Cotton Mather, third-generation New England Puritan divine, wrote in his 1721 pamphlet India Christiana that “we have now seen the Sun Rising in the West.” Mather’s conceit was allegorical, yet an aspect of poetry’s power is its refusal to let you forget the implications of the literal. In a fascinating bit of ecumenical consilience, an Islamic Hadith agrees with Mather that Judgment Day awaits for when “the sun rises from the West.” Both demand their hypotheticals. A westerly dawn, the blood-skied evening transposed to morning, would be such a strange sight that one wonders if the human mind would even be able to initially comprehend what was seen. An apocalypse of the subtle unexpected.
Mather’s vision inspired my dissertation and would dominate the better part of a decade for me. The western dawn was striking to me, so arresting, that my reasons for that academic work flowed from this origin (even if the process was far from uncomplicated). Justifications for what one studies are always personal, but from that one line I built a personal cottage industry of bringing up Mather in incongruous circumstances, a familiarity with the stodgy, pudgy, wig-bedecked Calvinist I wouldn’t have anticipated.
A dissertation is normally a method of working through some stuff. For me, among other things, I was working through sunsets. Technically I was writing about early modern representations of western migration, but I was really chasing the sun. Dusk feels like weight to me, when apprehension and beauty are comingled, an hour that prefigures death. I would cite Barbara Lewalski on Protestant poetics and Leo Marx on technology and the pastoral; Louise Martz on medieval traces in Renaissance lyrics, and Sacvan Bercovitch on Puritanism, but fundamentally all of that was just filler. I simply wanted a method to approach the dusk.
I’ve not been particularly drawn to Jack Kerouac since high school: With maturity, that affection fades. Still, On the Road has some beautiful passages, such as Kerouac’s description of a southwestern sunset: “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” Kerouac can be florid (what are these “Spanish mysteries?”), and he inserted four references to wine in just one sentence. There is something to that comparison though, making explicit the strange intoxication of the sun as it collapses from the sky. A sunset can be both joyful and dangerous. If the witching hour is when ghouls stalk the earth, then the gloaming period is reserved for those creatures called duende in Spanish, that vital mystery which Federica García Lorca claimed is impregnable within “everything that has darkness” in it. Pablo Neruda wrote that “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, / in secret, between the shadow and the soul.” Dusk is the hour of encroaching darkness and shadows; it’s when souls are most solid. Those are maybe the Spanish mysteries which Kerouac intuited. Describing a sunset is difficult, better to describe something else ineffable, like love or a shadow.
Kshudiram Saha in The Earth’s Atmosphere: Its Physics and Dynamics provides a soberer explanation of sunsets, writing that the intensity of a sunset is correlated to several different factors, including the process of the scattering, reflection, and absorption of light related to the size of the “particulate matter that may be suspended in the atmosphere” where “the degree of scattering depends upon the size of the molecules of particulars compares to the wavelength of the incident beam.” Saha explains that “light scattered is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the wavelength of the incident beam,” so that at sunset the “sky turns yellow or red because most of the blue is scattered away and lost” having to now pass through a “much thicker and denser layer of the atmosphere.”
Sunsets, with their panoply of blues, bouquets of yellows, bushels of oranges, and engulfment of reds, will move through a specified choreography as the earth passes from day to night. Such is the anatomizing of twilight, so that when the sun is only 6 degrees below the horizon and dusk’s sky is the color of a robin’s egg we call it “civil twilight,” when it’s 12 degrees and the color of the wine-dark sea we refer to it as “nautical dusk,” and when it’s at it’s darkest before night’s blackness, dyed that color of perfect blue which is called “tekhelt” in biblical Hebrew, the color of the garment fringes for the High Priests dwelling in the Temple’s tabernacle, we call it “astronomical dusk.”
Painters are drawn to the golden hour, when solar light is evenly distributed and the Earth seems to softly glow. Claude Monet was particularly obsessed with how light diffuses through “particulate matter” (as Saha would put it). Monet explored shadow and sun as shifted across both seasons and hours. A striking portrayal of dusk is his 1904 Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset. In Monet’s painting, a hazy, blueish bridge disappears into abstraction. Particulars are subsumed into the melting glow of the polluted city at twilight, yet what luminescence refracts off said particulate matter! At twilight faces disappear, buildings and mountains become occluded, and the universe erases nature from our vision. Monet composed “a hymn to fleeting time,” as Carol Strickland explains in Impressionism: A Legacy of Light—an artistry whereby “One paints an impression of an hour of a day.” Monet calls forth that heavy hour, when in late summer there can be a stillness, and in many places (though not perhaps London) there is the intensity of insect shriek through the atmosphere.
Monet’s younger contemporary Edvard Munch depicted a different persona of the dusk in his celebrated, copied, imitated, parodied painting The Scream. Composed in four different versions, Munch’s indelible image of a contorted, wavy, abstracted man on an Oslo bridge screaming in mask-like pantomime is replicated in dorm rooms posters and on countless kitschy museum gift shop objects, from neckties to pillows. The Scream captures not just the beauty of dusk, but the horror; not just the solar grandeur, but the intimations of extinction implicit in any good sunset. As his fellow melancholic Norwegian, the contemporary author Karl Ove Knausgaard, notes in his preface to the Gary Garrels- and Jon-Ove Steihaug-edited Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, when viewing the works of Munch, one feels the need to exclaim “here was emotion, here was the abyss, here was the angst.” Knausgaard argues that even though “So much in our culture is rational,” we ultimately “have no words for the simplest of things,” including a fiery red sunset in late August. For Munch, the sky is nothing so much as coagulated blood coughed up into a sink.
When considering sunsets, it’s hard not to invoke that old literary critical cliché of the symbol, even though that word has been largely verboten from serious academic literary theory for half a century. Yet the sunset can’t help seeming symbolic of something greater than itself, perhaps even to an overdetermined extent. Mather saw Armageddon, Kerouac felt intoxication, and Munch heard a scream. Sunsets with their clearly delineated endings are difficult not to interpret as the last act, the final curtain call, the epilogue, death. So saturated with meaning, that overreliance on the setting sun in a novel, or a film, or a television show can’t help seeming easy. Jean Chevalier, in his indispensable The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, classified a number of concepts which the setting sun is used to represent. Of the direction of the setting sun, Chevalier writes that “West is the land of evening, of old age, of the descending passage of the Sun.”
In her meditation on the relative cultural semiotics of light and shadow, The Millions staff writer Jianan Qian elucidates how a sunset is never just one thing, arguing that in classical Chinese poetry there is a melancholy about dusk, while in western poets from Carl Sandburg to Gustave Flaubert the hour is imbued with a sense of hopefulness. She asks, “Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light?” The great power of the sunset, as I see it, is in that marriage of both shadow and light. From Gilgamesh to Cormac McCarthy, west has been the direction where the sun rests and light is extinguished, the inevitable location of death. We see ecstatic vision of that blood-red sphere, like the ripe yolk of some cracked egg sinking downward into the bowl of the western horizon. A symbol can be a fallacious thing, however, especially as we justify our belief in the Westerly Kingdom of Death, as a sunset is of course nothing but an optic trick. Like the Flaming Lips sang on 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, “You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” A sunset is finally nothing more than itself.
Humanity’s understanding of this illusion exemplifies the new rationality—of humanity’s rejection of symbol in favor of measurable phenomenon. Anticipating the Oklahoma-based rock band by a good five centuries, the man who would give his name to the accurate model of the solar system would write that “since the sun remains stationary, whatever appears as a motion of the sun is really due rather to the motion of the earth.” Heliocentrism predates Copernicus’s 1543 On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, but it was that Polish monk who would lend those models his name, his hypothesis later confirmed by Galileo Galilei, forever demolishing vestiges of the geocentric Ptolemaic model. Copernicus based his conclusion on a more parsimonious mathematics, eliminating the baroque system of epicycles that was previously required to explain anomalous celestial movements. In Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud, Peter Watson explains that the “traditional way to explain the heavens was in disarray,” so that the great genius of Copernicus was to simplify those models, even as in the process our exulted stature in creation would be displaced. Humanity was no longer at the center of reality, for the abolishment of the sunset was as if the abolishment of our significance.
Novelist and journalist William T. Vollmann, in his incredibly unlikely Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, wrote that “What moves me the most about [Copernicus]” was his struggle to “free the human mind from a false system.” Famed Russian dissident and dystopian novelist Arthur Koestler didn’t completely agree; in his classic The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, he opined that “man’s destiny was no longer determined from ‘above’” but rather from “‘below’ by … sub-human agencies.” These things could determine our fate but “provide … no moral guidance, no values and meaning.” Koestler was not such a relativist that he’d deny the accuracy of Copernicus’s verified hypothesis; rather, he chose to acknowledge that sometimes mythos undeniably holds an appeal that can’t be exorcised by data.
Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth that “We are meaning-seeking creatures.” Armstrong, like Koestler, wouldn’t dispute Copernicus’s conclusions, but she would claim that it’s a category mistake to abandon myth simply because it isn’t literally true. She explains that mythology has never been primitive science or empiricism done poorly. Logos and mythos, Armstrong argues, are two different epistemologies; the former is concerned with what’s factual, the latter with what’s true. Myths can’t calculate the parabola of a satellite, they can’t sequence the human genome or program a computer. But Armstrong argues that it’s a positivist error to collapse mythos into logos, for myth is concerned not with explanation but with meaning.
That the sun should be so present across myths is not surprising; even in our contemporary era there is something mysterious about a sunset. A preponderance of sun gods: Egypt had Amun-Ra; Greece and Rome had Apollo. During the Amarna Dynasty, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV discovered monotheism and rechristened himself Akhenaten, abolishing the pantheon in favor of the singular Aten, god of the sun. The “Hymn to Aten,” whose language was later echoed in the Psalms, chants toward its subject that “When you have arisen, they live, / When you set, they die / You yourself are lifetime and men live in you,” transfiguring all of existence by the cycle of the sunset. Rosalie David in Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt explains that the pharaoh had “embarked on a course of action which has been … interpreted as a ‘religious revolution,’” whereby this imposed “form of solar monotheism” was defined by the “creative energy of the sun.”
With the changing of a single letter, Christians also worship the Son. After all, Psalm 84:11 reads, “The Lord God is a sun,” with all of the implications of death and resurrection that that endless cycle of dusk and dawn represent. David writes of how the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead drew “parallel between the sun’s passage from night to day, and the deceased’s emergence from the tomb to the daylight”—Pagan wisdom, for in the transit of orb there is a narrative of death and renewal told daily, as sure as Apollo or Sol Invictus led their chariots across the dome of the Earth. As logos, all such stories are literally untrue, but that’s the least interesting thing about them. Such stories aren’t cosmology, but what they tell us is that though the sun sets, it will rise again, with all that that formulation implies.
In his 1957 classic Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes that “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.” At a frequency too high-pitched for most of us to hear, the sun god’s chariot still passes in transit from east to west. Laugh if we must at the strange contingencies of myth, but such narratives order our lives. When Mather looked westward across the massive expanse of that Hesperian continent where he imagined God’s Kingdom would one day dwell, could he have possibly imagined that at the terminus of this land there would be an empire of a different sort, devoted to the production of fantasy, albeit written in celluloid rather than mythos, in a place where Apollo’s chariot lands each dusk, and that we’ve elected to call Sunset Boulevard?
For most of human history, sunset meant something dangerous and intractable—the approach of darkness. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, A. Roger Ekirch writes that before the electric lights, the “darkness of night appears palpable. Evening does not arrive; it ‘thickens.’” Sunsets may be beautiful, but they bring “Night … man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror.” Camping can perhaps trick the city dweller into a simulation of that all-encompassing darkness from before the Industrial Revolution, but it’s a world that’s fundamentally inaccessible to us. Ekirch explains how “All forms of artificial illumination—not just lamps but torches and candles—helped early on to alleviate nocturnal anxieties,” yet even the brightest of candles flickers lower than the dullest of flashlights. This was an era where “bizarre sight and queer sounds” would come and vanish, a dark kingdom of the hours where “‘Night … belongs to the spirits.’” Perilous night, the totalizing regime of nocturnal darkness, would soon be banished. Artificial illumination steadily improved throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, with the mass production of candles, the introduction of burning coal, and the standardization of both oil and gas lamps.
What would ultimately destroy those old gods was the birth of new ones, or as Ernest Freeberg writes, such was the awe generated by a “light that could burn without spark and smoke … [which] promised to turn vast swaths of night into day.” In his account The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, Freeberg explains that the invention of the electric light bulb was “rightly hailed as a ‘marvel’ and a milestone in human history.” Millennia of people had been terrified by the sun’s descent, fearful of whatever creature swallowed that disk every night. And in a bright, glowing second of filament, the darkness could be forever slain with a light bulb. Deicide by technology, for Aten and Apollo’s fickleness were ultimately tamed by Thomas Edison.
We may have abolished one master, but as Ekirch explains, so, too, was lost “a distinct culture, with many of its own customs and rituals.” Electricity has facilitated the never-ending thrum of commerce that defines modernity, so darkness may have been eradicated, but it’s been replaced with the tyranny of neon activity. Servant to such a master as this, there is something countercultural in reinvesting the sunset with its significance, in seeing it as that portal which shepherds us into the province of night, with all of those attendant differences.
Imbued with more meaning than its Christian descendant, the Jewish Sabbath is ideally a temporal utopia, a respite from the gods of this profane world. Measured from Friday dusk to that of Saturday, Sabbath represents a re-enchantment of the sunset. Anthropologist and physician Melvin Konner writes in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews that the “Friday evening dusk was greeted as an arriving queen,” while the “Sabbath’s departure at dusk was marked with the rite of … separation.” Herbert Weiner in Nine and a Half Mystics: The Kabbala Today explicates the mystical symbolism of the “palace of the Sabbath,” writing that the period of time from dusk to dusk marks the “annulment of those divisions which characterize ordinary existence—between man and man, between mind and heart, idea and reality.” Dusk’s arrival abolishes our fallen world—at least for a day.
The medieval Sephardic rabbi Avraham Abulafia writes in his poem “The Book of the Letter,” included in the Peter Cole-edited anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, that the “Sabbath subdues all the days of the week,” or as I might put it: “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” That’s what it felt like when I was in high school, and my friends and I began to make a ritual of ending the week at a local hoagie shop in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, where in imitation of back-slapping old men we’d shake hands and genuinely wish each other a “Gut Shabbes,” ironically over cheesesteaks. Walking home in December, reflecting on a tradition not my own, I would have opportunity to observe the early dusk through the low winter sun; the way that the orange, lolling fingers of light rippled over cloudy, compacted gauze, and sometimes in moments of youthful exuberance I thought that I felt what Konner describes as the “consistency of the Sabbath… [its] seeming taste of heaven.”
There are the Pittsburgh sunsets from when I was growing up, when the red sky could burst from the low threading of hazy greyness, light refracted from both drizzle and the particulate pumped into the atmosphere from the massive coke processing plant south of the city, the dramatic hurried rush of orange collapse as the sun sank below the unfairly gorgeous hilly skyline, looking like it had been planned by a sacred conspiracy of divinities.
Or, leaving by ferry from Hiroshima and approaching the stolid, painted red wood of the torii gate marking the entrance to the Itsukushima shrine, which seems to float on the water off of Miyajima Island, dedicated to the brother of Amaterasu, appropriately enough the sun goddess. This is the sort of dusk described by the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho as encompassing the “twilight rain / these brilliant hued / hibiscus… / A lovely sunset,” where that beatific arch seems to connect the ocean to the sky as the fiery sun descends into the sea behind a fringe of green mountains on the distant main island—so beautiful that it seems incorrect.
Or, the pyrotechnic psychedelia of the massive sun burrowing into the Pacific Ocean off of Waikiki Beach, a sunset which reminds you that there is something like outer space about the sea, a performance of your personal, immaculate insignificance in the presence of something that absurdly glowing. Hawaii’s sunsets are appropriately described by Sarah Vowel in Unfamiliar Fishes as “lurid.” As is twilight on that other ocean, watching the sun’s vital hemorrhage on a beach in Curaçao, looking like Derek Walcott’s description of the Caribbean as being where “the sunset bleeds like a cut wrist.”
Or, the fragrant still of Central Park at dusk, when New York City is quiet enough, for just a second, that it charms you, air threaded with the warm charge of late summer, when that rectangular garden at the center of Manhattan allows you to contemplate such green thought in a green shade. Over the Hudson and New Jersey, the sun drops into that western home of the rest of the New World, and for a bit of the golden hour all of the light is refracted off of the glass, steel, and stone of Central Park West, the skyscrapers acting as prisms and mirrors for the sun, reflected a thousand times over in the windows of women and men.
Or, the raspberry-tangerine sherbet skies of an early autumn dusk over the outfield wall of a minor league baseball stadium in eastern Pennsylvania; the increasingly quicker nightfall of the season now interrupting earlier innings. Crackle over the diamond as the temperature drops, and the lights on the scoreboard now so bright they hurt your eyes. In A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings, A. Bartlett Giamatti writes that the purpose of baseball in the fall is precisely that “It is designed to break your heart … when the days are all twilight.”
And of course, facing west from the Glasgow Necropolis, scattered with monuments to textile factory owners and brewers, looking out over the dense, crooked labyrinth of that grey city, a misty Scottish sun lolling towards the horizon, where she shines off of the broken windows of faraway tenement high rises. This sunset, this smear of yellow and orange, this eruption of blue and red, giving off final light as if it were God’s fireworks display, standing in a cemetery and realizing what sunsets have always really meant. Emily Dickinson understood dusk’s indomitable logic when she wrote that “We passed the Setting Sun – / Or rather – He passed Us,” where her and her traveling companion are headed west “toward Eternity.”
