I’m a painfully slow reader, and as such, my end of year reading lists are never impressively long. Still, I keep them. They do photos one better, capturing more than a moment, but a series of moments during which some small part of who I was shifted. Here are a few books from this year’s list, along with some of the small shifts they incurred.
1. The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane
This was the first book I finished in 2018, and one of my favorites of the year. I picked it up while in Marfa, Texas, after browsing the table displays in the small, excellent book shop out there. If I’m being totally honest, it was the cover design that drew me to it initially. I’d listened to Gucci Mane, heard and read some of the stories about him, but there was something about the beautiful austerity of the cover that made me excited to see all those things converge in a new context. What I learned is, Gucci Mane is an honest and entertaining storyteller. The book is fun, but it’s also emotional and raw. He talks about his childhood, his ambition, his success, his pain, his shortcomings, mental health issues, and the ups and downs of his career in a clear-eyed and actively engaged way. He talks about the dissonance of the way he sees himself and the different ways he’s been seen throughout his career, without the point being who was right. Again and again, it felt like he was sharing bits of something he’s still going through, rather than telling a story from the perspective of someone who’s conquered all their demons. You can tell he loves himself and loves challenging himself, even when that means changing things he might have seen as strengths at one point in his life. I read the whole book in the few days I was in Marfa, and I spent that time thinking about what it means to make art that’s designed to be experienced by other people, designed to share parts of who you are by forging a tangible connection with others. Moving them. One small thing I learned from the book was just how important it is for a song’s popularity, and an artist’s popularity, in Atlanta, to get consistent play in strip clubs. A place where I’d always thought of music as purely background to a whole other, pretty distracting experience. I’m not sure this is how he’d think of it, but being able to make something that’s personal, but designed to be experienced in that way—as an enhancement of a whole night, of many nights, meant to be integrated into all those lives, in a way that makes each person feel good and alive—that seems like an admirable goal for a work of art to me.
2. Tell Them I Said No by Martin Herbert
I picked up this collection of essays on artists who left the establishment after achieving some success while I was in Marfa, as well. It was the essay on Agnes Martin that I was primarily interested in, but throughout the book Herbert explores the ways which leaving the establishment, vanishing into seclusion, or refusing to show or even make new works, was in the case of each different artist an extension of that artist’s overall project, intentionally or not. It wasn’t just about the benefits of cultivating a persona, or mystery, but how absence or refusal reinforced the ideas or contexts being explored in each artist’s body of work, or allowed them to evolve in ways they likely never would have if they stayed on the scene. It was no coincidence that I read this book while in the middle of a several months long tour, (which I love doing but also spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning or usefulness of). The book is also full of all kinds of wonderfully difficult mindsets and examples of persnickety excellence, such as in one of my favorite quotes from the book, “In a silence-breaking conversation with the writer Sarah Thornton for her 2014 book 33 Artists in 3 Acts–[artist Cady] Noland apparently accepts interlocution once every twelve or thirteen years–[Noland] said that tracking and reacting to situations in which her work is misrepresented now takes up all of her time, such that, to her regret, she can no longer create art anymore.”
3. Chemistry by Weike Wang
What struck me most about this book was how simple it seemed at first, but how simple it is not. Reading it felt like eating yogurt, each line was so smooth and refreshing. But at the end I was suddenly overwhelmed, tearing up at the impossible complexity of life and love. Even reading the final paragraph again now, tears. Finishing it the first time, I realized just how much I’d been feeling while I was reading, and how the author kept moving me past it, sliding into new metaphors and new moments, using these perfect, self-contained sentences, until the moment I was struck with just how much I’d managed to avoid and evade, and how much easier it was before, when I was looking the other way.
