for Karl May’s Western novels, an iffy command of English, and a fear that the FBI will deport him because he’s an illegal alien. Together, Donal and Herman make their picaresque way west, dodging the law, getting into scrapes, and finally joining a team of hobo hay harvesters near the tiny Montana hamlet of Wisdom.
Donal and Doig, the character and his creator, are both born storytellers. After a string of plausible embellishments roll of his tongue, Donal, in an infectious vernacular reminiscent of characters out of Twain or Thomas Berger, gives us this succinct sketch of what he calls “storying,” the source of all fiction:
I was developing a feel for the perimeter of story that could be got away with. A detail or two expanded the bounds to a surprising extent, it seemed like.
So, there it went, again. Out of my mouth something unexpected, not strictly true but harmlessly made up. Storying, maybe it could be called. For I still say it was not so much that I was turning into an inveterate liar around strangers, I simply was overflowing with invention. The best way I can explain it is that I was turned loose from myself.
It is the nasty little sheriff with the handcuffed prisoner who reveals Doig’s version of How the West Was Lost. Rather than dwelling on the horrors that have begun to show themselves by the mid-20th century — the big dams, big ranches, big highways, big mines, big oil fields, big sprawling cities in places where cities have no business existing — Doig instead paints sepia portraits of the little people who are doomed to be either erased or exploited by these outsize abominations: the ranch hands and cooks, librarians, newspaper photographers, copper miners, and the catskinners who operate the heavy machinery that makes all the “progress” possible. (Donal’s father was a catskinner before he and his wife were forever killed by a drunk driver.) While the Greyhound skims alongside the Missouri River, Donal gazes in awe as the sheriff, Carl, and his prisoner/step-brother, Harv, have a conversation:
The bus suddenly humming in a different gear, it dropped down in a dip and showed no signs of coming out, the road following the Missouri River now. The broad river flowing in long lazy curves with thickets of diamond willows and cottonwood trees lining the banks impressed me, but the sight seemed to turn the sheriff’s stomach. Beside him, though, his hand-cuffed seat partner smiled like a crack in stone.
“There ’tis, Carl. What’s left of the river, hmm?”
“Shut up, Harv, I don’t need to hear about it.” Sounding fit to be tied, the sheriff shot a look over to where I still was taking in everything wide-eyed, and growled, “We’re just past Fort Peck Dam, the outlaw is talking about.” His mouth twisted. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t think the Missouri River worked good enough by itself, so he stuck in a king hell bastard of a dam,” a new piece of cussing for me to tuck away.
In one ingenious stroke, the sheriff is made to simultaneously embody and disparage the source of the West’s ruin: he, along with Indian reservation police, sheriffs, the FBI, and anyone else wearing a badge, is authority, the sworn enemy of individual freedom; yet he also despises the monstrous things authority has visited on the land, in this case the Fort Peck Dam. In the West, this authority has worn many name tags. In the 19th century it was the Central Pacific railroad, cobbled together by Leland Stanford and his robber baron cronies with the assistance of federal subsidies and land grants. In the Cold War it was the “military-industrial complex.” Lately it’s been Big Agra, hydroelectric dams, mining interests, the real estate boys, the federal government, the aerospace industry.
Doig was a conventional novelist, and he was less interested in these big villains than in the troubles they brought upon their little victims, the lariat proletariat. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace wondered if there’s any way out of the suffocating loop of knowingness for contemporary American writers. He concluded, “The next literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching…(w)ho treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”
The operative words in that sentence are untrendy and reverence and conviction, and they beautifully capture Doig’s approach to the writing of fiction. What I liked best about Last Bus to Wisdom is that it’s wise to the ways of the world yet free of the cheap cynicism found in so much writing today, and it’s content with being a conventional novel. Doig’s writing is so post-postmodern that it manages to be both old-school and fresh. That took some daring, and sizable skill.