Dusk is nature’s enjambment. In the midst of the muggy Anthropocene, when humanity has seemingly wrenched the very seasons out of their proper order, with Antarctic ice-shelfs collapsing and river banks receding in drought while revealing the marked warning stones left from those in the lean times of famines past, dusk provides us a talisman reminding us that even we have our limits. In the filtered, gloaming light of an irreversible sunset there is profound wisdom, the experience of finality and the understanding that “This, too, shall pass.” Dusk reminds us that we’re not in control, not even of our extinctions. The poetics of sunset speaks of endings and closings, apocalypses and death. The hour before evening is not just the most contemplative one of a day’s existence, but the most poetic as well. Drawing a close to the light which illuminated before into the promises of darkness. Sunset is the most beautiful hour.
Martin Seymour-Smith was a grumpy fellow. A promising poet who took up writing big reference books of literary criticism, his highly idiosyncratic 1977 survey Who’s Who In Twentieth Century Literature is deliciously highbrow junk food. But like strawberry Pocky or matcha Kit-Kat, Seymour-Smith isn’t for everyone. His effort to catalogue the literary scene is full of curiously gleeful put-downs and undercooked psychoanalysis. He pronounces Hemingway “by no means intelligent … seriously overrated,” sums up Nabokov as “a distinguished lepidopterist” and “a minor writer of distinction,” and tenderly humiliates Updike’s Rabbit, Run as “brilliant … but too much so.” Who’s Who would be an impossible book to write today: Seymour-Smith is skeptical of literary personality at its core. The entries on particularly mythic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner show a dogged commitment to tearing down the aegis of respectability surrounding these figures.
As a critic he is digressive, laughably biased, and mean-spirited. For Seymour-Smith, even the century’s most celebrated writers deserve about as much humiliation as praise. Faulkner, for example, “worked from intuition and passion and never from what an educated man would call thought … if anyone believes that he possessed a mind in the usual sense, let him read the text of the Nobel Prize speech (1950): cliché-ridden, naive.” The entry goes on to praise the Yoknapatawpha novels and Seymour-Smith assures us “there is no doubt … of his high stature; and doubtless the poor work was part of the price—heavy and exhausting drinking-bouts were another—that he had to pay for his achievement.”
On Hemingway he is far less generous: “inept … he knew nothing about bull-fighting, as Death in the Afternoon (1932) which purports to be about it, makes painfully clear.” One has to wonder where Seymour-Smith had gotten his bullfighting intelligence, but no matter. After informing readers that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s attempt to describe how difficult it had become for him to produce anything of value, he dismisses it as “a portentous and pretentious analogy.” Worse still are Hemingway’s personal qualities: “He was a liar, he was treacherous to those to whom he owed most.” Finally, Seymour-Smith concludes that “the decency [Hemingway] found is limited and answers little.”
Seymour-Smith’s suspicion of material and critical success is obvious, and he tries his best to ignore it: The obligatory mention of Nobel Prizes is terse and unaccompanied by commentary, like the very mention of the achievement has to be torn out of him.
Listen to him on Sinclair Lewis, who won the Nobel in 1930: “Only of socio-anthropological interest; as a writer he is almost worthless.” And contemporary darlings like Heller, Tolkien, and Kerouac (“On the Road … was typed on long rolls of art-paper and reads like it”) do not even get the dubious honor of a long polemic: They are characterized more as cult leaders than writers.
Yes, Seymour-Smith is nasty, even cruel. And maybe he has too much fun demolishing “important” books and big egos. But Seymour-Smith was much more than a bundle of sassy contrarian impulse. If that was the extent of his contribution to literary criticism, Seymour-Smith could be safely forgotten: a minor figure, as he himself might say. But Seymour-Smith is not a jealous critic, an artistic failure who uses his prodigious intellectual powers to denigrate people who can do what he can’t. His tendency to humiliate the high and mighty is joined with a corresponding instinct to elevate the unknown and the under-appreciated. He is like that pitiful sports fan who roots for the underdog on a sort of sick, masochistic principle. He fawns over figures who are largely overlooked or still underrated today, as when he casually informs the reader that Wyndham Lewis was the greatest writer of the 20th century.
The zanily extensive entry on Lewis, more than twice the length of Faulkner’s and probably the longest in the book, calls Lewis’ The Human Age “the greatest single imaginative prose work in English of this century.” Seymour-Smith admires Gombrowicz and Rhys; Rebecca West’s fiction, “though always evincing respect, has not had its due,” and her absolute doorstop Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is “great journalism”—though he can’t help adding in characteristic Seymour-Smith fashion—“if journalism can be great.” Isak Dinesin is “one of the most original writers of her time” and “it is hardly surprising that she should be attracting more and more attention.” Other writers Seymour-Smith praises are probably known almost exclusively to graduate students.
Seymour-Smith, for all his snobbery, is deeply progressive—he sees that the literary canon is criminally narrow, and he believes in the redistribution of prestige and attention. With his praise of the forgotten and his commitment to interrogating the greatness of the “greats,” he warns readers away from graven images. The famous and successful are not titans, invulnerable and remote figures whose work is sacrosanct. They are as small and compact as we are, they squabble and stumble just as we do.
Much ink has been spilled in laments for the death of the negative book review. Readers of Who’s Who nostalgic for the era of pugnacious critics will take immediate pleasure in the spiteful wit displayed on every page. But after that cheap thrill there is something else: gratitude and even trust. You have been taken into a confidence. Even if it is an icky one—after all, you didn’t really need to know that Seymour-Smith thought Yukio Mishima was “evil and cruel … no more than a nasty little boy.”
Seymour-Smith’s opinions, though designed to some extent to be abrasive, come from a somewhat more different lineage than the hatchet job, another literary tradition in danger of being lost. It is not so much that Seymour-Smith has a negative outlook—though he can be relied upon to dislike things—it is that he has an opinion at all, a clear viewpoint expressed with expertise and self-assurance. He is idiosyncratic, he is bold, and he avoids platitudes.
He is a curmudgeon. He has unpopular opinions. He is a voice of dissent. He is an enemy of the comfortably established; he is the ally of the unsung. Most of all, Seymour-Smith’s book is an antidote to today’s largely toothless criticism, a reminder of a time when literature was more confident in itself and its merits, to a time when critics like Seymour-Smith could be safely unloosed upon the reputations of literary darlings—when we might have even cracked a smile about it.
In this way Seymour-Smith is like the boisterous uncle of literature. He is the uncle who hasn’t been seen in awhile. He shows up to the house uninvited, has a couple of highballs, and then casually confesses shocking family secrets of which you had never dreamed. He will smoke cigarettes in the formal living room, but long after he’s left sheepishly, and maybe in a hurry, you’ll still think of what he had to say.
Poets, editors, songwriters, teachers, journalists, novelists—some great writers and some under-sung ones left us this year. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2017.
Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, educated in England, Switzerland, and India; she earned advanced writing degrees in the United States, and lived more than a decade in Canada—a peripatetic life she mined to write fiction about the aspirations and dislocations of immigrant life. Mukherjee, who died Jan. 28 at 76, grew up in a rich Hindu family, “bubble-wrapped in innocence,” as she would say later. Shortly after arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Philip Roth, Mukherjee informed her parents that she was not going through with the marriage they had arranged for her and that, in fact, she had recently married a white American writer, Clark Blaise. Her first-hand knowledge of the immigrant’s yearnings was captured in the title character of her breakthrough novel, Jasmine, a poor girl from Punjab who arrives in America “greedy with wants and reckless with hope.” Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, explored the immigrant experience through the stories of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Middle East. As she was writing those stories, she was developing a credo: “Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.” Given that we now live in a world with 60 million refugees, driven from their homes for reasons ranging from terror to desire, it’s hard to argue with Mukherjee’s claim that “the narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.”
Some writers are lucky to have a singular place that forever nourishes their art. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. Patrick Modiano has Paris. And Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, had his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It provided Walcott with ample raw materials for his vivid, musical poems—the sea, the pulsing sun, the land and its fecund vegetation, and the people who live there in the wake of slavery, colonialism, and forced exile, snagged in the mesh of commingled cultures.
Walcott, who died March 17 at 87, published his first poem when he was 14 while operating under the influence of Christopher Marlowe and John Milton. Over the next seven decades he became an accomplished poet, playwright, and watercolorist, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, producing a body of poems that ranged from compact to epic, always spun from the weather, the history, and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott was also a wanderer, and, like all exiles, he knew the twinned aches of leaving home and returning. These lines are from In a Green Night, the 1962 book that announced him as a major writer:
The hospital is quiet in the rain.
A naked boy drives pigs into the bush.
The coast shudders with every surge. The beach
Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam.
There is a belt of emerald light, a sail
Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef,
The hills are smoking in the vaporous light,
The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief.
It could not change its sorrows and be home.
Though he’ll be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist of the New York City persuasion, Jimmy Breslin, who died on March 19 at 88, was also a gifted novelist, memoirist, biographer, and writer of nonfiction books about subjects both light and dark, from the ineptitude of the early New York Mets baseball teams to the sins of sexual predators in the Catholic priesthood. His biography of Damon Runyon reads like Damon Runyon on acid. Breslin produced more than 20,000 newspaper columns in his long and fluorescent career—a staggering number, I can attest, having produced about 600 of the things myself. Many of Breslin’s were written on behalf of the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten. When someone asked him why he kept going back to the well, he replied: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
Breslin’s was an only-in-New-York life. Born in Queens, he knew the streets and the saloons, the mobsters and the cops like nobody else, and he was among the vanguard of writers who birthed what has come to be known as the New Journalism, though he scoffed at the term. Too high-minded for this burly son of the outer boroughs. He ran (unsuccessfully) for New York city council the same year Norman Mailer ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. His fame reached its peak in 1977, when the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, began sending letters to Breslin, which he published in the New York Daily News. For all the warmth he felt for the little people, Breslin could be as cold and hard as iron. His father abandoned the family when Jimmy was young, and when his father died, the son paid for the cremation. “Good,” he said afterward. “That’s over.”
Jean Stein died on April 30 at 83, an apparent suicide. She grew up amid Hollywood luxury—her father founded Music Corporation of America—and she returned to that milieu in her later work. But it was her 1982 book, Edie: An American Biography, that upended my understanding of what a book can be. It tells the story of Edie Sedgwick, who also grew up wealthy, became a Andy Warhol superstar, then spiraled into drug addiction and death by overdose at 28. Her story is told by dozens of people whose lives crossed hers (and her patrician family’s). Stein does not elicit conventional answers to conventional questions, as in Studs Terkel or Oriana Fallaci; instead she acts like a camera, unflinching, mutely watching and listening as people talk. There is no authorial intervention, seemingly no point of view. In time, the lack of affect becomes the affect. The book is a flat yet sneakily rich portrait of squandered American privilege and the cult of celebrity. It’s an act of dissection. An X-ray. A masterpiece.
Stein was not a one-hit wonder. She worked at The Paris Review (where she interviewed William Faulkner), Esquire, and the literary quarterly Grand Street. She produced another oral history, American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, and West of Eden, a study of the influences of Hollywood, oil exploration, and real estate on the city of Los Angeles. Stein was shy by nature but she threw glittering parties, including one at which Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a fistfight. She was an unobtrusive but brilliant interviewer. Of the technique behind Edie, she once said, “Each person is speaking directly to you…Nobody is ever telling you, the reader, what to think.”
The news that Denis Johnson had died on May 24 at 67 sent me back to two pieces of writing. The first was Johnson’s masterly short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” from his 1992 collection about drug-addled drifters and losers, Jesus’ Son. Like all great fiction, “Car Crash” conjures a world that’s unlike any other and yet instantly, even shockingly, familiar. Words pop out of nowhere and ambush the reader. It’s the story of a lone hitchhiker stuck in a downpour who gets a lift from a young couple. As the hitchhiker dozes in the back seat with the couple’s baby, the car is involved in a ghastly crash on a rain-slicked bridge. Clutching the baby, the hitchhiker staggers from the wreckage and is taken to a hospital, where this unforgettable scene unfolds:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
The second piece of writing was Geoff Dyer’s review of Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. Dyer makes the point that nothing in Johnson’s earlier output, not even Jesus’ Son, had prepared readers for this teeming, meandering mind-fuck of a novel about America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Dyer compares Johnson to Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Graham Greene. Far more astutely, he calls Johnson “a junkyard angel,” a writer who, “at some level, did not know how to write at all—and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” I can’t imagine more apt, or higher, praise.
Three days after Johnson’s death, Gregg Allman died at 69. If Bob Dylan is worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature, then Allman, the keyboardist and lead songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, surely merits inclusion in a list of noteworthy literary obituaries. He wrote many of the band’s signature songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Melissa.” Some of his song lyrics rise to the level of art, including these from “Ain’t Wastin’ No More Time,” written shortly after his beloved big brother, Duane, the band’s lead guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia:
Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain.
Week before, they all seemed the same.
With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize
I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly.
And oh, I ain’t wastin’ time no more
‘Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things.
The news of Gregg Allman’s death, like the news of Johnson’s, sent me back to a piece of writing—in this case, “Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band,” Grover Lewis’s Rolling Stone chronicle of being embedded on tour with the band in 1971, shortly before Duane’s death. It was a deep-pore examination of life on the road with a big-name rock band, a string of identical days and nights full of “pure listless boredom” and plane flights and concerts and groupies and TV and piles of comic books and cocaine.
Despite the grind of the road, Gregg Allman’s life did not lack for color. He avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting drunk and shooting himself in the foot. He had a long solo career. He married, recorded with, and divorced Cher. (She was the third of his six wives.) He contracted hepatitis and arthritis. He got a liver transplant. Late in life he wrote a memoir, My Cross to Bear, with Alan Light. As a writer, Allman may not be in a league with Patti Smith, but the book has its moments, including a line that would have made an unbeatable epitaph: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life.”
If you favor writers who live long colorful implausible lives, Clancy Sigal, who died on July 16 at 90, is your man. Sigal’s resume reads like overcooked fiction: he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; he was Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood agent; he was noteworthy enough to make the anti-Communist blacklist; he had to dodge FBI agents; he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he was Doris Lessing’s lover (and the model for Saul Green in her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook); he underwent therapy and dropped acid with the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing; he organized Detroit autoworkers; he was a popular commentator on the BBC. Somehow, Sigal also found time to write, producing essays, novels, memoirs, and the screenplay for the 1992 Salma Hayek movie, Frida. His best known book was 1961’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir, an autobiographical account of a blacklisted Hollywood agent’s picaresque cross-country trip aboard a DeSoto convertible, during which the hero discovers a fractured nation and his own fractured self. It was seen as a rebuttal to Jack Kerouac’s effervescence, and it became a finalist for the National Book Award. The critic John Leonard offered this praise: “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” Sigal never stopped working. He was busy blogging a couple of days before he died.
Dick Gregory didn’t hector or lecture about America’s racial divide but went at it sideways, with a dagger instead of a sledgehammer. Classic early Dick Gregory has him going into a restaurant in the segregated South, where the waitress informs him: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.” To which he replies: “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people nowhere. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Gregory, who died on Aug. 19 at 84, wrote a dozen books, and his 1964 autobiography, nigger, was built on this strategy for neutering an epithet through frank exposure and overuse: “I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?”
Gregory was soon on the front lines of the civil rights movement, which led to beatings and a dozen arrests, a gunshot wound. Other issues that inspired his activism included the Vietnam War, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment, South African apartheid, and the rights of Native Americans. Sometimes he flirted with the bizarre, speculating that “whoever the people are who control the system” were behind the killings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then again, there are more than a few people don’t find anything bizarre about such suspicions. Gregory famously embraced various diet fads, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. At the end, he was still able to laugh. “Here’s how you can tell when you’re getting old,” he said late in life. “When someone compliment you on those beautiful alligator shoes you’re wearing—and you’re barefoot.”
Kate Millett’s polemical bombshell, Sexual Politics, burst on the scene in 1970. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel soon graced the cover of Time magazine, which was then the gold standard of a writer’s anointment as Truly Important. Sexual Politics began as a doctoral thesis, and it used literary criticism and historical analysis to dismantle such supposed avatars of sexual liberation as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, and Norman Mailer. Millett, who died on Sept. 6 at 82, portrayed such men as cogs in a masculine machine designed to establish and perpetuate the inferior status of women. Patriarchy, Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy, the nuclear family—all, in Millett’s view, led to the “interior colonization” of women.
The book, out of print for many years, was reissued in a new edition last year—just in time for the avalanche of revelations of sexual misconduct that have borne out Millett’s original premise. The machine, as we seem to learn anew every day, was indeed set up to ensure the inferior status of women. It ran—until now—on women’s enforced silence. Nearly half a century after the original publication of Sexual Politics, the silence is finally being broken.
Lillian Ross, who died on Sept. 20 at 99, was the fly who came off the wall—with disastrous consequences. In a celebrated six-decade career as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Ross followed this reporter’s dictum: “Do not call attention to yourself.” Her unobtrusive interviewing techniques resulted in a tall stack of superb journalism, on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway to a group of rural Indiana high schoolers’ first trip to New York City. Some believe that the best book ever written about Hollywood was Ross’s Picture, from her New Yorker articles about John Huston’s tortured effort to bring Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, to the screen.