4. The Poet at the Piano by Michiko Kakutani
I read a lot of books by and about artists this year. Even though I published a novel in January, by now, by November, I realize I’ve been thinking of this year as a writing year. An evolution year. I’ve been thinking a lot about how artists approach their work and their life, which artists are planning every move and which of them are just kind of fumbling along, trying things out and seeing what happens. Kakutani’s collection of articles on artists of all stripes is a great read, if tough to read too much of at once. I found myself putting it down for at least a day between many of the articles, trying to enter each as if I were reading it on its own. They were better that way, although I’m glad they’ve all been collected. Kakutani is a great writer, and celebrated as such, but what stood out to me was the effort she made, with each of these articles, to discover something unique about her subject and to carefully reveal it to us. These articles felt like the product of intimate exchanges, or careful observations, even if they ultimately wound up reading as one-sided conversations. I read each of these articles feeling like I was brought somehow so much closer to its subject—even those who seemed to be keeping Kakutani at arm’s length—but no closer to Kakutani. This is not a criticism. It’s a quality. I rarely felt her presence, outside of the careful attention and thoughtful presentation she brought to each finished piece. I thought it was remarkable, because of course she’s present in every detail she chooses to include and in how she chooses to include it. But these things are done with an intelligence and a subtlety that makes every observation feel nothing short of true, rather than personal. I read plays, novels, watched movies, and attended showings as a result of reading this book.
5. Norwood by Charles Portis
I read this book twice this year, and neither was my first time. It might be one of my absolute favorite books, and Portis one of my favorite American writers. If there’s anyone I have to consciously try not to steal from when I’m writing, it’s Portis. Like Weike Wang, his are books you slide through, loading up all the while with feelings and thoughts you don’t recognize until after days of unpacking and trying to figure out why you feel so strange and sad. He’s like Pynchon without being ponderous, loading every moment with beats and details that resonate throughout history, throughout the dark, painful, and totally absurd life of this country. He manages all this while being hilarious, and spinning a great yarn. Heavy as they are, each of his books has the feel of something shared over beers, told proudly to you by a man full of holes. The thing I remembered, reading this book again, is that there’s something to be said for only writing those things that keep you excited, make you feel alive. If all I’m doing is trying hard, then that’s all I’ll end up with. But if I’m having fun with it, I typically wind up trying hard in a whole different way. It gave me a kick in the pants, is what I’m saying, and steered the project I was working on back in an enjoyable direction.
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In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across America and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August — in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments — of which there turned out to be few — I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California — but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow.
That month and a half became one of the fullest periods of my life, with one exhilarating escapade after another: outracing tornadoes in Kansas, nearly freezing to death in Yosemite, close calls with bears in both Sequoia and Glacier National Parks. We hiked and camped and ate our peanut butter. With cheap snapshot cameras, we ran through dozens of rolls of film. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, we forswore bathing, a foul contest of wills. It was all very stupid and perfectly glorious. It was, as they say, a formative experience.
Afterwards, we made a pact to do a similar expedition every year, but outside of a few days in West Virginia in 2001, our oath died on the vine. As I progressed through my 20s, though, I still thought of myself as the same daring moron who once pushed a minivan to 110 on a Montana interstate. My girlfriend and I would go on long drives just to see what we could see; we hiked with the same questing spirit I’d carried on my trip. Once, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, we became covered in deer ticks — and as we scraped them from our shins, laughing in horror beside our car, I had the feeling that, uncomfortable as I was, I remained on the proper track. You can’t get covered in bugs if you don’t enter the woods.
As time went on, I began to read about people who, I flattered myself to think, had a similarly — if more pronounced — searching spirit. There was Percy Fawcett of The Lost City of Z, who rambled through the Amazon as if it were Central Park. And Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan trek was equally noble and misguided. I became a sucker for such narratives, subscribing to Outside magazine for its pieces on doomed hikers and wayward canoeists. Most know Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for the creepy 10-toe running shoes it helped to popularize, but I was more taken by its description of Mexico’s Tarahumara and their daunting mountain races. To write Savage Harvest, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, Carl Hoffman traveled to New Guinea — just as I would have done, I thought as I read. After all, I was pretty intrepid myself.
Except that I wasn’t; not anymore. I was now married to that girlfriend, and had become both a father and an eternally fatigued commuter. Any journey I now took was occurring inside my skull: instead of going on spontaneous road trips, I was reading Charles Portis’s Norwood. Instead of hiking until my feet bled, I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Instead of tearing across Montana, I was reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. I had outsourced the work of outdoor experience to various authors, my risk limited to paper cuts and coffee spills. It had happened slowly, imperceptibly, until the transformation was all but complete. The version of myself who “got out there and did things” had been replaced by a softer, safer, far more boring person.