Sven Birkerts called Doig “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West,” and while that’s certainly true I don’t want to get into the tired question of whether or not Doig was a “regional” writer. He wisely shunned the label and the handcuffs that come with it. As he put it, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Western’ writer. To me, language — that substance on the page, that poetry under the prose — is the ultimate ‘region,’ the true home, for a writer.”
Few American writers possess a gaze as cool as Joan Didion’s (which is different from calling her gaze “chilly” or “cold”). She has said famously, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Just as famously she has said, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” Something she hasn’t said, to my knowledge, could stand as the guiding tenet of her long and distinguished career as a writer of fiction and journalism: The lies we tell ourselves in order to live are what keep us from being truly alive.
Didion’s 2003 book Where I Was From, a mix of autobiography, history, reportage, and literary criticism, is an unflinching examination of the myths spawned by her native California, what she calls “the local dreamtime.” The past tense of the verb in the book’s title signals that this is to be a work of revisionism.
Didion begins by establishing her California bona fides. Her great-great-great grandmother came west in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party, and Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, eventually earning a degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley. She will soon turn 81, and she has spent the majority of her life in the state. From an early age she was fed various versions of the crossing stories of her forebears and other early California arrivals, stories built on hardship and danger, loss and fortitude, which would form the basis for something known inside her family as “the code of the West.” Didion, with typically acid humor, distills the code to its three essential mandates: “You were meant, if you were a Californian, to…show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”
When she fixed her cool gaze on the facts, though, she began to see that the bedrock on which the code of the West was built — the nearly sacred notion of unfettered individualism — was actually nothing but sand. “A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Didion writes, noting that it is “a state where distrust of centralized government authority has historically passed for an ethic.” But as Didion’s digging reveals, Californians have always leaned on the largess of the federal government. The leaning began with Leland Stanford and his fellow Sacramento shopkeepers when they put together the railroad, with a generous assist from Washington. The leaning continued with the federal subsidies that brought the water that fed such thirsty, unsustainable crops as alfalfa, cotton, and rice — and, in the bargain, enabled Los Angeles to sprawl across miles of once-inhospitable desert. After the elaborate system of dams and levees came the defense contracts and the aerospace industry (“Star Wars,” anyone?), all of it built not on unfettered individualism, but on the broad back of the American taxpayer.
At a young age, Didion began to sense a disconnect between her family’s myths and its actual circumstances, and, by extension, between California’s “dreamtime” and its actual history. In Where I Was From, Didion recalls asking her mother which class the family belonged to. “It’s not a word we use,” her mother replied. “It’s not the way we think.” This leads Didion to muse:
On one level I believed this to be a deliberate misreading of what even a twelve-year-old could see to be the situation and on another level I understood it to be true: it was not the way we thought in California. We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake and struck the Comstock Lode. We believed in the wildcatter who leased arid land at two and a half cents an acre and brought in Kettleman Hills, fourteen million barrels of crude in its first three years. We believed in all the ways that apparently played-out possibilities could while we slept turn green and golden.
Already at that young age, Didion understood that her family was old California, part of that class known loosely as the gentry. She also sensed that something was lacking from this class, as Tracy Daugherty writes in his new book, The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion: “For all its visibility and influence, the family felt prosaic, muted, sad to Didion, even as a girl. Clerks and administrators: hardly the heroes of old, surviving starvation and blizzards…A whiff of decadence clung to the gentry.”
Eventually, of course, most of the defense contracts dried up and the jobs vanished and the state of California fell on such hard times that it welcomed a boom in prison construction. By now, having dismantled the myths that propped up the bankrupt code of the West, Didion is appalled but hardly surprised by this latest turn of events. “We are seeing one more enthusiastic fall into a familiar California error,” she writes, “that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest bidder, which was in this instance the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.”