But in 1998, the fly on the wall did something out of character: she called attention to herself by publishing a memoir, Here but Not Here, which revealed her 50-year love affair with the late William Shawn, the married editor of The New Yorker, whose widow and children were still alive. Many in the New York literary tribe were incensed. Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, dissed the book as “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions.” Jeremy Bernstein, a 31-year veteran of The New Yorker, called it “a deeply hurtful, self-indulgent, tasteless book that never should have been written at all.” Ross claimed to be mystified by the uproar. As she told the gossip columnist Liz Smith: “The controversy doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Jim Clark may not be a household name, but for more than four decades, as a student, teacher, editor, then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clark was an outsize influence on generations of writers. He carried a torch passed down by the school’s earlier writing teachers—Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Bob Watson and, now, Michael Parker and Terry Kennedy, among many others. The word “generous” keeps popping up when people remember Clark, who died on Oct. 30 at 72. I experienced that generosity firsthand when Clark, who was also an ordained minister, helped me put together an essay about Greensboro’s peculiar allure for writers. Clark pointed me to a quote by Jarrell, who called the town “Sleeping Beauty,” adding that “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I join hundreds of writers in saying, “Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.”
William H. Gass
William H. Gass, who died on Dec. 6 at 93, is regarded by many as a father of postmodern writing (unless you think the title belongs to Miguel de Cervantes for that house of mirrors called Don Quixote). Gass, after all, coined the word “metafiction” for his favored ploy of inserting a character known as William H. Gass into fiction written by William H. Gass. But I think Gass should be remembered for four very different reasons. First, he believed sentences were sacred objects and every one should be as perfect as the writer can possibly make it. Second, while he will be remembered for his novels, especially The Tunnel, and his short stories, I’m partial to his essays, on everything from suicide to Malcolm Lowry’s epic (and suicidal) drinking, which are the work of a brilliant mind that wears its erudition lightly. Third, Gass was a metaphor machine; he said the things came at him in “squadrons.” Of the insane he wrote that “their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns.” Metal threads, he wrote, were “glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier.” And fourth, in our careerist, prize-drunk age, Gass had a refreshing disdain for literary awards, even as many were bestowed on him. “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” he wrote, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.”
My father was working as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1952 when the paper hired its first black reporter, a Baltimore native named Simeon Booker. But Booker lasted just two years at The Post, becoming frustrated by the limited assignments from his white editors in the nation’s rigidly segregated capital. He yearned to write about the black experience in America, and so he started contributing to the weekly Jet and the monthly Ebony, both aimed at black readers. Booker’s timing was superb. Over the next six decades, he covered many of the defining stories of the 20th century, including the brutal murder of the black teenager Emmett Till and the acquittal of his white killers, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the Bloody Sunday melee on the Pettus Bridge. He also wrote about politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people.
Booker, who died on Dec. 10 at 99, found time to produce books in his long and decorated life, including Black Man’s America (1964) and Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were many courageous and talented reporters, black and white, covering the civil rights movement (see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s fine book, The Race Beat, or the memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter who also died on Dec. 10, at 87), Booker seemed to get there first, and he had access, guts, and drive that few rivals could match. And his words carried major weight. One long-time reader said she and others eagerly awaited Booker’s dispatches in Jet and Ebony, which they regarded as nothing less than “the gospel according to Simeon.”
Other notables who left us this year, in alphabetical order:
John Ashbery, 90, was a giant of American letters, an inimitable poet who was often imitated but never equaled. He was also an insightful art critic, and in 1976 he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award in the same year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
William Peter Blatty, 89, author of the 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, which sold 13 million copies. Blatty won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay two years later for the movie version of the book, which shattered box office records thanks to its ingenious use of projectile pea-soup vomiting and a girl with a spinning head.
J.P. Donleavy, 91, whose bawdy 1955 novel The Ginger Man was banned and burned before it became a contemporary classic, with 45 million copies in print. Donleavy, who lived for many years in Ireland and was an accomplished painter, had this to say about old age: “It’s not nice, but take comfort that you won’t stay that way forever.”
Paula Fox, 93, was dubbed one of America’s “least appreciated” novelists by The Nation, but she received some overdue recognition in 1999, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction to a popular reissue Fox’s signature novel, Desperate Characters.
Nancy Friday, 84, author of the bestsellers My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, built her writing career on the earth-shattering premise that women have sexual fantasies. To the dismay of many feminists, Friday argued that it was by ridding themselves of shame that women can achieve professional, political, and economic equality with men. Some of Friday’s ideas have held up better than others. In 1996, appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she dismissed the importance of on-the-job sexual harassment. “The workplace,” she said, “is the meeting and mating place.” Try telling that to Salma Hayek.
Sue Grafton, 77, didn’t quite make it to Z. Her so-called alphabet novels, featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, began with 1982’s A Is for Alibi and reached Y Is for Yesterday last summer. Grafton, whose influences ranged from Nancy Drew to Mickey Spillane, was at work on Z Is for Zero at the time of her death.
Clifford Irving, 87, who became a millionaire, briefly, but then went to prison when his early 1970s book, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, was blocked from publication after it was proven to be one of the most sublime literary hoaxes of the 20thcentury.
Robert M. Pirsig, 88, who captured the schizoid zeitgeist of the 1970s with his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies and remained on bestseller lists for a decade.
Sam Shepard was that rarest thing: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—and an accomplished memoirist, musician, screenwriter, and songwriter—who became an Oscar-nominated, heart-throb movie star. His posthumous final work, Spy of the First Person, is narrated by a man suffering from a degenerative disorder much like the Lou Gehrig’s disease that killed Shepard at age 73.
Robert Silvers, 87, was a founding editor of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life shaping it into one of America’s most influential literary publications. The self-effacing Silver had this to say about the editor’s role: “The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”
Richard Wilbur, 96, was a poet, translator, and opera lyricist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his meticulous, unshowy poetry. In 1988 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the nation’s poet laureate.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 83, was the un-Richard Wilbur, a Russian whose showy, defiant poems and theatrical delivery turned him into poetry’s version of an international rock star. Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism were early targets, though some grumbled that the Soviet government tolerated him while sending other dissidents to Siberia. Some went so far as to call Yevtushenko a sellout. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said of him, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Millions of fans worldwide disagreed.
It exists! The long-lost letter from Neal Cassady that inspired Jack Kerouac to write On the Road will be auctioned next month at Christies, ending an 18-month-long battle over its ownership and another 60-year-long battle over its existence. As Kerouac said, “It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.”
Two debut novels – one freshly published, the other on its way to becoming a classic – have reminded me that for the past century American writers and artists have been obsessed with that shimmering, sexy, liberating, lethal contraption known as the automobile. Small wonder. Is there a more potent metaphor for American restlessness, for the American hunger for status and sex, for the American tendency to wind up, broken and bloody, in a ditch?
In a thesis written in 2007, a doctoral candidate named Shelby Smoak neatly summed up the role of the automobile in American fiction as a way for characters to experience “violence, sacredness and consumption.” Reversing this order, cars give writers and artists a way to talk about that unholy troika: status, escape (including sexual escapades), and death. In the bargain, the automobile, which introduced the concept of planned obsolescence back in the 1930s, is the shiny embodiment of American capitalism’s relentless quest to make consumers hunger for the next new thing, whether they need it or not.
The first of the two debut novels that brought all this home to me is Lot Boy by Buffalo native Greg Shemkovitz, just published by Sunnyoutside Press. It’s the story of Eddie Lanning, a twentysomething fuckup in Buffalo who works as the titular lot boy, performer of the lowliest tasks at the Ford dealership founded by his late grandfather and now run by his father, who’s dying of cancer. All Eddie wants to do is hook back up with his former girlfriend and get the hell out of Buffalo. To finance his escape, Eddie’s working a scam selling hot auto parts from the dealership, which inspires this rosy portrait of the local scenery:
To get here, you have to go through a shitty part of South Buffalo to get to an even shittier section, until you cross a bridge into the wetlands and fields and eventually hit the rundown industrial lakeshore. Seeing all this decay and frozen debris pass by my windows, I realize that the only reason anyone would come here is to sell stolen auto parts to somebody who would only come here to buy them.
Among its many virtues, this novel offers a peek behind the curtain of a world few people have experienced – the claustrophobic, corrupt, filthy, noisy, inefficient and mind-numbingly banal world of a Big Three car dealership. Reading Lot Boy, you’ll find yourself rooting for Eddie’s escape, while coming to understand why the American automobile industry went so far down the toilet that the U.S. taxpayer had to reach in and pull it out. Here’s the terse but uplifting author note at the end of this winning novel: “Greg Shemkovitz left Buffalo.”
Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at age 79, published his debut novel in 1972 to foam-at-the-mouth critical praise but modest sales. The Car Thief is the sometimes brutal, sometimes tender story of a troubled teenage boy named Alex Housman whose biography has much in common with Weesner’s. Alex’s hard-drinking mother abandoned him in infancy, and after spending some time in foster care he’s now growing up in a Michigan factory town, living with his alcoholic father, an autoworker. To give his “uncounted” life some account, Alex steals cars and takes them on aimless drives before abandoning them and stealing again. It’s the only means of self-expression available to a boy in such stunted circumstances. Here’s the novel’s opening:
Again today Alex Housman drove the Buick Riviera. The Buick, coppertone, white sidewalls, was the model of the year, a ’59, although the 1960 models were already out. Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil. The car’s heater was issuing a stale and odorous warmth, but Alex remained chilled. He had walked several blocks through snow and slush, wearing neither hat nor gloves nor boots, to where he had left the car the night before. The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car.
There is not a shred of sentimentality or self-pity in this book, and it never sinks to the dreary level of a treatise on “the juvenile delinquent problem.” This is a work of art, fuelled by all those purloined Buick Rivieras and Chevy Bel Airs. In the end, like Lot Boy, it is less a coming-of-age story than a story about our shared yearning to escape.
Here are a dozen other writers and artists who have used the automobile to tell stories about Americans on their way to escape, status and death, sometimes all three. This list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. Feel free to offer your own additions:
A letter appears before the text of The Comedians, the 1966 novel by Graham Greene. The author penned the letter to Alexander Stuart Frere, his longtime publisher who had recently retired. Greene debunks the common assumption that he is the first person narrator of his novels: “in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene…[all characters] are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”
Frere, of course, would not need this explanation, so why address the letter to him? Does it instead exist for the edification, or perhaps entertainment, of the reader? Greene’s letter appears without label. Is it an introduction, a preface, a foreword, or something else?
The distinctions between prefaces, introductions, and forewords are tenuous. In the essay “Introductions: A Preface,” Michael Gorra offers a useful introduction to, well, introductions. “An introduction,” he writes, “tells you everything you need to sustain an initial conversation. It might include a bit of biography or a touch of critical history, and it should certainly establish the book in its own time and location, and perhaps place it in ours as well.” Introductions often postdate the original publication of a work. Introductions turn back to move forward a book’s appreciation. Although introductions are often written by someone other than the author, they need not be objective. Gorra thinks the best introductions are “acts of persuasion — ‘See this book my way’ — coherent arguments as learned as a scholarly article but as lightly footnoted as a review.” Although they share a “review’s assertive zest…unlike a review they assume the importance of the work in question.”
Gorra remembers reading introductory essays in used, 1950s-era Modern Library editions as an undergraduate. His understanding of literary criticism was molded by this prefatory form: Robert Penn Warren on Joseph Conrad, Irving Howe on The Bostonians, Angus Wilson on Great Expectations, Randal Jarrell on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner, and Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen. Gorra notes “many of Trilling’s finest essays — pieces on Keats and Dickens and Orwell, on Anna Karenina and The Princess Casamassima — got their start as introductions.”
Gorra moves beyond definition to explain the critic’s role within introductions. They need to know “how much or how little information a reader needs to make that book available; he must achieve a critical equipoise, at once accessible but not simplistic.” That care “puts a curb on eccentricity; however strongly voiced, an introduction shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic.” Introductions exist not for the critic, but for the reader. They should be “shrewd rather than clever.” Better to “address the work as a whole” than “approach it with a magic bullet or key or keyhole that claims to explain everything.” The introduction does not unlock the book for its readers; it takes a hand, leads them to the doorstep, and then leaves.
One of the few introductions written by the book’s own author is the unconventional opening to Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac’s essay travelogue. Kerouac formats the essay as a questionnaire.
His response to “Please give a brief resume of your life” traces his childhood as the son of a printer in Lowell, Mass., to his “Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise.” He shifts from family detail to statements of purpose and misreadings of critics: “Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”
Kerouac ends his introduction by replying to the query “Please give a short description of the book, its scope and purpose as you see them” with a nice litany of subjects: “Railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solipsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmash of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.”
We know Kerouac’s essay is an introduction because he tells us so. It is not a foreword, which, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is also typically written by someone other than the author. Some dictionary definitions identify a foreword as an introduction. They both introduce, in the sense that they both preface the work. But neither are prefaces — in the traditional sense.
Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert M. Gay’s Words into Type doesn’t differentiate between prefaces and forewords, noting that both consider the “genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness.” Forewords often feel promotional. Skillin and Gay also note that, in terms of numerical pagination, introductions are typically part of the text, while forewords and prefaces have Roman numerals.
My favorite foreword is Walker Percy’s comments on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1976 when “a lady unknown to me” started phoning him: “What she proposed was preposterous…her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.” Percy was understandably skeptical, but finally gave in, hoping “that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” Instead, he fell in love with the book, especially Ignatius Reilly, “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Percy essay arrives as a pitch; no one would mistake it for a contemplative preface.
That last comment admittedly comes from the hip, owing to seduction by sound. Introduction sounds clinical. Foreword sounds, well, you know. Preface massages the ear with that gentle f. Unlike introductions and forewords, prefaces are often written by the authors themselves, and are invaluable autobiographical documents. A preface is an ars poetica for a book, for a literary life. A preface often feels like the writer sitting across the table from the reader, and saying, listen, now I am going to tell you the truth.
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle soon becomes contemplative: “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination — or, as Flannery O’Connor has it, an act of discovery. I don’t know what a story will be until it begins to unfold, the whole coming to me in the act of composition as a kind of waking dream.” For Boyle, imagination and discovery means that he wants “to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.” He includes memories of middle school, when “Darwin and earth science came tumbling into my consciousness…and I told my mother that I could no longer believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine that had propelled us to church on Sundays for as long as I could remember.” Boyle thinks “I’ve been looking for something to replace [faith] ever since. What have I found? Art and nature, the twin deities that sustained Wordsworth and Whitman and all the others whose experience became too complicated for received faith to contain it.”
By “received faith,” Boyle means a faith prescribed rather than practiced. He later found “the redeeming grace” of O’Connor; his “defining moment” was first reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find:” “here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that begin in one mode — situation comedy, familiar from TV — and ended wickedly and deliciously in another.” Boyle’s preface rolls and rolls — think of an acceptance speech that goes on a bit long, but we love the speaker so we shift in our seats and wait out of appreciation.
There are some gems. John Cheever, who taught Boyle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “was positively acidic on the subject of my academic pursuits,” but was otherwise “unfailingly kind and generous.” Cheever disliked Boyle’s self-identification as “experimental,” instead insisting “all good fiction was experimental…adducing his own ‘The Death of Justina’ as an example.”
He documents his early magazine submission attempts. He was quite successful, placing early stories in the likes of Esquire and Harper’s, but also had “plenty of rejection.” He covered his bedroom walls with the letters. He ends the preface with a return to first principles: “Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art — the making of stories — is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again.” This act of writing fiction is the “privilege of reviewing the world as it comes to me and transforming it into another form altogether.”
Boyle has already elucidated some of these ideas in an essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” but for other fiction writers, prefaces are rare forays into autobiography. For jester-Catholic Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner, his sole collection of stories, was his preferred confessional. The essay is labeled an introduction, but I think function trumps form. Pynchon’s essay is self-deprecating, contextual, and comprehensive. It is the closest he has ever come to being a teacher of writing.
The last story in the collection, “The Secret Integration,” was written in 1964. Pynchon admits “what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.” He hopes the stories are cautionary warnings “about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.” Rather than presenting an abstract, sweeping declaration of his amateur past, Pynchon skewers each story in the collection. “The Small Rain,” his first published work, was written while “I was operating on the motto ‘Make it literary,’ a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.” One sin was his bad dialogue, including a “Louisiana girl talking in Tidewater diphthongs,” indicative of his desire “to show off my ear before I had one.” “Low-lands,” the second piece, “is more of a character sketch than a story,” the narrator of which was “a smart assed-jerk who didn’t know any better, and I apologize for it.” Next up is the infamous “Entropy,” fodder for his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon dismisses the tale as an attempt to force characters and events to conform to a theme. It was overwritten, “too conceptual, too cute and remote.” He looted a 19th-century guidebook to Egypt for “Under the Rose,” resulting in another “ass backwards” attempt to start with abstraction rather than plot and characters. The same “strategy of transfer” doomed “The Secret Integration,” as he culled details from a Federal Writers Project guidebook to the Berkshires.
Pynchon served in the Navy between 1955 and 1957, and notes that one positive of “peacetime service” is its “excellent introduction to the structure of society at large…One makes the amazing discovery that grown adults walking around with college educations, wearing khaki and brass and charged with heavy-duty responsibilities, can in fact be idiots.” His other influences were more literary: Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” On the Road by Kerouac. Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hamlet. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Early issues of the Evergreen Review. And jazz, jazz, jazz: “I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire.” The time was post-Beat; “the parade had gone by.”