In short, I was spending too much time reading about interesting people and almost no time being one — an insight that recently hit me with depressing force. I’m not sure what spurred the revelation — perhaps it was the contrast between the solitude of reading and the chaos of what I read. Maybe it struck me that I’d just read two books about people surviving deadly cold (Crazy for the Storm, The Shining) and was, absurdly, preparing to read two more (The Revenant and Alone on the Ice). Whatever it was, I’d become unhealthily comfortable; to quote an old Radiohead song, I was now a pig in a cage on antibiotics — or, less dramatically, a guy in cozy slippers whose vitality had slipped away.
This suspicion was soon confirmed by a family hike — the first my wife and I had been on in years, despite the fact that the woods are a short drive from our house. Though we only walked for two hours or so, and the air was getting cold, the forest quietly filled a need that, in recent years, I had learned to ignore. We marveled at trees that intertwined like rope, gazed at a creek as if it were a national landmark. We inhaled, exhaled, looked for the paint blazes that marked our path. We were again away from everything, and it felt really fucking good.
That was a month and a half ago, and that feeling — the recognition of some innate inner need — hasn’t faded; it now seems to burn within me, steady as a pilot light. I’ve resolved to reclaim myself — my old self, tick-stippled and chased by bears, a person who’d do most anything for the sake of doing it. In a way, it’s already happened; we’ve since gone on another such hike, and we’re planning a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go trip to Tennessee in the spring. Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
I went to the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last month for a very simple reason. I wanted to tell James McBride, in person, what I’m going to tell you now: his novel, The Good Lord Bird, one of five finalists for the fiction award, is the most astonishing book I read all year. It’s one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.
“Why, thank you very much,” McBride said from under the brim of his porkpie hat when I bumped into him at the pre-awards cocktail party and told him how I felt about his book. When I wished him luck at the awards ceremony later in the evening and told him I was pulling for him to win, he waved his arm at the cavernous banquet room and said, “At this point it doesn’t really matter. It’s all good.”
I didn’t expect McBride to win the National Book Award that night because he was up against bigger names — Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rachel Kushner — and I long ago stopped believing that artistic awards are based solely on artistic merit. McBride obviously didn’t expect to win, either, because when his name was called out as the winner for fiction, he stepped to the podium without a prepared speech, visibly surprised. “I didn’t think I would win today,” he told the crowd of 700. Then, echoing what he had said to me earlier at the cocktail party, he added, “If any of the others writers had won I wouldn’t feel bad because they’re all fine writers. But it sure is nice to win.”
And it sure is nice to see such a deserving winner. The Good Lord Bird is narrated by Henry Shackleford, a young slave in the Kansas territory who is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, then, passing as a girl, follows Brown on his various military and political campaigns, all the way to the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a major catalyst for the Civil War. (The book’s title refers to the red-headed woodpecker, a bird whose feathers serve as charms, a bird so beautiful that when people see one, they cry, “Good Lord.”) Henry, known as Henrietta or “Onion” to Brown and his ragtag army, narrates the story in a frontier vernacular that is by turns hilarious, bawdy, and wise. Her sharpest insights are on race and slavery, and they’re as valid today as they were a century and a half ago. No one, black or white, slave or free, gets a free ride from Henrietta Shackleford, including Henrietta Shackleford. Here, for instance, are her thoughts on the lies black people tell themselves: “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception.” And here’s Henrietta on what it means to be black: “Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse.”
The novel has obvious antecedents in the works of Twain and Cervantes, James Baldwin and William Styron. But its framing device — even its opening lines — owe a debt to another tall tale insinuated from American history, Thomas Berger’s indelible epic of the Indian wars, Little Big Man. That novel purports to be the tape-recorded reminiscences of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man who was snatched by Cheyenne Indians as a boy and grew up straddling the racial divide, living with both Indians and whites, finally fighting alongside Gen. George Armstrong Custer and becoming the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Good Lord Bird purports to be the reminiscences of 111-year-old Henry Shackleford, written down by a preacher in 1942, then locked away and finally salvaged from a church fire in 1966. Instead of straddling the racial divide, Henry crosses other lines — between male and female, freeman and slave, country rube and city slicker — and he winds up in the heat of battle alongside John Brown, becoming the only black survivor of the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Here’s the opening of The Good Lord Bird: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” And here’s the opening of Little Big Man: “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.” Even the climactic battle scenes share a chapter title: McBride’s is “Last Stand”; Berger’s is “The Last Stand.” (In a follow-up e-mail, McBride acknowledged Berger’s influence, adding that he also drew on the writings of Leon Litwack and Daryl Cumber Dance.)