And now, as a final indignity, California — that Eden where alfalfa and cotton and rice once grew, where green lawns and blue swimming pools once carpeted the desert vastness known as Los Angeles — is suffering through a brutal, four-year drought. The New York Times reports that the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Beverly Hills is among the first to be fined for failing to meet the state’s stringent water-conservation targets. On the day the fines were levied, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over an infestation of bark beetles that has killed tens of millions of trees during the drought. He is seeking help removing the dead trees from — you guessed it — the federal government. I’m sure Joan Didion was not surprised when she heard the news.
For all their many differences of temperament and style, Edward Abbey and Jim Harrison could agree with Ivan Doig’s sour little sheriff on one thing: the West was lost through environmental degradation, a direct by-product of human greed, and there is no more potent metaphor for this greed than the very American urge to tame the wilderness by building dams. Dams — or, more precisely, the urge to blow them up — drive the plots these two authors’ most indelible novels: Abbey’s cult classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which inspired a whole generation of eco-saboteurs; and Harrison’s booze- and drug-addled caper, A Good Day to Die.
The novels have telling similarities. Abbey’s titular gang has an equal-opportunity loathing for billboards, construction machinery, barbed wire, coal trains, strip mines, lumber companies, copper smelters, nuclear power plants, and, above all, the massive Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon. Harrison’s trio of eco-saboteurs form a lopsided love triangle — two unhinged guys falling in love with the same sexy girl — as they drive west to blow up a non-existent dam in the Grand Canyon, then set their sights on a small earthen dam in Utah that prevents steelhead trout from moving upstream to spawn.
Here’s George Hayduke, the unruliest of the four monkey wrenchers, likening the degradation of the West to the eco-horrors he witnessed as a Green Beret in Vietnam: “When I finally…found out they were trying to do the same thing to the West that they did to that little country over there, I got mad all over again.” And here’s Harrison’s unnamed narrator, hungover, trying to impress a roomful of strangers: “My voice became tight and humorless as I began a tirade against the realtors, land developers and lumber companies. In a few years there wouldn’t be much worth looking at and if anyone in the room planned on having a son there wouldn’t be any rivers or forests left and our sons wouldn’t have any fishing and hunting. What was needed was some sort of Irgun like the Israelis had when they drove out the British. Some men brave enough to blow up dams and machinery.”
These seemingly single-minded people are, in fact, dogged by doubts — doubts that blowing up one dam, or even 100 dams, will change the world; doubts that their motives are lofty; doubts that they even possess tangible motives. As Harrison’s narrator puts it, “It occurred to me that I should question my motives but found that I had none.”
In other words, the trip west is little more than a lark. A similar sense of pointless futility begins to overtake the Monkey Wrench Gang. While there’s no denying that the West has been scarred by these characters’ various nemeses, it becomes apparent as the two novels play out that their crusades are both feckless and doomed. They remind me of the high-minded Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy distaste for “the 1 percent” and its equally fuzzy refusal to formulate a strategy to bring about actual change. If you’re going to go to all this trouble and risk — sleeping on the streets, getting maced and clubbed by cops, burning billboards, blowing up bridges and dams — shouldn’t you have specific goals and a reasonable chance of realizing them? Otherwise, isn’t it all just posturing?
In the end, Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison come to very different conclusions about How the West Was Lost, but they share a sense that the loss is as irreversible as it was wrong-headed. The Glen Canyon Dam, a king hell bastard of a dam if there ever was one, stemmed the flow of the Colorado River in order to bring water and cheap electricity to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other “cities of the plain,” as Abbey called them with a Biblical sneer, putting them on a level with Sodom and Gomorrah. In a crowning irony, the most ardent sponsor of the dam, the arch-conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, eventually came around to admitting that building the $750 million monstrosity had been a mistake. As consolations go, this doesn’t even begin to qualify as small. Lake Powell, with its 1,800 miles of shoreline, still sits there where Glen Canyon used to be. Meanwhile, drought-stricken California is losing tens of millions of trees. No wonder Abbey called Lake Powell “the blue death.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.