The essay ends on a note of nostalgia “for the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done.” A reader taken with Boyle will forgive his trademark bravado; a reader taken with Pynchon will forgive his self-parodic deprecation. Those who dislike the fiction of either writer won’t stay around for the end of his preface — or crack open the book in the first place.
More often than not, introductory materials are welcomed because we appreciate the fiction that follows. Such expectation can cause problems. The most notable examples are the forewords of Toni Morrison’s Vintage editions, which began with the 1999 version of The Bluest Eye. In “Lobbying the Reader,” Tessa Roynon casts a skeptical eye toward these prefatory remarks. She begins her critique with Morrison’s foreword for Beloved. “Without any apparent self-conscious irony,” Roynon notes, Morrison says she wants her reader “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population — just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.” This before the reader encounters the first sentence of the actual novel, “124 was spiteful,” which becomes neutered by Morrison’s prefatory, critical self-examination.
Roynon’s love for Morrison’s fiction is contrasted with her disappointment in the forewords. She considers the essays formulaic and rushed, containing “apparently indisputable interpretations of the text…among profoundly suggestive ambiguities,” as if Morrison is hoarding her own meanings. Roynon worries that Morrison’s goal is the “desire to ensure that readers appreciate the scope of her artistry and her vision to the full.” Shouldn’t that be the experience of her readers? Morrison almost gives them no choice. The essays “demand to be read before the novels they introduce, not least because they are positioned between the dedications/epigraphs and the work’s opening paragraphs.”
Morrison’s prefatory summary for Beloved is so sharp, so commanding that Roynon thinks it threatens to undermine the novel itself: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom.” Morrison has articulated elsewhere her reasons for contributing to the discussion about her books, but the gravity of these forewords makes readers passive recipients. What if the reader experiences the novel slightly differently? Does Morrison’s foreword negate those other readings? As Roynon notes, Morrison’s earlier critical essays would elicit, rather than close, “controversy and discussion.” By focusing on the autobiographical and the contextual, rather than being self-analytical, Morrison’s best forewords treats her readers as participants in the artistic experience, rather than people who are waiting for lectures.
Roynon’s solution is both simple and eloquent:
Were I Morrison’s editor I would urge her to cut the most explicit of her interpretations, to bury the explanations at which we [readers] used to work so hard to arrive. And I would entreat her to move all of her accompanying observations from the beginning of her books to their ends. Turning all the forewords into afterwords would greatly reduce their problematic aspects. In metaphorical terms of which Morrison herself is so fond: we don’t need lobbies or front porches on the homes that she has so painstakingly built. But back gardens? They could work.
No matter whether it is called an introduction, foreword, or preface, the best front piece written by the book’s own author encourages a reader to turn the page and start, but respects her need to experience the work on her own. William Gass’s long preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is an exemplary selection. Originally written in 1976 and revised in 1981, Gass’s preface works as a standalone essay, an inspiring speech for fellow writers, and a document of one artist’s continuing struggle.
Gass reminds us that most stories never get told: “Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?” His “litters of language” have been called “tales without plot or people.” Received well or not, they are his stories, the words of a boy who moved from North Dakota to Ohio, the son of a bigoted father without “a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn.” “I won’t be like that,” Gass thought, but “naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit.”
Gass turned inward, moved in the direction of words. Lines like “I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables” sound a bit sentimental if one is somewhat familiar with Gass, but he has always been, in the words of John Gardner, “a sneaky moralist.” Gass began writing stories because “in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style…to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page — something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known.” His earliest stories failed because they were written in the shadow and sound of the canon, leading Gass to wonder “from whose grip was it easier to escape — the graceless hack’s or the artful great’s?”
He broke free “by telling a story to entertain a toothache,” a story with “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” That story, the subject of constant revision and reworking for years, would become The Pedersen Kid, his seminal novella. Gass shares his personal “instructions” for the story: “The physical representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed.” Here one might think Gass is making the same sin of explanation as Morrison, but these are plans, not an exegesis of his work. These thematic plans soon eroded, and “during the actual writing, the management of microsyllables, the alteration of short and long sentences, the emotional integrity of the paragraph, the elevation of the most ordinary diction into some semblance of poetry, became my fanatical concern.” Only years and many rejections later did Gardner publish the story in MSS.
A great preface is a guide for other writers. While the biographical and contextual minutia might be of most interest to aficionados and scholars, working writers who find a great preface are in for a treat. At their best, these introductory essays are the exhales of years of work: years of failure, doubt, and sometimes despair. Gass’s preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country contains a handful of gems worthy of being pinned to a cork board above one’s desk:
The material that makes up a story must be placed under terrible compression, but it cannot simply release its meaning like a joke does. It must be epiphanous, yet remain an enigma. Its shortness must have a formal function: the deepening of the understanding, the darkening of the design.
All stories ought to end unsatisfactorily.
Though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
To a reader unhappy with his fiction: “I know which of us will be the greater fool, for your few cents spent on this book are a little loss from a small mistake; think of me and smile: I misspent a life.”
Gass ends with a description of his dream reader. She is “skilled and generous…forgiving of every error.” She is “a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines;” someone “given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper.” Her “heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs.” She “will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses.” She will “shadow the page like a palm.” In fact, the reader will “sink into the paper…become the print,” and “blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language. Yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
A preface might begin as a cathartic act for the writer, but it should end as a love letter to readers. Books are built from sweat and blood, but without the forgiving eyes and hands of readers, books will gather dust on shelves: never touched, never opened, never begun.
In high school I had to read a lot of William Faulkner. An ambitious literature teacher fresh from Davidson College introduced us to The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August in a single semester. Of course it was torture, subjecting the linear teenage mind to such non-linear narration, but something about Faulkner stuck, and one day on winter break, as a storm dropped a thin blanket of snow on Atlanta, I picked up The Reivers.
Suddenly Faulkner changed. So accessible. So clear. So page-turning. I would later read critics who breezily called the Pulitzer Prize-winning book lighthearted, narratively simple, and, for these reasons, atypical Faulkner (“affectingly wistful,” Jonathan Yardley wrote). It was, as they say today, a fun read, maybe (it was implied) too much so for a heavyweight such as the bard from Oxford.
But later in life I returned to Faulkner much in the way you return to the music of your youth. And on closer inspection it struck me that nothing about The Reivers was simple. In fact, the book, a thematic wolf in sheep’s clothing, was (and remains) one of the weightiest road-trip novels ever written. The Reivers, in essence, gets very meta about movement.
The Odyssey, On the Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — these books capture long-duration mobility as a backdrop to drama. But in The Reivers, movement itself is the drama, not to mention the quickening pulse of Yoknapatawpha, a place where, the closer you look, the more the characters materialize by gathering moss.
The book opens with a mobility upgrade. Boon Hoggenbeck steals (reives — it’s a Scottish term) Lucius Priest’s grandfather’s car so he can drive from Jefferson to Memphis to visit a prostitute named Miss Corrie. Before Boon departs, Lucius, aged 11, convinces him to bring him along for the ride. En route, they discover that Ned McCaslin, a black man who tends to Lucius’s grandfather’s horses, is hiding in the back seat. As the car fills with characters, The Reivers indeed becomes affectingly wistful, with Huck Finnish coming-of-age excitement leavening the trip.
Matters become a little heavier in Memphis. Boon drops Lucius at Miss Reba’s brothel and goes searching for his “girlfriend.” Ned, in the plot’s pivotal scene, secretly barters the stolen car — the first car in Yoknawpatapha County (where it’s 1905) — for a horse — “Coppermine” — he plans to train up and race hard at a local track (under the new nom de guerre “Lightening”). With the proceeds, Ned vows to buy back the vehicle and allow the dividends to speak to his considerable equine expertise.
Critics have long characterized The Reviers as a soft critique of modernization. It’s certainly that. Horses and mules haul so many themes around Faulkner’s novels that it seems appropriate for him to grant the beasts an 11-hour paean (this was his last novel), which he does by favorably juxtaposing the car’s defects with the horse’s reliability.
One example stands out. Midway to Memphis, Priest’s hijacked car gets stuck in a mud hole. The men struggle to wedge it out with iron bars and a plank of wood, but the vehicle — “so huge and so immobile” — proves to be “too fixed and foundational.” Defeated, Boon pays the mud hole’s owners a few bucks to have the car dislodged by a couple of mules, animals he later describes as “already obsolete before they were born.”
What follows is as arresting as anything Faulkner ever wrote. In an instant, the car morphs from an icon of progress into a “mechanical toy rated in power and strength by the dozens of horses.” It’s no longer a shiny symbol of a modernizing South, but an instant fossil, something you’d discover in layers of bedrock, an object that’s “helpless and impotent in the almost infantile clutch of a few inches of the temporary confederation of two mild and specific elements — earth and water.” The horse, an animal Faulkner deeply understood, triumphs over the car.
But Faulkner is hunting more substantial game here. He’s after the very morality of movement itself. In Western thought, the link between movement and morality is by no means self-evident or routinely explored. But to migrate, by definition, is to go astray. And to go astray is to err — to be errant — and, in turn, to be flawed, or at least radically open to its possibilities. The Reivers honors this definition, allowing movement to constitute error — personal, historical, collective error — as well as make possible its upshot: redemption.
But error comes first. After the travelers are disengaged from the mud hole, they eat fried chicken and ham and assess the near future. “When we crossed Hell Creek,” Boon explains, “we crossed Rubicon” and “set the bridge on fire.” They feel the frisson of liberation: “the very land itself seemed to have changed…the air was very urban.” Only automotive power — such a novelty in 1905 — allows them to barter the past for a future characterized by “the mechanized, the mobilized, the inescapable destiny of America.”
But such liberation comes at a cost. When the trio eventually finds the main road to Memphis — “running string straight into distance” — the world they once knew blurs into confusion. The geography outside the gunmetal doors — “the Sabbath afternoon, workless, the cotton and corn growing unvexed now, the mules themselves sabbatical and idle in the pastures” — becomes lost to Lucius, who recalls, “I couldn’t look at it…I was too busy, too concentrated.” Hurdling through space in metallic containment quietly erodes a sense of place and the integrity such a feeling nurtures. “It was Virtue who had given up, relinquished us to Non-virtue,” Lucius remembers thinking as the car kicked up dust. “The country itself was gone.”
And then they stop at Miss Reba’s. “You’ll like it,” Boon tells Lucius.
Lucius doesn’t like it. Lucius is horrified. His experiences at the brothel culminate in a coming-of-age sequence that includes a badly cut hand, copious tears, and the tectonic realization that “I knew too much, had seen too much; I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me.”
But what never leaves Lucius is the potential for redemption. Redemption in The Reivers is embodied in the noble form of the horse. The relationship that Lucius and Ned develop with Lightening — the bartered horse that Lucius eventually rides in two mile-long circles — restores “the country itself” to a non-automotive pace and routine. It’s on the sweaty back of Lightening — a horse maintained with mechanical precision by Ned — that Lucius transcends his fate and recovers his virtue.
The Reivers ends with this moving restoration. On the way to the race, Ned and Lucius must load Lightening onto a train car. Once in the container, the “horse’s hot ammoniac reek…and the steady murmur of Ned’s voice” blend into something “concentrated” and ineffable. Lucius, a nervous wreck about the race, says he “actually realized not only how Lightening’s and my fate were now one, but that the two of us together carried that of the rest of us, too, certainly Boon’s and Ned’s, since on us depended under what conditions they could go back home.”
Lucius and Lightening, when the first ride begins, careen down the track “as though bolted together.” With that unification, all characters return home the wiser, knowing, as Grandpa Priest would soon tell Lucius, “nothing is forgotten.”
Today, more than 50 years after The Reivers was published, a cottage industry exists to teach us to slow down and simplify the hectic pace of contemporary life. Think Shop Class as Soul Craft, You are Not a Gadget, or Last Child in the Woods. It’s easy to dismiss this genre of literature as a wistful — that word—blend of nostalgia and self-help. Reading The Reivers though, saps the impulse to mock. Although Boon is quick to note to that “if all the human race ever stops moving at the same instant, the surface of the earth will seize,” he also learns that slowing life down enough to watching mules on sabbatical can save your soul from the perils of speed.
“If we had the same dream every night,” Nietzsche wrote in 1873, “we would be as preoccupied with it as by the things we see every day.” The premise is simple: reality, at least what we perceive it to be, is a matter of continuity. But say you devote yourself to a single work of fiction, a single imagining, day after day for the majority of your life. What becomes of the real? When are you inside, and when are you out?
Earlier this summer, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia project Boyhood premiered after 12 years in production. For a few days every year since 2002, Linklater assembled the same cast, centered on a young boy Mason Junior, and shot what Linklater has called a “document of time.” The marvel of Boyhood is that the plain spectacle of the aging cast allows Linklater to subvert the dramatic impulses of traditional cinema. The film repeatedly upsets the conventional setup-payoff paradigm of narrative filmmaking to achieve a nuanced, meandering, and quiet chronicle of the boy’s coming-of-age. Boyhood challenges viewers’ recourse to narrative by honing in on the unsorted miscellanea of growing up: doing the dishes, finding a dead animal in the yard, Mom and Dad arguing mutedly on the other side of a windowpane, irritant siblings redeeming themselves in small ways when it counts. As Linklater explains, “You see how life just accumulates.”
Linklater’s 12-year shoot was motivated by an aesthetic persuasion about what time could afford. The magic of film editing or makeup or 12 lookalike Mason Juniors would have been inadequate to the purposes of Linklater’s sprawling yet understated film epic. Part of the production’s interest was accommodating and incorporating the real-life maturation of its cast: how adolescent postures endure into adulthood, how intonations and vocabularies evolve, how a body transforms slowly, and then all at once. All these personal transformations were then framed within the cultural narrative of the early 2000’s. Consider the film’s soundtrack: a year-by-year survey of American pop culture since 2002, beginning with Britney Spears. A document of time, then, is always also a curation of culture. What Boyhood proves is that sometimes “putting off” work is really a conviction about the opportunities and insights that come with taking one’s time. Call it an investment.
Now, an artist’s apologia can get very slippery, very quickly. Artists are savvy at masking their excuses. Plenty are just plain lazy or too indecisive or too timid to dig in and confront the Beast. So what is the difference, or what is the threshold, between an artist who procrastinates for years and a prudent auteur, such as Linklater, who has a plan? These ambitious, bloated, and sometimes staggering ventures raise important questions about how a work’s scope determines its mode of production. How much time should be spent on a single work of art? Or inversely, how will the amount of time spent on a work ultimately shape what that work will become and what it will mean to the creator? What it will mean to us? I see Ahab on the quarterdeck lamenting to Starbuck: “For forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful lands, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep…what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been!” Maybe the more urgent question is at what point has a work grown too much for its own good, taken on too much meaning? Why do our creative ambitions swell up and run out on us? Why, as Ahab poses, “Why this strife of the chase?”
In 1956, shortly after publishing The Recognitions, William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself outlining the premise of his second novel: “a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age, ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune.” The purpose of Gaddis’s letter was to safeguard his idea from copyright infringement, a fitting launch for a book “projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in American today.” One provisional title was JR.
JR consumed Gaddis for the next two decades until its publication in 1975, devouring almost everybody close to him: two marriages, two children, and a swarm of agents and publishers in between. In a 1974 letter to American novelist and film producer Warren Kiefer, Gaddis described day-to-day work on the novel “like living with an invalid,” a sentiment articulated in the text of JR itself when writer and physics teacher Jack Gibbs laments his own project of 16 years, a novel that shares its title with Gaddis’s last published work, Agapē Agape: “Sixteen years like living with a God damned invalid sixteen years every time you come in sitting there waiting just like you left him…God damned friends asking how he’s coming along all expect him out any day don’t want bad news no news rather hear lies, big smile out any day now.”
Gibbs’s authorial melancholy and much of Gaddis’s own strife in completing JR were first figured in a character named Stanley from The Recognitions. Stanley, the novel’s holy fool, is an organ composer struggling to finish a requiem dedicated to his mother. At one point, he explains his dilemma: “It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work, because, well it’s as though finishing it strikes it dead, do you understand?” Stanley’s qualm is a reiteration of Wyatt Gwyon’s insight earlier in The Recognitions: “There’s something about a…an unfinished piece of work, a…thing like this where…do you see? Where perfection is still possible?”
Literary critic Morris Dickstein has identified this totalizing, perfecting ambition of American authors as the Moby-Dick or One Big Book syndrome. The syndrome stems from an effort to culminate and consolidate “the whole meaning of the national experience” — hence the systems or encyclopedic novel. But a designation more appropriate to Gaddis’s JR and to a distinct set of experimental postwar American texts would be the mega-novel, a form elaborated by critic Frederick Karl in his essay “American Fictions: The Mega-Novel” as robust, multifarious fiction that strives to expropriate and counteract the cultural value attached to “mega.” Think MegaBucks or Mega Rich. The mega-novel subverts the dominative logic of late capitalism by turning capitalism’s multiplicities, apparatuses, and vocabularies back on themselves. Thus, in Gaddis’s words, “by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests,” 11-year-old JR Vansant ruptures those very procedures of the financial infrastructure. Recognizing this inside-out ploy of the mega-novel, what is really a type of deconstruction, is critical to understanding the scope of JR and other oceanic postwar efforts.