I don’t buy books or movie tickets based on awards, and I’m proud to be able to say that I bought my copy of The Good Lord Bird before it was nominated for the National Book Award and I finished reading it before the awards ceremony. That’s not to say I’m opposed to book awards. As they long as they connect readers with writers — and sell books — I’m all for them. McBride’s publisher, Riverhead Books, announced that it was printing an additional 45,000 copies of The Good Lord Bird as soon as the award was announced, bringing the number in print to more than 82,000. I hope they sell like Krispy Kremes. James McBride is an important and thrilling writer, and he deserves to be widely read.
None of the above is to denigrate the other four fiction finalists for this year’s National Book Award. As McBride put it, they are all fine writers. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, in particular, struck me as a book that announced the arrival of a major talent. The novel, which roams from the Bonneville salt flats to the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s to the political barricades in Italy, was a stirring expansion of the promise Kushner showed in her 2008 debut, Telex From Cuba, which was also a National Book Award finalist. Both novels exhibit Kushner’s outsized gifts: her ambition, her narrative dexterity, her ability to paint complex characters and put them in motion in vividly imagined historical settings. Whether she’s writing about the First World War, pre-revolutionary Cuba, or the 1970s art scene, Kushner succeeds because she understands how to handle her prodigious historical research. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true does not mean it has a place.”
There were other delights this year. One of the chiefest, because it was so personal, was the publication of Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider’s View of a State Gone Wrong, a sweeping history of the chicanery that has been festering under the state capitol’s green dome in Harrisburg, Pa., for more than a century. It was written by a veteran shoe-leather reporter named Brad Bumsted, who happens to be the man who took me under his wing and taught me the reporter’s craft at the daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, Pa., back in the 1970s. As I wrote in my essay about Keystone Corruption, “Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on — not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.”
Though it was published late last year, I’ve got to mention a gem of a book that should burnish the reputation of a writer who has written five novels that are classics, even though too few people have read them. Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings, is a great teeming smorgasbord of Portis’s journalism, travel writing, short stories, drama and memoir. The book also includes a rare interview with Portis and tributes from admirers, including Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, and Donna Tartt. In addition to its abundant wit and wisdom, this book is virtually a connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in newspaper city rooms in Tennessee, Arkansas and New York. I hope it will attract new readers to Portis’s novels, Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos.
Another writer who deserves a wider audience is Nick Turse, who produced a magisterial work of history this year called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Turse argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation ,and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration — not a one-off atrocity called My Lai — but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. This book’s lessons, like James McBride’s insights on race, are as valid today as they were when America was blundering its way to a shameful military disaster four decades ago.
A pleasant surprise landed in my mailbox in April — a handsome new paperback edition of They Don’t Dance Much, the only novel James Ross published in his lifetime, now widely regarded as the progenitor of “country noir.” This new edition, published by Mysterious Press, includes a foreword by Daniel Woodrell, a Ross acolyte who says he first read the novel in the 1970s because George V. Higgins “vouched for it as both literature and a good time.” A funny, bloody, world-wise tale of violent doings at a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression, the book was published in 1940 to high praise from Flannery O’Connor, among others, but it sold poorly and soon disappeared. A new edition appeared in the 1970s, attracting a new generation of fans, including Woodrell. And now, another three and a half decades after the second edition, we have a third. As Woodrell writes, “They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.”
Last but far from least, this year the Irish writer Kevin Barry followed up his blistering novel, City of Bohane, with an equally strong collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island. The man uses the English language like a musical instrument. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: You must read Kevin Barry.
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1. Wisdom in the Wit
If you share my fascination with the mysterious ways writers get made, you’ll be thrilled by a new book called Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. Edited by a long-time Portis devotee, the Arkansas-based writer Jay Jennings, this collection is a virtual connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in the newsrooms of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Arkansas Gazette and the New York Herald Tribune, the papers where Portis worked as a reporter and columnist from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s. After a year as the Herald Tribune’s London correspondent, Portis left newspapering in 1964 and went back home to Arkansas to set up shop as a novelist. Over the next quarter-century, he produced five novels that are universally regarded, by those who bothered to read them, as classics.
The move — up? — from journalism to fiction puts Portis in good company. The list of American novelists and short story writers whose careers were hatched in the clattering typhoon of a newspaper city room is both long and lustrous. It includes, to name a few, Twain, Hemingway, Dreiser, Steinbeck, Ring Lardner, Margaret Mitchell, Tom Wolfe (a colleague of Portis’s at the Herald Tribune), and the criminally under-appreciated Ward Just. Now, thanks to dogged Jay Jennings, we can add Charles Portis to the list.
Here’s how Wolfe described his former colleague’s transition from journalist to novelist: “Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific…. A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.”
Wolfe’s trademark hyperventilation is meant to imply that it’s unthinkable that anyone could write successful novels in a backwater like Arkansas. The truth is that novelists can work absolutely anywhere, and more than a few people think they’re better off far away from the media hum, high cost of living, and obsessive mirror gazing that go on in places like Wolfe’s adopted hometown of New York City. Besides, Portis didn’t write fiction about Arkansas; he wrote fiction out of Arkansas.
In his introduction to Escape Velocity, Jennings cites, chapter and verse, the many instances when Portis’s funny, sharply observed — and occasionally heroic — newspaper reporting presaged his fiction. Jennings rightly notes that Portis was blessed with two tools vital to every successful reporter and novelist: an ear for the music of spoken language, and an eye for illuminating physical details. So in an article about a PR stunt by a gaggle of Memphis Jaycees dressed up in Confederate uniforms, Portis reports that one of them was “wearing a Harry Truman shirt and Japanese sandals.” It is precisely the sort of detail Portis would make up, by the long ton, in his fiction.
At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Alabama, Portis watched the flames from two enormous crosses lick the night sky. “There were a lot of bugs in the air, too,” he wrote, “knocking against the crosses and falling into open collars.” Surely Portis was remembering that scene when he wrote these lines about Norwood Pratt’s family in his first novel:
They later moved to a tin-roof house that was situated in a gas field under a spectacular flare that burned all the time. Big copper-green beetles the size of mice came from all over the Southland to see it and die in it. At night their little toasted corpses pankled down on the tin roof.
Though it’s not mentioned in Escape Velocity, I feel sure Portis was forced to sit through some hellish gatherings of Southern bluebloods during his stint as a reporter in Little Rock. This description of an elderly lady in Norwood, with its mention of an obscure fallen hero of the Confederacy, has the ring of lived experience:
She claimed descent from the usurper Cromwell and she read a long paper once on her connections at a gathering of Confederate Daughters, all but emptying the ballroom of the Albert Pike Hotel in Little Rock. This was no small feat considering the tolerance level of a group who had sat unprotesting through two days of odes and diaries and recipes for the favorite dishes of General Pat Cleburne.
The following description of the media mob that descended on Little Rock in 1959, for the reopening of the public schools two years after they’d been shut by tensions over integration, captures Portis’s scorn for his fellow journalists: “They came early to Hall High School, about 100 of them, and stood around in little groups of wilted Dacron and damp mustaches, chattering and picking each others’ brains. The photographers diddled with their cameras and shot everything in sight. The reporters engaged in small talk, shop talk and speculation, occasionally taking notes on nothing.”
Anyone who has worked as a newspaper reporter covering a non-news event, as I have, will tell you that there’s wisdom embedded in this wit. But there was nothing funny about the way Portis ended his account of a 1962 boiler explosion that killed 21 workers, mostly young women, in a New York Telephone Company building: “A pair of high-heeled shoes stood upright in a bare spot where there must have been a desk. A disembodied phone was on the floor ringing, its little red extension light winking. I wondered who was calling but I did not answer it.”