Unlike The Recognitions, JR has no chapter breaks, no epigraphs. It is composed almost entirely of unmarked dialogue. The text reels — a continuous discord of voices and noise: money rustling, traffic, people up and down the street, in and out of office buildings, radio broadcasts, telephone calls, trash disposal, septic cacophony, “somewhere a urinal flushed,” the incessant moan and drone and oversaturation of metropolis. The novel documents the runaway qualities of cybernetic capitalism — a barrage of unfiltered data and meaning, a cultural logic bent on the endless reproduction and circulation of signs — and a child’s ability to exploit and undermine that system.
Franzen famously denounced the novel as a haywire, nonsensical literature of emergency. And then a cast of forefront experimental authors denounced Franzen as a populist pundit. That is not the concern here. The question here is why JR took so long to write.
In the 20-year span that Gaddis was working on JR, the U.S. experienced radical economic, technological, and cultural shifts. The maturation of war bonds and the confluence of corporate power brought about a postwar prosperity and consolidation of capital that completely altered the country’s economic landscape, not to mention hugely symbolic fiscal gestures under the Nixon administration such as the suspension of the gold standard in 1971. Telecommunication, information, and banking technologies boomed: the first operating system, videotapes, integrated circuits, magnetic stripe cards, satellites, cordless phones, personal computers, email, electronic payment networks, the first ATMs. Academia was recruited and incorporated by an immense military-industrial complex that was infiltrating universities in Cambridge and northern California. A war waged halfway around the world in Indochina. Color televisions flooded the market. Family sitcoms were replaced by soap operas, newscasts, variety shows, and daytime game shows. Capital was no longer anchored to anything real and culture was reproducing itself at a mile a minute, all while radars painted the coasts, sweeping for backscatter off something huge and unknowable. People were left to carve lives out of the maelstrom of signs: swipe, go, click, take, look, laugh, lock, switch, cut, ring, watch, wait, are you ready —
And then all of it came crashing down in 1973.
Gaddis, meanwhile, was “being dragged by the heels into the 20th century:” fighting against the nerve-wracking hum of electric typewriters; failing to revert the copyright for The Recognitions, which was being printed unedited in paperback editions without his knowledge; freelancing for media companies; teaching; vying for reviews; calls to Western Union ringing on the phone in the next room — “it’s almost always for Western Union whose number is 1 digit off ours;” and constantly strapped for cash — “Will this tight rope walking ever end?”
Was Gaddis continuously working on his novel day and night for 20 years? No. He was sidetracked by freelance writing projects and teaching positions to make ends meet, gigs that seemed to support his writing in paradoxical ways: “My work on [JR] this spring will be sporadically interrupted by a part-time teaching invitation which I had accepted in order to continue work on the book.” And even when he was able to work on the novel fulltime, Gaddis’s daily reports capture the writer’s infinite means of procrastination:
2:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter
2:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed
Gaddis recorded about 12 hours of these minute-by-minute escapes. He too was suffering from the onslaught of postwar noise, a ceaseless stream of information designed, it seemed, to prevent anyone from working on a long novel that could expose such a system.
The problem, ultimately, was distraction — distraction from the Task — a danger later elucidated by William Kohler, the narrator and monomaniacal digger of the ne plus ultra of long haul mega-novels, The Tunnel, William Gass’s 1995 doorstop that was 30 years in the making. “The secret of life is paying absolute attention to what is going on,” Kohler asserts. “The enemy of life is distraction.” If Gaddis’s novel was conditioned by the blur of postwar meanings, then The Tunnel’s resolve was a revamped Protestant work ethic: persistent and monastic focus meant to mitigate the barrage of cultural noise and offer some sort of coherence in the “day-to-day wake-to-work regimen.”
William Kohler appears diametrically opposite from Gaddis’s romping 11-year-old JR. Kohler is a ruminative midwestern history professor (with Nietzschean indigestion no less) struggling to write the introduction to his academic magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Holed up in his basement, his wife upstairs, Kohler begins tunneling out behind the furnace and interposes into his masterpiece his staggered attempts at the introduction: “I slide these sheets between the sheets of G&I and wonder when I’ll run out of history to hide in.” Gass, notorious for overwhelming publishers with ideals about formal experimentation, initially wanted The Tunnel to be published unbound. “I knew I would never get my way,” he ultimately admitted. What becomes clear though is that The Tunnel, in its very conception, was a failed loose-leaf attempt, the detritus of a supposedly greater, more focused work.
The conviction of Gass’s tome, however, is that the detritus of life is what ends up becoming central to our understanding and recollection of it. Shards of thought, flashes of memory, fragments of creation — these are the leftovers and miscellanea that amount to a life, just as in Boyhood, except in The Tunnel, these things for William Kohler do not culminate in the Right Life, not the one he imagined for himself.
Whereas Gaddis’s concerns in JR were the technologies of capital and information, Gass’s interest in The Tunnel was historical process, specifically, the inside of history. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass elaborated the dark interior of objective histories: “The things that get left out of history are the very things that tend to undermine it, among other things, the first thing, is the historian himself, his nature.” Just as JR folded the procedures of capital markets back on themselves, The Tunnel breaks down the crystalline structure of historical process and deconstructs the inside-outside binaries we often use to describe historical formations. Thus Kohler anguishes, “Why must one bring the world into the tunnel, when the tunnel is supposed to be the way out?”
Kohler finds himself depositing the dug-up dirt in empty desk drawers. He becomes surrounded by debris, digging his way out and his way in all at once, collapsing the distinction between escape and extraction. As Gass has explained, “Tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels…you dig for ore, you dig for gold.” Gass’s clarification offers a profound analogue for the author’s process. The work always takes you closer and further away at the same time, in the same stroke. Every sentence, every shovel-full becomes as self-dissociating as it is self-constituting, and by the same turns. Rather than digging out or digging in, you may just be digging for the sake of digging itself. Ahab coined an expression for this: madness maddened. The metaphor of the tunnel seems perfectly prefigured by Kafka’s unfinished short story, “The Burrow,” in which a nameless narrator manically digs a complex network of tunnels and eventually realizes, “[He] and the burrow belong so indissolubly together.” The stakes are clear: the work consumes you.
Recognizing this wager, the sheer exhaustiveness of the Task, Gass once explained that, for him, The Tunnel “functioned as an avoidance book. Its unpleasant presence made [him] write other books in order to avoid writing it.” The scope of large works becomes overwhelming, unmanageable. Subject matter is demanding, then intimidating, and finally unapproachable. But these tomes are also slowed by more mundane matters of process. The ambitious scales are often counterpointed by the almost logistic labor of line-by-line editing, which, of course, is what any author bargains for. “One thing that takes so much time with JR,” Gaddis once explained, “seems to be that since it’s almost all in dialogue I’m constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen.” In the same vein, Gass’s prose in The Tunnel was haunted by an absolute drive toward meter, rhythm, and precision. He admitted, somewhat resigned, “Who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation?” But Gass was nostalgic for a prose style written for the ear, and in a 1976 interview with The Paris Review, in the midst of working on The Tunnel, he waxed, “One used to read Henry James aloud. It’s the only way to read him.”
Are these works, then, merely the outsized products of minute compulsions?
One can’t really talk about obsession, the long haul, and moving dirt without mentioning Michael Heizer, a renegade artist who turned his back on the New York City art scene in the 1960’s for the American desert. In 1972, Heizer began his magnum opus of earthworks, “City,” an immense, stadium sized, minimalist land art installation in the middle of Nevada that is still under construction. Heizer pursues the same type of cultural investigation as Gaddis and Gass. “Part of my art,” Heizer explained in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, “is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era.” And in the same way that JR charted the rise of American corporate capitalism and The Tunnel observed the entire narrative of the Cold War, the development of Heizer’s bunker-like environment has not only been contemporaneous with, but geographically adjacent to the postwar saga of the National Academy of Science’s struggle to dispose of nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain.
As the U.S. Department of Energy attempts to project the radioactive decay of depleted plutonium and uranium in the waste repository, Michael Heizer and his construction crews sculpt, grain by grain, a massive installation intended to last hundreds, if not thousands of years. Heizer challenges the techniques of military and industrial technology by way of a postmodern acropolis designed to endure alongside and even outlast U.S. materiel waste and the facilities it’s housed in. Better yet, Heizer is monitoring the government’s encroachment on “City,” ready, if the Department of Energy proceeds with a nuclear waste rail line within view of his sculpture, to blow his work sky high. In a state that is 83 percent owned by the federal government, a man and his city resist.
“City,” when it is eventually open to the public, will be monumental. Rather than an installation within an environment, “City” will be an environment unto itself, one that raises questions about bleak military structures and vast urban developments in the middle of nowhere.
Heizer’s project carries the same meticulousness of a compulsive prose stylist. “Mike wanted everything within a sixteenth of an inch,” one construction worker commented, “even on a concrete slab that was 78 feet by 240 feet.” The worker couldn’t quite articulate the concept behind “City,” but he was able to appreciate its scope, which might very well be its meaning: “At the beginning I was lost…was this a stadium?…But gradually I got the idea. I can’t say exactly what it means now, but I know it has to do with history and with making something that will last.”
It has to do with history. A sprawling work inevitably encapsulates its own history, the process of its own creation and the cultural narratives that run alongside it. This was Linklater’s prudence with Boyhood, and this is what happened with Gaddis’s JR. The novel contains and performs its own making, just as The Tunnel embodies the arc of its own development and “City” simulates the gradual rise of a desert metropolis. In composing The Tunnel, Gass recognized that, more than anything else, his primary working material was time: “The narrator moves steadily into the past as the novel proceeds, and there is an increasing sensitivity to what he remembers.” Time folds back on itself: “The past becomes more complete, is more real than the present.” What was true for Kohler was true for Gass:
My mother was an alcoholic and my father was crippled by arthritis and his own character. I just fled. It was a cowardly thing to do, but I simply would not have survived…What is perhaps psychologically hopeful is that in The Tunnel I am turning back to inspect directly that situation, and that means I haven’t entirely rejected it.
The long haul offers a regimen that skirts more stagnate, immediate vocabularies, those kneejerk interpretations that would reject or reduce the past. A novel, while remaining an ongoing task, repeatedly returns writers to the material of the past — old pages, old iterations, the rituals of memory — and the text becomes an experiment in deconstructing the linearity of time, in resisting the organizing powers of historical process. Writing sidesteps the obliterating force of the present, the barrage of the Now. The 30-year creation of The Tunnel took to heart a maxim articulated by Kohler near the end of the novel: “Writing is hiding from history.”
This November will mark the 13th annual National Novel Writing Month, an internet movement launched to discipline writers and spur them into production. NaNoWriMo will bring to mind the many great works that were completed in a sprint, such as On the Road, which Kerouac penned in only three weeks, or Fahrenheit 451, which Ray Bradbury drafted in a basement library typing room in just nine days. It could be argued that rather than evading history, these feverish texts confronted it. Bradbury’s blaze may have been prompted by a fear of the midcentury book burnings in Nazi Germany. Or take Faulkner, who, the day after the stock market panic in 1929, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and scrawled a title in the right-hand corner — As I Lay Dying. He would complete the manuscript in a mere six weeks during his graveyard shifts at a power plant: “I had invented a table out of a wheelbarrow in the coal bunker, just beyond a wall from where the dynamo ran.”
But Kerouac was accumulating writing on the road for years before stitching together his final manuscript. And Fahrenheit 451 was the culmination of five short stories that Bradbury had been working on for three years. Faulkner’s chronicle of Addie Bundren and her coffin was an extension of Yoknapatawpha County, an apocryphal world Faulkner had shaped previously in Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying was not only a title that Faulkner had tried twice before for earlier works, but the story itself was arguably an outgrowth of an unfinished manuscript, Father Abraham, that Faulkner abandoned in 1927. Fast-forward to 1996, and you’ll see that in his introduction to Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers asserted that Wallace wrote his masterpiece in only three years. Wallace did have an inspired spurt in Boston in the early ’90s, but the truth about Infinite Jest was that DFW had been reworking fragments from way back in 1986.
You see what I’m getting at.
It’s difficult to say where a work of art comes from, to mark precisely when a novel is conceived or to chart the time during which it is made. But juxtaposing works that were supposedly produced in a panic with some of the long haul endeavors exposes the complex circumstances that surround all artistic creations and the ways that process, be it short or long, can be romanticized and mythologized. Artists procrastinate. They also persist. What is certain is that we carry ideas around for longer than we know, and part of the artistic venture is unearthing the source. “It’s almost hard to remember the impulses at the beginning,” DFW admitted. “It’s something you live with for years and years rather than something you just have an idea or a feeling and you just do.” Or as Gass explained of The Tunnel, “To the degree that this is an escape tunnel, you have to hide the entrance. And so the entrance to this book is hidden.” The problem, always, is finding one’s way back out again.
During the difficult stretches, Gaddis may have considered his manuscript the invalid in the next room. But in his correspondence, it is evident that when Gaddis was able to fully engage his writing, he experienced complete affinity with the novel. As the book was finally verging on publication, Gaddis consoled his son Matthew: “I guess the house will gradually drain of strange (I mean unfamiliar not fully looking) faces,” speaking of young JR Vansant and the novel’s cast. After finishing the novel, Gaddis mused, “Maybe I can learn to talk like an intelligent adult again.” Gaddis had not spent the prior 20 years with an old man, nor had he turned into one. He had spent them with an 11-year-old boy, which is precisely why his novel was able to challenge the stultified adult vocabularies about money markets, educational bureaucracies, and publishing monopolies. It is a sentiment captured perfectly in an interview some years later when Gaddis explained that of all his work thus far, he cared most for his novel JR, because he was “awfully fond of the boy himself.”
Does the long haul pay off? Maybe. Probably not. Part of the pursuit is learning to reexamine and shrug off these vocabularies — ideas about investing, spending, and wasting one’s time, figuring out if it’s worth it, measuring output and productivity, taking stock of oneself, reevaluating oneself, earning respect — vocabularies deployed to commodify and valuate our efforts, all in the interest of reducing us to that most basic currency: human capital. Maybe there is no real redemption, but redemption is an old gospel that has been repurposed by slot machines and a culturally constructed nostalgia telling you to Redeem your cash-voucher…Redeem your past. It has to be about something else now.
The operative claim in The Tunnel, which appears early on in the novel, is that, “It is the dream of all men to re-create Time.” That dream, Gass proved, is fulfilled in the exhaustive process of creating a work of art that reformulates and overcomes the technologies of time in modern culture, technologies that would rather have us distracted, defeated, and subject to the slot machine “sleep-to-dream routine” of an over-simulated, over-stimulating network world. It takes figuring out what Time can mean in the first place, before it is dispensed to us, defined for us.
When I write fiction, where am I? More importantly, when am I?
Joshua Cohen, who completed his own mega-novel Witz a few years ago, once explained to me that, “The page has access to all of time.” Gass, it seems, and his ilk — Linklater, Gaddis, Heizer, all of them — discovered for themselves an interstice where every next day they could venture deeper into their own pasts, the underworlds of their own histories. They found that place where time does not flow in one direction, where memories and imaginings fold on to one another, where past, present, and future all become equally accessible.
Illustration: Austen Claire Clements
It’s hard to resist reading others’ diary entries, especially when the diaries in question belong to famous writers. Now that a selection of Jack Kerouac’s journals is being released from The New Yorker archives and made available online, resistance is more or less futile. Originally published in 1998, these journal entries span the years from 1948 to 1950, from just after the long drive that inspired On the Road to the publication of Kerouac’s first book, The Town and the City.
From roughly the end of World War II to the publication of On The Road, there was no more emulated musician in the world of jazz than Charlie “Bird” Parker. His ability to live on the edge of utter disaster while dishing up exhilaratingly lyrical, fantastically complex solos night after night became the stuff of legend. The undisputed master of Bebop, which was at one time the hippest, fastest, most complex version of jazz one could hear. There’s a reason why jazz is often regarded as one of the most challenging musical genres around. Playing it well means that one must invite and then master a certain kind of aesthetic risk.
A jazz musician is, in a sense, a kind of acrobat. We listen, whether we realize it or not, for how well they can handle themselves as they maneuver high up on the thinnest of wires, balancing order with chaos, with the whole band cooking behind them and the crowd watching as they try to claim a freedom both emotional and aesthetic that exists for, maybe, a few minutes at a time, night after night, until they drop. For an impressively long stretch of time, Parker was the finest — and most precarious — acrobat in town.
Everybody, it seems, wanted to either play with him or play like him. The young Miles Davis, barely out of his teens and never one to run with the herd, dropped out of his first year at Julliard to be his sideman, making a brilliant series of recordings as a full-fledged member of his band. Writers and artists from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to the Beats to Julio Cortázar to Jean-Michel Basquiat have paid homage to the manic brilliance of Parker’s art and life. Usually it‘s wise to try to separate an artist‘s personal peccadilloes from the meaning of their aesthetic achievement. The story of Charlie Parker, however, is pretty much always going to be entwined with the legend and for good reason.
I submit that the kind of place Parker holds within jazz tradition is a little like what you would get if you mixed Beethoven with Jimi Hendrix. He was a game changer. After him, the deluge. This might sound a bit hyperbolic, but there were few musicians at the time who could match the mercurial exuberance of his playing with the intricate technical understanding he brought to the saxophone every time he raised it to his lips. It should go without saying that Charlie Parker played the blues as few have before or since. In his autobiography, Miles Davis told how he and his bandmates spent the better part of a week preparing for a major concert, meticulously figuring out the set list and what key to play each song in, anxiety building over just where exactly Bird was and whether or not he’d make it to the show on time. Finally somebody found him, cleaned him up, and shoved him out into the performance without anything much in the way of a rehearsal. He played every single song in the proper key, of course, while adding a few of his own, piling chords and harmonic interventions with improvisational flights of fancy, utterly stunning everyone who tried to follow along. The really scary part is that this wasn’t an isolated incident — this kind of thing seemed to happen all the time. Small wonder that Parker’s music led to such an obsession with his enigmatic life.
In some ways, Stanley Crouch is the perfect candidate to write Bird’s biography. He’s been one of the boys on the beat of American culture for quite some time, with a Macarthur grant, several provocative essay collections, and a fine novel to his credit. Even better, Crouch has been one of the precious few public intellectuals to valorize jazz and insist and demonstrate how jazz can be seen as not only one of the pure products of America gone crazy but also its historic pulse, its backbeat, a trope that swings. One of the themes Crouch emphasizes is reflected in a quote from the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch: “the civilization of an epoch is its myth in action.” This insight is useful not only in giving a background for Parker’s eventual triumph and decline but also in showing how his music promised a certain kind of freedom one might have felt at a certain time and place, if you were willing to let it take you over. It’s the kind of democratic promise implicit in what they used to call American classical music, with collective improvisation and individual expression put in constant interplay, an offspring of the blues that reckoned with classical structures, music made for and by people who, with some notable exceptions, never found satisfaction anywhere else.
It’s for the best that Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker is the first volume of two. Some reviewers have complained about the novelistic, occasionally montage-like approach Crouch takes in telling the story of Parker‘s youth and adolescence. It’s been suggested that Crouch is padding his material or being self-indulgent. I see the point, but I would argue that this stylistic choice isn’t even Crouch’s fault. He’s definitely done his homework; his research began when he interviewed Parker’s first wife and some of his first musical collaborators back in the early ’80s. Depending on the accessibility of the subject, any biographer is going to be limited in some ways by the availability of the material and sometimes there just isn’t much information on hand to properly fill in the gaps. Crouch’s biography ends when Parker is barely out of his teens, and he was not born into particularly noteworthy circumstances, so it’s understandable that biographical detail would be a bit sketchy.
Instead of describing young Charlie’s endless hours in the woodshed (as if that were even possible), up to 15 hours a day, practicing over and over till he was fluent in every key, Crouch elaborates on things like Jack Johnson’s heroic stature within the black community, the effect of the Great Depression on urban life, and the freewheeling atmosphere of Kansas City in the late ’30s, brimming to the top with open corruption and all-night dancing. Even as a jazz fan, I didn’t really have much background on the music and lore of Kansas City before reading Crouch’s bio and it’s a treat to have had the scene come alive. No true record of American music would be complete without it.
And quite a world it is — Kansas City jazz at the time, still essentially based in blues and swing, shines through as intensely competitive and made up largely on the fly, hashed out in cutting contests while serenading the revelry of amoral politicians, gangsters, and anybody who had the requisite scratch and wanted to live his own particular version of the high life. In this case, the political machine of “Boss Tom“ Pendergast (who was also the original political patron of a mild-mannered war hero named Harry Truman) provided most of the social cover and performance spaces. Crouch helps the reader get to know musicians like the flamboyant and tenacious bandleader Billy Eckstine, as well as Erroll Garner and Chu Berry, each of who deserve a rediscovery in their own right and whose contributions to American music are deeply underrated, aside from specialists. Their mentorship also helped define and hone Parker’s incipient style; aside from his relentless practicing, he learned most of his skill on the bandstand, in the thick of it all.
We hear of the musicians on hand providing a soundtrack to after-hours glimpses of American decadence, where “men in dresses were seen performing oral sex on each other…Women had sex with other women. Some puffed cigars with their vaginas; some had sex with animals.” The point being that for a young jazzman on the make to see firsthand “the difference between what went on in the conventional world and what happened when people chose to reject the laws of polite society.” Jazz has always been a subversive, carnal music, viscerally at odds with the mainstream by being, for one thing, the house music of choice for American bohemia and the well-heeled alike for decades. It offered refuge and an open chance to strut your stuff for anyone who was willing to shed the inhibitions of the segregated, hostile, and haughtily dismissive world outside the club and the touring circuit.
The appeal of Kansas City Lightning is not so much that Crouch has unearthed shocking revelations about the mind and soul of Charlie Parker, but that he vividly brings to life Charlie Parker’s world as much as his music or his personality. We know that his father, Charles Parker Sr., was a charismatic Pullman car porter with a knack for the nimble work who eventually succumbed to alcoholism without apparently trying to fight it very hard. His mother, Addie, was a strong and fiercely independent woman with some Native American blood who, it’s generally agreed, deeply spoiled her only son and tolerated his well-known remoteness and emotional isolation. It’s interesting to read of Parker’s upbringing in light of his eventual hedonistic free-for-all once he hit the big time in New York. Impulse control wasn’t exactly his thing, to put it mildly. Crouch is hauntingly dead-on when he says of Parker that “the saxophone was the only thing that gave him exactly what he wanted and he gave in return.” This hits hardest when one reads about the teenage courtship of his first wife, Rebecca, who couldn’t help falling for the gifted mimic and cocky mama’s boy and who bore him a son of his own when they were both in their mid-teens.
After playing stimulant-filled, all-night jam sessions, honing his skills and getting his first experience of the nightlife, another form of self-indulgence, everyday struggles might have seemed intolerably unsatisfying to someone as ambitious and self-centered as Parker was. What it can’t quite justify, however, is his almost complete indifference when it came to being any kind of father or husband. Crouch’s novelistic approach builds subtle drama out of telling the story from Rebecca Parker’s confused and rightfully suspicious mindset when it came to matters concerning her husband. There are hints of young Parker coming and going, never explaining himself, out all night doing god-knows-what with god-knows-who. The excuses pile up, bills go unpaid, months of dread pass by. We feel for her; we know how this particular story is going to end.
There’s something telling about the way Parker seems to come most alive in escape, always one step ahead, one beat faster, a blur of motion at the edge of the narrative frame. Parker was a gifted mimic since childhood and, Crouch explains, when he went to the movies he could do a medley of imitations of the actors, mannerisms and all, to the delight of his friends. As a boy, Parker would wait in front of the local library for his mother and read books about religion and science fiction, stories of exotic places in the imagination. Everything he did seems tinged with a kind of manic energy as a means for some kind of escape. He’s always dashing off to practice for hours in the woodshed or make a quick buck at a gig with a good-times crowd or score the morphine he’d started injecting for the broken ribs he’d suffered in a car accident that had also killed his best friend. It’s not a pretty picture, by any means, once we get the full story of ducked responsibilities, selfishness, and growing addiction. And at this point, the future musical genius isn’t even out of his teens but he and we know full well that as far as he’s concerned, his real life will begin elsewhere.
The narrative leaves off at the point before Parker makes it big in New York, on the cusp of realizing his artistic breakthrough. Crouch illustrates vividly how difficult it was for someone with Parker’s background and slim prospects to even try to make the journey. We learn the tricks of the hobo trade, as any black musician heading north to find gigs pays dues amid circumstances that would make Tom Joad break into a cold sweat. We hear of how to keep box car doors from slamming shut, in order to keep from suffocating or freezing to death, and how to slake your thirst with the morning dew collected from the back of a leaf. Once Parker made it to the Big Apple, there was only more struggle ahead. We read of Parker walking endlessly through the freezing streets trying to keep warm with his paper-thin suit fraying at the edges, his shoes almost flapping, on the hunt for a pot of chili and a place to crash for the night.
Sometimes I worry that jazz has been ruined for the 21st century by caricatures of zoot suits and hirsute beatniks snapping away over black coffee, or has been relegated to the pathetic limbo of aural wallpaper at cocktail parties. It’s a shame that jazz doesn’t get the same kind of attention and mainstream buzz it used to. Telling the stories of the people who shaped it would be as good a way as any to bring a new audience. One of the benefits of Crouch’s novelistic style is that, by the end of the book, the reader wants more. After meeting his family and getting the nitty gritty details of his apprenticeship, we want the rising action of Charlie Parker’s story, once he conquers New York and starts jamming with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk. and the aforementioned Miles and changes American music forever. In Crouch’s hands, the phrase that used to be ubiquitous around New York rings true: Bird lives. I hope I’m not the only one out there who is waiting with bated breath for Crouch’s next volume to see this Bird take flight.
In 2013 we lost two Nobel laureates, a revered editor and teacher, plus writers of crime fiction, literary fiction, poetry, history, essays, biographies, screenplays, mega-bestsellers, movie criticism, and memoirs. Here is a highly selective compendium:
Evan S. Connell
While it may not be accurate to pin Evan S. Connell with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer,” it is probably fair to say that his restless intelligence and refusal to settle into a niche prevented him from attracting as large an audience as he deserved. Connell, who died on Jan. 10 at 88, produced novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and biographies. He wrote about repressed WASPS, a Navy pilot, a rapist, alchemists and Crusaders, cowboys and Indians, and he was equally at ease writing about art, religion, science, and history. He didn’t enjoy his first commercial success until he was 60, with 1984’s Son of the Morning Star, a non-fiction exploration of Custer’s Last Stand. Until then, due to his books’ modest sales, he had supported himself with some not-very-odd jobs, such as reading meters and delivering packages.
For many readers, Connell’s most indelible novels are Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), about the airless world of the country club set in his native Kansas City, Mo. Wells Tower has noted that the short story that presaged the novels, “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” is a series of “mosaic tile vignettes” rather than a conventional narrative. The vignettes accumulate force until they quietly outdo all the screaming and plate-smashing, the drunkenness and infidelity and angst of so much suburban fiction. In the Bridges’ world, as Tower noted, “the wisdom of Emily Post seems to operate as Newtonian law.” Furthermore, “In the vacuum of Kansas City, no one can hear you scream.”
Mrs. Bridge tried to do everything the way it should be done. Mrs. Bridge did not like to hurt anyone’s feelings by making them feel inferior. Mrs. Bridge had always voted the way her husband told her to vote, but one day she starts reading books about political issues and since she believes in equality she decides she must persuade Mr. Bridge to vote liberal. Here’s what happens at the end of the story when she prepares to confront her husband:
She really intended to force a discussion on election eve. She was going to quote from the book of Zokoloff. But he came home so late, so tired, that she had not the heart to upset him. She concluded it would be best to let him vote the way he always had, and she would do as she herself wished; still upon getting to the polls, which were conveniently located in the country club shopping district, she became doubtful and a little uneasy. And when the moment finally came she pulled the lever recording her wish for the world to remain as it was.
Connell never married, never owned a computer, never sought notoriety. In the cheesy parlance of our age, he declined to become a brand. It’s downright un-American, and quite possibly heroic. “I hate to be recognized,” he once said. “I want to be anonymous.”
Chinua Achebe exploded on the world literary scene with the 1958 publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which invoked Ibo voices from his native Nigeria, boldly challenged European concepts of Africans, and in a single stroke anointed Achebe the father of African fiction. Published during the twilight of British colonial rule, the novel set out to show, as Achebe put it, “that African peoples did not hear of civilization for the first time from Europeans.”
Achebe, who died on March 21 at 82, produced five novels and many short stories over the next three decades. He did not let his fellow Africans off lightly. His satirical fourth novel, A Man of the People, exposed the corruption and irresponsibility of many post-colonial politicians, and it ends with a coup much like the one in 1966 that plunged Nigeria into a devastating civil war. Despite a period of writer’s block brought on by the war, Achebe went on to produce essays, poems, and memoirs, and he oversaw the publication of more than 100 texts that made other African writers’ work available to a worldwide audience. A car accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, yet he continued to write, travel, teach, and lecture. Perhaps his most appropriate epitaph came from Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5. “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe,” Mandela wrote, “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I suspect I was not alone in assuming that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had an Indian name and wrote so knowingly about India, was a native of India. She was not. She war a German Jew, born in Cologne and educated in England, who married an Indian architect in 1951 and moved with him to Delhi, where they raised three daughters and she began writing fiction about her adopted homeland.
Jhabvala, who died on April 3 at 85, started by writing fiction that trained a satirical, Jane Austen-ish eye on the modernizing Indian middle class, its struggles to balance old and new ways, what E.M. Forster called “the unlovely chaos that lies between obedience and freedom.” In time her gaze grew more acid, especially when she was describing sham gurus, Western seekers, and anyone who tried to deceive themselves and others. Her eighth novel, Heat and Dust, won the Booker Prize in 1975, and in all she published a dozen novels and eight collections of short stories.
But it was her screenwriting, particularly her collaborations with the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, that brought her widespread fame. Their first project was an adaptation of her own 1960 novel, The Householder, and many of her other two dozen screenplays sprang from literary sources, including the novels of Henry James, Peter Cameron, Diane Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jean Rhys, and Evan S. Connell (she conflated Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge into Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in 1990, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). Jhabvala won two Oscars, for her adaptations of Forster’s Howards End and A Room With a View.
Though the headline on her obituary in The New York Times read “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85,” she made no secret that she regarded screenwriting as secondary to the writing of fiction. In her Who’s Who entry, the “recreation” category says “writing film scripts.” And as she once wrote to a friend, “I live so much more in and for the books.”
When I heard that Elmore Leonard had died on Aug. 20 at 87, I salved my sorrow by re-reading one of his Motor City masterpieces, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. It opens with a dry description of a juicily corrupt judge that resonates on several levels. Goes like this:
In the matter of Alvin B. Guy, Judge of Recorder’s Court, City of Detroit:
The investigation of the Judicial Tenure Commission found the respondent guilty of misconduct in office and conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice. The allegations set forth in the formal complaint were that Judge Guy:
1.) Was discourteous and abusive to counsel, litigants, witnesses, court personnel, spectators and news reporters.
2.) Used threats of imprisonment or promises of probation to induce pleas of guilty.
3.) Abused the power of contempt.
4.) Used his office to benefit friends and acquaintances.
5.) Bragged of his sexual prowess openly.
6.) Was continually guilty of judicial misconduct that was not only prejudicial to the administration of justice but destroyed respect of the office he holds.
I read those opening lines, originally published in 1980, as a thinly veiled portrait of the man then serving as mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, who was every bit as profane, nasty, and corrupt as the fictional Judge Alvin B. Guy. But another Detroit writer, my pen pal Loren D. Estleman, set me straight on this, informing me that Leonard’s Judge Alvin Guy was actually inspired by a notorious Detroit judge named James Del Rio, who packed a pistol under his judicial robes and once presided over a shootout in his courtroom that left a defense attorney dead. No matter. The important thing is that those opening lines of City Primeval, like so much of Leonard’s fiction, were not only timely, they were timeless: they illuminated the eternal venality of the human soul, which was Leonard’s inexhaustible subject.
To wit: Two months after Leonard died, another corrupt former Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for an array of misdeeds that would have made Alvin Guy, James Del Rio, and Coleman Young proud, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, fraud, income tax evasion, and putting friends and family on the city payroll. Elmore Leonard always nailed it, whether he was writing about crooks in his primeval hometown of Detroit, or crooks in Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Djibouti. R.I.P., Dutch. You are missed.
In 1995 Seamus Heaney became the fourth Irish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, following in the outsized footsteps of his countrymen William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. The fact that neither Flann O’Brien nor James Joyce made the cut speaks to the magnitude of Heaney’s achievement. (Oscar Wilde died a year before the first Nobel Prize was awarded to Sully Prudhomme.)
Seamus Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee) was born in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family, and his poetry was forever veined with the physical world of his childhood — he could remember interiors without electric lights, farmers plowing with horses, women churning butter until their hands bloomed with blisters. But Heaney, who died on Aug. 30 at 74, was no pastoral nostalgist. Beneath his rural tableaux runs a river of sex and violence, even in poems written before the Troubles washed his homeland in blood. He carried contradictions with a velvety ease that echoed the sound of his velvety voice: he was a Romantic realist, a rural cosmopolitan, an archaic modernist, an atheist who welcomed miracles. He regarded words as “bearers of history and mystery.” What could be felt (and done) with the hands was every bit as important to him as what could be seen with the eyes. His poetry was pungent, physical, earthy.
In the poem “Seed Cutters,” he makes explicit that the people of his childhood linked him to worlds past:
They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
In the poem “Digging,” from his debut 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, Heaney revealed how his poetry sprang from the soil:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging, I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through drills
Where he was digging…
By God, the old man could handle a spade
Just like his old man…
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf became a bestseller, and in 2002 he brought out Finders Keepers, a collection of previously published essays and lectures. He described the book’s entries this way: “They are testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for.”
The Beats were basically a boys’ club, their moveable frat party open to few females. One who made it past the bouncers was Carolyn Cassady, the second wife of Neal Cassady, that “western kinsman of the sun” who became Jack Kerouac’s muse and the kinetic character Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Carolyn Cassady, who died on Sept. 20 at 90, became the character Camille in the novel, by turns a thrill-killing shrew and a dedicated wife, the woman who dutifully stayed home to raise Neal/Dean’s children whenever he and Kerouac/Sal Paradise hit the road in pursuit of a fresh dose of enlightenment, girls and kicks. At her husband’s urging, Carolyn also became Kerouac’s lover.