Portis’s most impressive, even astounding, journalism was his coverage of civil rights unrest in the South for the Herald Tribune. One Saturday night in May of 1963 he was in Bessemer, Ala., covering the aforementioned Ku Klux Klan rally — a dangerous assignment given the Klan’s hatred for the news media, especially a reporter from the Yankee snake pit of New York City. After returning to his hotel in Birmingham, Portis and other reporters were jolted by the “dull whoomp” of an explosion. They rushed four blocks to the damaged Gaston Motel in time to see the birth of a long night of rioting. Portis dodged thrown bottles and bricks, even the police department’s armored vehicle, while gathering material. The next day, working under brutal deadline pressure, he filed a lyrical, vivid story of nearly 2,000 words, along with a sidebar about the Klan rally that included this wry passage:
One of the favorite speakers was a man in red who warned of sickle-cell anemia, “a deadly organism lurking in all nigger blood.”
“If so much as one drop of nigger blood gets in your baby’s cereal,” he said, “the baby will surely die in one year.” He did not explain how he thought a negro would come to bleed in anyone’s cereal.
But Portis reserved his most withering scorn for the sidebar’s closing lines: “By 10:30 p.m. one of the crosses had collapsed and the other was just smoldering. Everyone drifted away and the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.”
It is a masterpiece of deadline reporting — of newspaper writing — of writing — that has rarely been equaled in American journalism.
2. Teardrops, Adultery, Diesel Trucks
In addition to these revelatory newspaper articles, Escape Velocity contains travel writing, four short stories, a “one-off” memoir, a play, a rare interview, and tributes from Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, Ron Rosenbaum, Donna Tartt, and Wells Tower.
The interview, a long conversation between Portis and fellow Gazette alumnus Roy Reed, will delight fans who have become accustomed to Portis’s maddening reticence. Here, for once, he opens up, talking about some of the prosaic stories he covered in addition to the school integration wars — “State Fair stories, murders, ice storms…a big cock-fighting meet in Garland County.” When Reed asks what got Portis interested in studying journalism in the first place, he replies, “I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college. Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.”
While that interview and the newspaper writing are, for me, the meat of the book, there are tasty bits throughout, including a travel piece called “The New Sound from Nashville,” which was the cover story of the Saturday Evening Post on Feb. 12, 1966, a few months before Portis’s first novel came out. I approached this article more as a fact checker than as a casual reader, for I had worked as a morning-drive disc jockey in Nashville in the 1980s, and I like to think I know a few things about the place. I was eager to see if Portis’s reporting rang true. He won me over with his opening:
Nashville, the Athens of the South, is home to Vanderbilt University, Fisk University and at least half a dozen other colleges, as well as a symphony orchestra, a concrete replica of the Parthenon and a downtown beer joint called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Tootsie’s is where the country music people hang out — those who don’t object to beer joints…. On Saturday nights, performers on the Grand Ole Opry step out the stage door and cross an alley and go in the back door of Tootsie’s to get aholt of themselves between sets with some refreshing suds.
Tootsie’s was still in business when I lived in Nashville, though the Opry had decamped from nearby Ryman Auditorium to a glittering new palace way out on Briley Parkway. Portis’s sketch of Tootsie’s was still valid nearly two decades after he wrote it: “Tootsie’s is like a thousand other beer joints in the South with such names as Junior’s Dew Drop Inn and Pearl’s Howdy Club, and a certain type of country boy feels right at home there, whether he has $250,000 in his pocket or just came in on the bus from Plain Dealing, La., with a guitar across his back and white cotton socks rolled down in little cylinders atop his grease-resistant work shoes. And a song in his heart about teardrops, adultery, diesel trucks.”
This bus rider from Louisiana hints at Portis’s understanding of the central fact of Nashville: by 1966 the city was already on its way to becoming what it is today, a songwriter’s town. I knew dozens of songwriters just like that guy from Plain Dealing, La., with his white cotton socks and his grease-resistant work shoes. One of them lived downstairs from me — a lot of late-night beer drinking and guitar thwanking and unpromising singing. “At one time, in true folk tradition,” Portis writes, “just about every country singer wrote his own songs…. The singer-songwriter is still very much around — Roger Miller sings his own material — but in recent years there has been a proliferation of nonperforming writers. It is a precarious trade.”
While I was living on 17th Avenue in Nashville, the singer Lacy J. Dalton had a hit song about the dreamers of this precarious dream then flocking to nearby 16th Avenue, otherwise known as Music Row. Went like this:
From the corners of the country,
From the cities and the farms,
With years and years of livin’
Tucked up underneath their arms,
They walked away from everything
Just to see a dream come true.
So God bless the boys
Who make the noise
On 16th Avenue.
Another thing Portis got exactly right is the deep gully that separates the citizens of Nashville from the country music crowd. “The Athenians of the South go one way, and the country music people another,” he writes. “Less than 10 percent of the Opry audiences come from the Nashville area. Middle-class Nashvillians, anxious lest they be mistaken for rubes, are quick to inform the visitor that they have never attended the show. It is not for them, this hoedown.”
I attended the Opry just once — with a backstage pass from a keyboard player I knew. I did not encounter Loretta Lynn, as Portis did. She told him all about her recent trip to Europe, then pleaded, “Put in your article about how bad the toilet paper is over there. I wish you could see it, hun, you wouldn’t believe it.”
On the night I attended the Opry, I got invited onto Mel Tillis’s idling tour bus between sets. Mel was drinking a can of Stroh’s beer and playing poker with some of the boys from his backup band, The Statesiders. Mel and I were introduced, and we chatted for a while about the screenplays we were writing. He was collaborating with Roy Clark; I was going solo. The ice broken, I ventured the opinion that Porter Wagoner, another performer that night, sounded like a drowning duck.
“S-s-s-say what you w-w-w-w-w-wanna say about Porter’s s-s-singin,” Mel replied in his famous stammer, “but he’s g-got the b-b-b-b-biggest d-dick in country music.”
The drummer flung his cards in the air and fell to the floor of the bus, cackling till he had a coughing fit. I didn’t have the wits to ask Mel how he knew about the size of Porter Wagoner’s penis. This is a true story. I feel sure Charles Portis, who has been backstage at the Opry, would believe it in a New York minute.
3. I Can’t Breathe!
In his introduction, Jennings remarks that another of Escape Velocity’s travel pieces, “An Auto Odyssey Through Darkest Baja,” showcases all the elements that make Portis’s writing so unique and timeless: “unpretentious diction, an expert ear for the spoken word, deep knowledge worn lightly, stoic acceptance of trying circumstances, skill with internal combustion engines, and more pure reading pleasure than I’d enjoyed in a long time.” I would argue that deep knowledge worn lightly is the rarest and most valuable of these virtues. Skill with internal combustion engines should not be underestimated, as in this piece of high praise for a smooth-running Buick Invicta: “The engine was idling but making no more noise than a rat peeing on a sack of cotton.”
The “Auto Odyssey” article was the result of a 1966 roadtrip Portis and a buddy took from Los Angeles to La Paz, located near the tail end of “that empty brown peninsula” known as Baja California. They rode in a “rat-colored 1952 Studebaker half-ton pickup.” Again, this crazy mission roused the fact checker in me, for I have also driven the grueling length of the Baja peninsula — as the wheelman on a used-up Isuzu Trooper, carrying a German film crew from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas as they shot a travel documentary.
I can report that Portis nails the surreal experience — the heat, the dust, the tendency for tires to blow out on the washboard side roads (the main road was paved all the way when I made the trip, a major improvement over the conditions Portis encountered in the 1960s); the tendency for motor vehicles to throw up their hands and quit under such trying conditions; the fact that the empty brown peninsula is full of colorful characters (including one we found living alone in a teepee in a canyon next to a gigantic ceramic iguana); the fact that everyone you meet is a mechanic who is happy to work on your rig but never quite seems to fix it. (Travel advisory: the citizens of Cuba are much better shade-tree mechanics.)
Now that Jennings has gathered together this magnificent miscellany, I say it’s time for him to follow it up with a chrestomathy of Portis-isms. It would be easy to fill a volume with the names of the characters, places, business establishments, clothing items, food, shopping lists, motor vehicles, aircraft, firearms, and tourist attractions sprinkled like hot ingots throughout Portis’s fiction and non-fiction.
Here are the names of just a few of his characters: Ray Midge, Sherman Lee Purifoy, Norwood Pratt, Lamar Jimmerson, Dub Polton, Professor Cezar Golescu, President Eutropio Melanoma, Rooster Cogburn, Dr. Reo Symes, Whit and Adele Gluters, Grady Fring the Kredit King, and the midget Edmund B. Ratner, the world’s smallest perfect man. The heroic members of Fox Company in the Korean War short story, “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” are named Sgt. Zim, Neap, Dill, Vick, Bogue, Ball, and Sipe. Sounds like a law firm staffed by lunatics. Yet here lies the key to Portis’s success as a novelist: he feels tremendous tenderness for every one of his characters, like the forbearing father of some unruly but loveable brood.
Here’s a pair of signs that Portis says should have been alternately flashing outside a motel called the Ominato Inn where he once stayed:
NOT QUITE A DUMP
AT DUMP PRICES
And, finally, here’s a smorgasbord from a 1992 short story called “Nights Can Turn Cool in Viborra.” It’s the story of Chick Jardine, “winner of five gold Doobie Awards for travel writing!”, and how he hooks up with Jason and Mopsy Crimm on the Tessair Fokker flight into that paradise known as Viborra, where they stay at the deluxe Pan-Lupus Hotel. The travel writer and the tourists hunt for bargains on “belts, yo-yos, fishnet tank tops, heavy woolen shower curtains, and tortoise-shell flashlights.” They admire “the slavering ferocity of the women gnawing on leather (to soften it) at the Arses Lupus Belt and Purse Co-op.” They enjoy a leisurely stroll along the bay front promenade, where, Chick reports, “We ate flavored ices and watched the children clubbing rat fish in the shallows.”
Chick offers the Crimms some savvy tips for enjoying Carnival in Viborra: “Wear casual clothes…beware the melon ambush…keep a sharp lookout for boulders and burning tires rolling down the hillside streets.” Like Portis, Chick holds his fellow members of the fourth estate in less than the highest regard: “We went to the bar to kill some time and found it filled with English travel writers in suede shoes and speckled green suits. What a scene! They were laughing and scribbling and asking how to spell ‘ogive’ and brazenly cribbing long passages of architectural arcana from their John Ruskin handbooks, which are issued with their union cards.”
All this from one little bitty nine-page short story. Imagine what Jay Jennings could do if he mined the entire Portis oeuvre! What a scene! What a book! Or, to quote Ring Lardner, another journalist who tried his hand at fiction: I can’t breathe!
My wife and I are moving out of the apartment we’ve rented for the last five years and into another apartment in the same neighborhood. The onerous task of culling through our books has fallen to me – perhaps justly, since I’m the one who collected most of the damned things in the first place. My goal is to discard at least two boxes. I’ve been struck, though, by the number of books on my shelves that I found among other people’s discards.Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Brooklyn that I don’t see a box of cast-off books sitting on a stoop or by a curb, with a “Free – Take Me” sign, or (once) a glow-stick casting its alien light over the offerings. The entire borough, viewed from a certain angle, is like a great rotating library: you take my copy of Mules and Men, I’ll relieve you of your Sense and Sensibility.What follows, in no particular order, is a catalogue of the 30 books I’ve apparently taken from other people’s stoops over the last five years: a sort of portrait of a certain time and place. I’d be curious to hear about your own finds in the comments box below.Baker, Nicholson: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of CivilizationAckerman, Diane: A Natural History of the SensesMaugham, W. Somerset: The Razor’s EdgeElizabethan Plays (a 1933 anthology; no author)Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson)Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the CourtierGarcia Lorca, Frederico: Three PlaysBréton, André, ed.: What is Surrealism?Tsvetaeva, Marina: Selected PoemsMitchell, David: GhostwrittenHarvey, David: Spaces of HopeGrimm, Jacob and Wilhelm: Fairy TalesPinter, Harold: The Proust ScreenplayMarlowe, Christopher: Plays and PoemsWoolf, Virginia: Essays, vol. IIFaludi, Susan: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenMerot, Pierre: MammalsPope, Alexander: The Rape of the LockReed, Lou: Rock & Roll Heart (okay, it’s a VHS tape, but still pretty cool)Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional ManCalvino, Italo: Italian FolktalesThompson, Willie: Postmodernism and HistoryCocteau, Jean: Five PlaysAmis, Martin: Visiting Mrs. NabokovGibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IVBissell, Tom: God Lives in St. PetersburgCalasso, Roberto: KaPortis, Charles: NorwoodDidion, Joan: MiamiSt. Augustine: The City of God[Image credit: steelight]