Carolyn Cassady produced two memoirs, Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal (1976) and Off the Road: My Years with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg (1990). She said she wrote the books as correctives to the notion, so widespread among young people after the 1957 publication of On the Road, that the holy troika of the Beat generation led lives of unfettered bliss. “I kept thinking that the imitators never knew and don’t know how miserable these men were,” she once said. “They think they were having marvelous times — joy, joy, joy — and they weren’t at all.”
Neal and Carolyn were married in 1947, when she was several months pregnant with their first of three children. Being married to Neal Cassady — street kid, jailbird, car thief, serial philanderer, aspiring writer, and irresistible volcano of energy — cannot have been a day at the beach. Here’s how Kerouac describes a typical Neal Cassady eruption in On the Road:
I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ’49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
“But what is the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling — ah — hem — Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to — but we won’t go into all these explanations — and I’ll tell you why…No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.
Carolyn believed Neal had a split personality — a hard-working family man at war with “a wild nature driven by sexual desire.” She divorced him in 1963 and five years later he was dead at 41, his body sprawled beside a Mexican railroad track, full of alcohol and drugs, dehydrated, flat worn out. Kerouac, bloated and alcoholic, followed him a year later. But Carolyn, the product of a conventional upper-middle class family, lived on, designing theater costumes, painting portraits, writing her memoirs, and observing the indefatigable juggernaut of the Beat Industry with a jaundiced eye, even though her two books were inarguably a part of the juggernaut.
During the 1978 filming of Heart Beat, starring Sissy Spacek as Carolyn and Nick Nolte as Neal, Carolyn told The Washington Post, “Sissy’s got me all cleaned up, I’m the most wonderful heroine. I go through everything and come out unscathed. I saw the dailies the other day and I cracked up. Everything was so romantic, I was crying. It could have been like that, but it wasn’t at all.”
And she didn’t even try to hide her disdain when director Walter Salles brought On the Road to the screen in 2012. She dismissed the actors cast to play Jack and Neal, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as “wimps.” To make matters worse, chirpy Kirsten Dunst played the role of Carolyn/Camille. Carolyn Cassady did herself one last favor and declined to see the movie.
Tom Clancy created his very own genre, the “techno-thriller,” and loaded it with high-tech military hardware, virtuous Americans, cardboard villains, and stories that never stopped galloping. Clancy’s was a chiaroscuro world of vivid blacks and whites: capitalism is good, communism is bad, the C.I.A. wears shining armor, and the world would be better off without politicians, liberals, terrorists, drug cartels, reporters, and Hollywood. While working unhappily as an insurance salesman, Clancy sold the manuscript of his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, for $5,000 in 1984. It became a bestseller after winning the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, who called it “my kind of yarn.”
Clancy, who died on Oct. 1 at 66, was rarely accused of being a masterful prose stylist — one reviewer dismissed his writing as “the verbal equivalent of a high-tech video game” — but there’s no arguing that Clancy knew how to connect with an audience. More than 100 million copies of his books are in print, 17 reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and an A-list of Hollywood actors (Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford) have played Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, in assorted blockbuster movies. And perhaps as a retort to that sniffy critic of his prose, Clancy happily arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games.
Clancy made a silo full of money off his writing and he knew how to enjoy it. He bought a piece of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and he lived in a 24-room mansion on the Chesapeake Bay with an indoor pool, a gun range in the basement, and a World War II-vintage M1A1 tank parked on the lawn. A reporter once asked Clancy if he ever drove the tank.
Too dangerous, Clancy replied. “It’s essentially a lawn ornament.”
Oscar Hijuelos’s greatest hit, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, unspools like an extended, ecstatic song, full of horn blasts, the patter of congas and bongos, the whirl of frenzied dancers. It is narrated by the broken-down Cuban bandleader Cesar Castillo, as he sits in a shabby Harlem hotel room drinking whisky and remembering “those glorious nights of love so long ago.” He also remembers life’s sensual pleasures — the food, the cars, the music, the streets, women’s hats, women’s underclothes, and, above all, the many women he loved. Much as he’d like to, he can’t forget his life’s many missed opportunities. The novel is a sad sexy dream.
Hijuelos, who was born in New York City to Cuban parents, suffered a heart attack while playing tennis on Oct. 12 and died at age 62. He grew up speaking Spanish at the family’s home in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, and acquired English during a long hospital stay when he was three years old. He wrote in English, producing eight works of fiction and a memoir, all of it a way of wrestling with the immigrant experience and his feeling that he was an outsider in his own culture. He was more American-Cuban than Cuban-American, and the sensation of feeling stranded between cultures caused him no small amount of pain. “I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming,” he wrote late in life. “And that was the moment when I began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself — through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.”
Hijeulos was working at an advertising agency in 1983 when he sold his first novel, Our House in the Last World, but success, including a 1992 movie of Mambo Kings starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante, eventually allowed him to write full time. In 2008, after being “gainfully unemployed” for 20 years, he started teaching at Duke University and discovered, to is surprise, that he enjoyed the job. “I have to say, I love the kids,” he said. “It’s a joyful thing to see the future sitting before you.”
Before his death on Nov. 16 at 89, Louis Rubin may have done more than anyone to prove that New York City does not own a monopoly on quality book publishing in America. Rubin, a revered teacher and prolific author, co-founded Algonquin Press in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1983 as a springboard for writers, especially young writers of the Southern persuasion who’d gotten the cold shoulder from the insular New York publishing world. Rubin’s students included John Barth, Annie Dillard, and Kaye Gibbons, and Algonquin published a small army of celebrated Southerners, including Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and Clyde Edgerton, as well as one native of Canada, Sara Gruen, whose third novel, Water for Elephants, was turned down by her New York publisher. After Algonquin published the novel in 2011, it sold millions of copies, became a #1 bestseller, and was made into a major motion picture. It was not the only time Louis Rubin had the last laugh at New York’s expense.
Doris Lessing, who died on Nov. 17 at 94, will be best remembered as the author of The Golden Notebook, a novel as free-wheeling and unconventional as the woman who wrote it. She produced a staggering body of work in her long life, including novels, science fiction, memoirs, essays, poems, even a libretto for an opera adapted from two of her books, with music by Philip Glass.
Born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents, she grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), married young, had two children, divorced, had another child, then left for England to pursue her literary dreams. She was an iconoclast who railed against racism and sexism, a Catholic who became a Communist, then an anti-Communist, and finally an atheist. Eventually she abandoned all -isms, never apologizing or looking back. It was a life both chilly and inspiring.
In this age of literary careerists panting for praise and prizes, the thing I’ll remember about the free-spirited Lessing was the way she greeted the news that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007. When she climbed out of a taxi in front of her London home and got the big news from a squadron of reporters camped on her front stoop, she said, “Oh, Christ! I couldn’t care less.” Then she added, “The whole thing is so graceless and stupid and bad mannered.”
Oh, Christ, how refreshing!
This list is, by design, selective, but I want to mention a few other noteworthy writers who died in 2013. In alphabetical order they are: the renegade preacher and novelist Will D. Campbell, the biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer, the art critic Arthur C. Danto, the film critics Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffmann, the historian Stanley Karnow, and the author of young-adult novels Ned Vizzini.
Through your words you will all live on.
Images courtesy of Bill Morris.
Whenever I work on a piece of writing more than a few days, I create a “dump file” where I can store my many false starts, failed scenes, and tin-eared snatches of dialogue in case I change my mind and decide to use them anyway. On longer projects, I also create a fresh file each month so I can track the progress of the project and raid old drafts for bits I wrote better the first time. This digital version of the overstuffed file cabinet has saved me more times than I care to count, but it is increasingly clear to me that if I ever have the misfortune to get famous, I will need to delete all these old files and throw my hard drive in a lake somewhere. If I don’t, and a work of mine achieves lasting value, then my children and grandchildren, abetted by scholars and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, may well spend the decades after my death boring the hell out of my readers with all my failed early drafts.
Something like this has recently happened to Ernest Hemingway, whose only living son, Patrick, and his grandson, Seán, have collaborated on a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s great novel of World War I, that includes some of Hemingway’s early drafts as well as 47 versions of the book’s ending. This “Hemingway Library Edition” is, as these sorts of things go, relatively respectful and old-school. For one thing, unlike recent “book apps” of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this edition has been published in an old-fashioned hardcover format. It also presents the full, original novel without intrusive footnotes or in-text commentary, leaving the variant versions for a series of appendices at the end of the book.
Thus, in of itself, this new edition, while not especially illuminating, is in no real way pernicious except perhaps in that it represents yet another effort to cash in on the Hemingway name, which has already given us three (lousy) posthumous novels, two (somewhat better) non-fiction books, and shelves full of lame compendia of Hemingwayiana with titles like Dateline: Toronto and Hemingway on Fishing. Papa himself said in a Paris Review interview, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Hemingway, for all his faults, possessed a first-rate shit detector, and one wishes he had passed the apparatus on to his progeny.
What is a little disturbing about this new edition is how neatly it dovetails with the proliferation of literary ephemera now attached to almost any modern publishing enterprise. Look inside the original edition of most novels published before, say, World War II, and you will find a title page, some information on the publisher, perhaps a brief inscription or dedication, and a novel. Today, novels are sandwiched between pages of disingenuous blurbs, excerpted reviews, extended author bios, author interviews, reading group guides, lists of further reading, and, in some cases, whole chapters of the author’s next book. Acknowledgements pages, once brisk, business-like paragraphs noting some genuine debt of scholarship or financial assistance, have expanded to essay-length Oscar Night speeches listing everyone remotely associated with the book from the agent’s receptionist to the author’s childhood buddies and companion animals. This doesn’t even touch on the extra-literary ephemera of author webpages, book trailers, online Q&As, Facebook posts, how-I-wrote-that-book craft essays, radio appearances, book-group appearances, and reading tours.
There’s nothing truly new in all this – authors have been shilling for their own work since the early days of type – but as readers’ appetite for extended chunks of uninterrupted gray print declines, writers and publishers seem compelled to add ever noisier bells and whistles. For living writers this can mean anything from investing in a cool-looking website and writing mindless what-was-on-my-iPod-while-I-wrote-my-novel pieces for magazines to dressing up a back-cover bio with references to every quirky-sounding job they’ve ever held. For dead authors, this means remaking an old classic, either by asking some famous living person to write a new introduction arguing for the classic’s continued relevance or by providing “new” material to entice readers such as lists of rejected titles or rough drafts of well-known passages. Either way, the novel itself, the thing all the other stuff is supposed to be talking about, can get lost in all the salesmanship and curatorial noise.
Of course, the noise isn’t always incidental to the work itself. For a writing course I taught in the mid-1990s, I assigned two versions of a Raymond Carver story, one called “The Bath,” published in an early book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the second, a much longer rewrite of the same story called “A Small Good Thing,” published years later in Cathedral. In both versions, a little boy is killed in a traffic accident just after his mother has ordered him a birthday cake, and the baker, enraged when the woman never picks up the cake, makes menacing calls to the mother about her son. The first story, however, ends with the baker’s last menacing call, while in the later, longer version the boy’s parents confront the baker, who comforts them with an offer of warm bread straight from the oven.
In class, I posited that the first version, written while Carver was still an active alcoholic, represented his bleak vision of a world of senseless evil while the later version represented his vision as a recovered alcoholic of a world in which one could confront evil, make sense of it, and even draw sustenance from it. I was pretty pleased with my critical acumen until a few years later when D.T. Max revealed in the New York Times Magazine that, in fact, “A Small Good Thing” was Carver’s original version of the story, which his editor Gordon Lish had radically revised and retitled, cutting the story by more than a third and eliminating entirely the redemptive confrontation with the baker.
Not only was my analysis of the two stories wrong, it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of Carver’s life and work. In 2007, when The New Yorker published online a version of Carver’s story “Beginners,” showing how Lish had bludgeoned it down to the much shorter story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that wasn’t literary ephemera at all. The edited version of “Beginners,” with its strike-throughs and expurgated passages, was a heartbreaking work of art in of itself, giving voice not only to Carver’s artistry but to his poignant reliance on a powerful editor who, against Carver’s will, forcibly remade a great writer’s work into his own.
Though both men may have been depressive alcoholics, Ernest Hemingway was no Raymond Carver, and his editor, Max Perkins, thankfully suffered no Lish-like delusions of grandeur. Thus, while the Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell to Arms offers an occasionally charming glance at the private scratch pad of a great writer as well as some mildly informative insight into how the book came into being, its revelations are several ticks on the Richter scale below earth-shaking. It is fun, for instance, to know that Hemingway, who thought about titles only after he finished a book, considered so many truly godawful ones in this case. Would you want to read a war novel called Love Is One Fervent Fire? Or Death Once Dead? Or, God forbid, One Event Happeneth to Them All? Evidently, Hemingway considered all these and many more even worse ones before making a note to himself, “Shitty titles,” and going with A Farewell to Arms.
In the case of the novel’s famously problematic ending, after plowing through all 47 fragments, I found myself preferring a slightly longer ending Hemingway used in the first published version, which was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. That ending, which fills the reader in on the later lives of several of the main characters, struck me as being more in keeping with the elegiac poeticism of some of the book’s finest passages. But in the final analysis, who really cares? A Farewell to Arms, which I hadn’t read in years, is such a marvelous, eye-opening book about daring to love and be loved in the midst of senseless slaughter that it renders such critical quibbles pointless.
That’s the problem with all this literary ephemera, the websites and the “P.S.” sections, the critical editions and scholarly footnotes: they divert attention from the work itself. When the work isn’t very good, when it’s just so-so, the diversions can be welcome. For instance, a few years back, I enjoyed Sloane Crosley’s book of essays, I Was Told There Would Be Cake, but when things got slow, as they did for me a few times, it was fun to zip over to her website and check out the insanely great book trailer, featuring a man’s trousered fingers walking around a miniature apartment while a voice-over warbles, “Your fingers are just fingers, my fingers wear pants. They walk and they talk and they poop and they dance.” But when a book is as good as A Farewell to Arms, a wise editor should know when to get out of the way and let the work stand on its own.
So, do yourself a favor: skip the Hemingway Library Edition and find a cheap paperback of A Farewell to Arms. If you need some historical context, you can read John Keegan’s excellent history, The First World War, or Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. There are a bunch of Hemingway biographies out there, but you can start with Carlos Baker’s classic Hemingway. Or, you could just skip all that and read the book.
The Australian Broadcasting Company’s radio program, The Book Show, invited Millions staff writer Michael Bourne to speak on the book app for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. To read Bourne’s Millions piece on the Kerouac book app, click here.
Is it my imagination, or do an inordinate number of writers die in motor vehicle accidents? Maybe I tend to notice these grisly deaths because I’m a writer, an avid reader of obituaries, and also a car lover with a deep fear of dying in a crash. But I’m convinced by years of accumulated empirical evidence that writers outnumber the percentage of, say, nurses or teachers or accountants who die in car and motorcycle accidents. (Similarly, an inordinate number of musicians seem to die in plane crashes, including the Big Bopper, John Denver, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens and Ronnie Van Zant, to name a few.)
Why do so many writers die in motor vehicle mishaps? Are they reckless drivers? Prone to bad luck? Likely to indulge in risky behavior? I don’t pretend to know the answer(s), but I have noticed, sadly, that writers who die in crashes are frequently on the cusp of greatness or in the midst of some promising project; sometimes they’re at the peak of their careers. I offer this list in chronological order, aware it isn’t exhaustive. Feel free to add to it in the comments. Think of this as a living tribute to writers who left us too soon:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) – Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 movie, opens with the death of its subject. T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), the archaeologist/warrior who helped unite rival Arab tribes and defeat the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was whizzing along a road in rural Dorset, England, astride his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle on the afternoon of May 13, 1935. A dip in the road obscured Lawrence’s view of two boys on bicycles, and when he swerved to avoid them he lost control and pitched over the handlebars. Six days later he died from his injuries. He was 46.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his experiences during the Great War, made him an international celebrity, though he called the book “a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people.” An inveterate letter writer, Lawrence also published his correspondence with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, E.M. Forster and many others. He dreamed that victory on the desert battlefield would result in an autonomous Arab state, but negotiators at the Paris peace conference had very different ideas, prompting Lawrence to write bitterly, “Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven on earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”
Seven Pillars of Wisdom still speaks to us today, as the U.S. fights two wars in the region during this convulsive Arab Spring. Lawrence could have been writing about Americans in Iraq when he wrote these words about his fellow British soldiers: “And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.”
Nathanael West (1903-1940) – Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein, wrote just four short novels in his short life, but two of them – Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust – are undisputed classics. After graduating from college he managed two New York hotels, where he allowed fellow aspiring writers to stay at reduced rates or free of charge, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell. When his first three novels – The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934) – earned a total of $780, a demoralized West went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting.
There he enjoyed his first success. He wrote scripts for westerns, B-movies and a few hits, then used his experiences in the trenches of the movie business to brilliant effect in his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), which satirizes the tissue of fakery wrapped around everything in Los Angeles, from its buildings to its people to the fantasies that pour out of its dream factories. The novel also paints a garish portrait of the alienated and violent dreamers who come to California for the sunshine and the citrus and the empty promise of a fresh start. West’s original title for the novel was, tellingly, The Cheated. It was eclipsed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a published a few weeks before it and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, then was made into a hit movie. West wrote ruefully to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Sales: practically none.”
In April of 1940 West married Eileen McKenney. Eight months later, on Dec. 22, a day after Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack, West and McKenney were returning to their home in Los Angeles from a bird-hunting expedition in Mexico. Outside the farming town of El Centro, West, a notoriously bad driver, gunned his sparkling new Ford station wagon through a stop sign at high speed, smashing into a Pontiac driven by a poor migrant worker. West and McKenney were flung from the car and died of “skull fracture,” according to the coroner’s report.
Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, closes her book with what I think is a fitting eulogy: “Dead before middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine obituary in the New York Times ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them unforgettable. When a writer lives only 37 years and ends up with very little reward, it might seem a waste, until you look at what he did. For Nathanael West, what he did seems enough.”
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) – Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, was published in the summer of 1936. By the end of the year it had sold a million copies and David O. Selznick had bought the movie rights for the unthinkable sum of $50,000. Mitchell spent the rest of her life feeding and watering her cash cow, work that was not always a source of pleasure. Her New York Times obituary said the novel “might almost be labeled a Frankenstein that overwhelmed her,” adding, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.”
She gave up fiction but continued to write letters, and her correspondence is filled with accounts of illnesses and accidents, boils and broken bones, collisions with furniture and cars. In fact, she claimed she started writing her novel because “I couldn’t walk for a couple of years.”
On the evening of Aug. 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband John Marsh were about to cross Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on their way to see a movie. According to witnesses, Mitchell stepped into the street without looking – something she did frequently – and she was struck by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver named Hugh Gravitt. Her skull and pelvis were fractured, and she died five days later without regaining consciousness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose familiarity with failure surely colored his opinion of Mitchell’s staggering success, said of Gone With the Wind, “I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind.”
Albert Camus (1913-1960) – He had planned to take the train from Provence back to Paris. But at the last minute, the Nobel laureate Albert Camus accepted a ride from his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard. On Jan. 4, 1960 near the town of Villeblevin, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega sports car on a wet stretch of road and slammed into a tree. Camus, 46, died instantly and Gallimard died a few days later. Gallimard’s wife and daughter were thrown clear of the mangled car. Both survived.
In the wreckage was a briefcase containing 144 handwritten pages – the first draft of early chapters of Camus’s most autobiographical novel, The First Man. It closely paralleled Camus’s youth in Algiers, where he grew up poor after his father was killed at the first battle of the Marne, when Albert was one year old. The novel was not published until 1994 because Camus’s daughter Catherine feared it would provide ammunition for the leftist French intellectuals who had turned against her father for daring to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism and for failing to support the Arab drive for independence in the country of his birth. Camus dedicated the unfinished novel to his illiterate mother – “To you who will never be able to read this book.” He once said that of all the many ways to die, dying in a car crash is the most absurd.
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) – In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote prophetically, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times… A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems.”
In the 1960s, as his 50th birthday approached, Jarrell’s poetic inspiration was in decline. While he didn’t stop writing poetry, he concentrated on criticism, translations and children’s books. He also sank into a depression that led him to slash his left wrist and arm in early 1965. The suicide attempt failed, and a month later his wife Mary committed him to a psychiatric hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was there when his final book of poems, The Lost World, appeared to some savage reviews. In The Saturday Review, Paul Fussell wrote, “It is sad to report that Randall Jarrell’s new book… is disappointing. There is nothing to compare with the poems he was writing 20 years ago… (His style) has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attended now too often with the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos.”
Though stung, Jarrell returned to UNC-Greensboro in the fall, where he was a dedicated and revered teacher. In October he was back in Chapel Hill undergoing treatments for the wounds on his left arm. On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Jarrell was walking alongside the busy U.S. 15-501 bypass, toward oncoming traffic, about a mile and a half south of town. As a car approached, Jarrell stepped into its path. His head struck the windshield, punching a hole in the glass. He was knocked unconscious and died moments later from “cerebral concussion.” The driver, Graham Wallace Kimrey, told police at the scene, “As I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car.” Kimrey was not charged.
Was it a suicide? A tragic accident? We’ll never know for sure. One thing we do know is that this brilliant critic, uneven poet and inspiring teacher died too young, at 51, the same age as his heroes Proust and Rilke.
Richard Farina (1937-1966) – There was a time when every young person with claims to being hip and literary absolutely had to possess a battered copy of Richard Farina’s only novel, that terrific blowtorch of a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Like a handful of other novels – Tropic of Cancer, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest come immediately to mind – Farina’s creation was as much a generational badge as it was a book. Farina’s novel, which recounts the picaresque wanderings of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, was published in 1966, after Farina and his wife Mimi, Joan Baez’s sister, had become a successful folk-singing act. The best man at their wedding was Thomas Pynchon, who’d met Richard while they were students at Cornell.
On April 30, 1966, two days after the novel was published, there was a party in Carmel Valley, California, to celebrate Mimi’s 21st birthday. Richard decided to go for a spin on the back of another guest’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The driver entered an S-curve at excessive speed, lost control and tore through a barbed-wire fence. Farina died instantly, at the age of 29. Pynchon, who later dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Farina, said his friend’s novel comes on “like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.”
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) – For a writer who lived such a long and fruitful life – he was a teacher, environmentalist, decorated novelist and author of short stories, histories and biographies – Wallace Stegner does not enjoy the readership he deserves. “Generally students don’t read him here,” said Tobias Wolff, who was teaching at Stanford in 2009, the centennial of Stegner’s birth. “I wish they would.”
It was at Stanford that Stegner started the creative writing program and nurtured a whole galaxy of supernova talents, including Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, George V. Higgins, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. He won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award but was ghettoized as “the dean of Western writers.” In a cruel irony, this writer who deplored “the stinks of human and automotive waste” was on his way to deliver a lecture in Santa Fe, N.M., on March 28, 1993, when he pulled his rental car into the path of a car bearing down on his left. The left side of Stegner’s car was crushed, and he suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone. A heart attack and pneumonia followed, and he died in the hospital at the age of 84.
For all his love of the West, Stegner knew it was no Eden. He once told an interviewer: “The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too. The West is rootless, culturally half-baked. So be it.”
Steve Allen (1921-2000) – Though best known as a television personality, musician, composer, actor and comedian, Steve Allen also wrote more than 50 books on a wide range of topics, including religion, media, the American educational system and showbiz personalities, plus poetry, plays and short stories. Lovers of Beat literature will always remember Allen for noodling on the piano while Jack Kerouac recited passages from On the Road on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959.
On Oct. 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son’s home in Encino, California, when his Lexus collided with an SUV that was being backed out of a driveway. Neither driver appeared to be injured in the fender bender, and they continued on their ways. After dinner at his son’s home, Allen said he was feeling tired and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. The original cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, but a coroner’s report revealed that Allen had suffered four broken ribs during the earlier collision, and a hole in the wall of his heart allowed blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart, a condition known as hemopericardium.
On the day of his death Allen was working on his 54th book, Vulgarians at the Gate, which decried what he saw as an unacceptable rise of violence and vulgarity in the media.
W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) – It has been said that all of the German writer W.G. Sebald’s books had a posthumous quality to them. That’s certainly true of On the Natural History of Destruction, his magisterial little exploration of the suffering civilians endured during the Allied fire-bombing of German cities at the end of the Second World War. I should say his exploration of the unexplored suffering of German civilians, because the book is partly a rebuke, a challenge to his shamed countrymen’s willed forgetfulness of their own suffering.
I lived for a time in Cologne, target of some of the most merciless bombing. I’ve seen photographs of the city’s Gothic cathedral standing in a sea of smoking rubble. I’ve heard old-timers talk about the war – men grousing about the idiocy of their military officers, women boasting about how they cadged deals on the black market. But I never heard anyone say a word about the horror of watching the sky rain fire. Until Sebald dared to speak.
He produced a relatively short shelf of books – novels, poetry, non-fiction – but he was being mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate until Dec. 14, 2001, when he was driving near his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter Anna. Sebald apparently suffered a heart attack, and his car veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck. Sebald died instantly, at the age of 57. His daughter survived the crash.
David Halberstam (1934-2007) – David Halberstam died working. On April 23, 2007 he was riding through Menlo Park, California, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by a UC-Berkeley journalism student. They were on their way to meet Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, who Halberstam was keen to interview for a book he was writing about the epic 1958 N.F.L. title game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. As the Camry came off the Bayfront Expressway, it ran a red light. An oncoming Infiniti slammed into the passenger’s side and sent the Camry skidding into a third vehicle. The Camry’s engine caught fire and Halberstam, 73, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma. All three drivers survived with minor injuries.
Halberstam made his mark by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting in the New York Times that questioned the veracity of the men leading America’s war effort in Vietnam. Eight years later he published what is regarded as his masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the brilliant but blind men who led us into the fiasco of that unwinnable war. He went on to write 20 non-fiction books on politics, sports, business and social history. I think The Fifties, his re-examination of the supposedly bland Eisenhower years, contains all the virtues and vices of his work: outsized ambition and pit-bull reporting shackled to prose that’s both sprawling and clunky. Like so many writers with big reputations and egos to match, Halberstam never got the tough editor he needed.
The book he was working on when he died, The Glory Game, was completed by Frank Gifford, who played for the Giants in that 1958 title game. It was published – “by Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond” – a year after Halberstam’s death.
Doug Marlette (1949-2007) – Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip “Kudzu,” published his first novel in 2001. The Bridge spins around the violent textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1930s, in which Marlette’s grandmother was stabbed with a bayonet. The novel is set in the fictional town of Eno, loosely modeled on Hillsborough, N.C., the hot house full of writers where Marlette was living when he wrote the book. When Marlette’s neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus, read the novel in galleys, he saw a little too much of himself in the composite character Ruffin Strudwick, a gay man who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot. Gurganus called the publisher and demanded that his name be removed from the book’s acknowledgements. A bookstore cancelled a reading, charging Marlette with homophobia, and Hillsborough became the scene of a nasty literary cat fight between pro- and anti-Marlette camps. People who should have known better – a bunch of writers – had forgotten Joan Didion’s caveat: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
Marlette produced a second novel, Magic Time, in 2006. After delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral in Charlotte, N.C., Marlette flew to Mississippi on July 10, 2007 to help a group of Oxford High School students who were getting ready to stage a musical version of “Kudzu.” The school’s theater director met Marlette at the airport. On the way to Oxford, the director’s pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain and smashed into a tree. Marlette was killed at the age of 57. He was at work on his third novel when he died.
Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011) – In 2008 The Southern Review named a woman as editor for the first time since Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks founded the literary journal at Louisiana State University in 1935. The woman was Jeanne Leiby, a native of Detroit who had published a collection of short stories called Downriver, set in the corroded bowels of her post-industrial hometown. Her fiction had appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review and Indiana Review. Leiby had also worked as fiction editor at Black Warrior Review in Alabama and as editor of The Florida Review before taking the job at The Southern Review.
On April 19, 2011, Leiby was driving west on Interstate-10 near Baton Rouge in her 2007 Saturn convertible. The top was down and she was not wearing a seat belt. When she tried to change lanes she lost control of the car and it hit a concrete guard rail and began to spin clockwise. Leiby was thrown from the car and died later at Baton Rouge General Hospital. She was 46.
At the time of her death Leiby was, by all accounts, performing masterfully at a thankless job. Due to punishing state budget cuts, she had slimmed The Southern Review down, cancelled some readings and other events for the journal’s 75th anniversary in 2010, and ended the annual $1,500 prizes for poetry, non-fiction and fiction. She did all that without a falloff in quality. She was also working to merge The Southern Review with the LSU Press.
In a conversation with the writer Julianna Baggott, Leiby confided that during her job interviews at The Southern Review she’d offered her opinion that the journal had gotten stodgy and that it was too Old South and too male. One of the first things this woman from Detroit did after she got the job was to lower the portraits of her predecessors – all men – because she thought they were hung too high.
Don Piper (1948 – ) – Don Piper might be the most intriguing person on this list. He died in a car crash – then came back from the other side to write a best-seller about the experience.
On Jan. 18, 1989, Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving his Ford Escort home to Houston after attending a church conference. It was a cold, rainy day. As he drove across a narrow, two-lane bridge, an oncoming semi-truck driven by a trusty from a nearby prison crossed the center line and crushed Piper’s car. When paramedics arrived at the scene, Piper had no pulse and they covered his corpse with a tarp. Since I can’t possibly improve on Piper’s telling of what happened next, I’ll give it to you straight from his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven:
Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven… Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description. Only that. In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate… As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but did see people I had known… and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, I intuitively knew that they were my celestial welcoming committee.
Piper recognized many people who had preceded him to the grave, including a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a childhood friend, a high school classmate, two teachers and many relatives. His story continues:
The best way to explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension… everything was brilliantly intense… (and) we began to move toward that light… Then I heard the music… The most amazing sound, however, was the angels’ wings… Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time… my heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced… I saw colors I would never have believed existed. I’ve never, ever felt more alive than I did then… and I felt perfect.
Alas, perfection was not destined to last. A fellow preacher had stopped at the scene of the accident to pray. Just as Piper was getting ready to walk through the “pearlescent” gates and meet God face-to-face, the other minister’s prayers were answered and Piper, miraculously, rejoined the living. This, surely, ranks as one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of Western literature. Nonethless, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, has sold more than 4 million copies and it has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for the past 196 weeks, and counting.
(Image: Orange Car Crash – 14 Times from eyeliam’s photostream)
In April 1951, when Jack Kerouac fed the first pieces of what would become a 120-foot scroll of paper into his Underwood portable to write the famous first draft of his novel, On the Road, he was, in one sense, blowing up the typewriter to make his own primitive homemade word processor. Sixty years later, Kerouac’s publisher, Penguin Books, is, in its own quiet way, blowing up the book to make – what, exactly? For now, they are calling it a book app, and even to my mildly technophobic eyes, the results offer a glimpse onto a potentially brave new world of publishing.
I’ll admit I was suspicious when I first heard about a “book app” for On the Road, assuming I would be subjected to some tech geek’s notion of what the book of the future should look like – that is, that it would be all future and no book. So you can imagine my relief when I took the app, now for sale on iTunes, for a test drive on a borrowed iPad, and found it to be an informative, even tasteful, accessory to Kerouac’s book, not an attempt to bury the text under a blaring, technophiliac mess of gadgetry and special effects. That said, the real star of the show is the technology itself, which promises not just a slew of new apps for beloved classic texts, but also, it seems to me, a new, richer way to make books.
By now, of course, e-books are old hat, and even book apps have been around at least since the advent of the iPhone, but this most recent riff on the book app takes the technology in a new, intriguing direction. Publishers have designed apps around comic books and children’s texts, and have even built a few original book apps for nonfiction takes on the periodic table and the solar system, but On the Road is among the first wave of apps designed for the adult trade fiction and poetry markets, following on the heels of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the app for which recently startled the digerati when it knocked Marvel Comics from the #1 spot on the list of top-grossing book apps on iTunes.
It isn’t hard to see why Penguin is using On the Road to launch its adult trade fiction apps category. For one, it is a canonical classic appealing to everyone from nostalgic Boomers getting their first iPad for Father’s Day to tech-savvy teenage boys who love their digital devices almost as much as they love smoking “tea” and driving fast cars. At the same time, Kerouac’s book has a long and involved back story that begins with that famous 120-foot scroll and extends to the incestuous pack of Columbia grads and assorted hangers-on who made up the Beat Generation.
It is here, in providing the clef for the real-life figures behind the characters in Kerouac’s roman à clef and in drawing a detailed map of Kerouac’s long road to writing On the Road, that this app shines. Chris Russell, editorial director for the project at Penguin, calls the app “a virtual museum” of the book, but to my eyes it comes closer to being a refreshing take on the standard critical edition, with primary sources replacing scholarly essays. The central feature of the app is a digital copy of the published version of the book that comes with tabs readers can tap to see bios of the main characters as well background on some of the people and places Kerouac visited on his travels. Zipping around the app, one can also find maps detailing Kerouac’s travel itinerary, Kerouac’s own maps and writing notes, as well as photos of the major players and original documents from the publisher’s archives showing the book’s tortured road to publication.
Much of this added content is either pedestrian, as in the potted bios of the characters, or familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a biography of Kerouac or a history of the Beats. Some elements, though, such as the maps, do add real texture to the experience of reading the book. I read On the Road the first time twenty-some years ago when I was taking the first of several long road trips around the U.S. and I would have loved to have the graphical aid of the map of his journey to compare to my own. The app allows you to tap a location on the map and go directly to the page in the novel when Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise arrives there. I also enjoyed the audio clips of Kerouac reading from On the Road, which, for me, were like seeing the Grateful Dead in concert for the first time after listening only to their studio albums: a cult phenomenon that had never really clicked for me suddenly made a new kind of sense as I listened to Kerouac’s husky, sensual voice make music of prose.
Thus, while the concept is exciting, in this case the execution isn’t always as strong as it could be, especially given the app’s $16.99 retail price ($12.99 for the first two weeks). So it’s a good thing the app can be expanded at no new cost to the buyer. At the least, Penguin needs to make the experience more genuinely interactive by adding a talk-back or comment feature so fans can compare reactions to the novel and offer analyses of favorite passages. Even better would be a wiki-like feature to let readers add to the commentary provided by the publishers. For instance, one of the maps in the app shows “Mill City,” just north of San Francisco, as one of Kerouac’s stops on his journey. I happen to be from Mill Valley, Calif., which is next door to Marin City, where Kerouac briefly lived in barracks built for the World War II-era Marinship plant in Sausalito. It adds little to one’s reading of the book to know that Kerouac combined the two city names, but given his obsession with African-American culture, it does add context to know that, when he lived in Marin City, those barracks – now public housing, famous for being the home of rapper Tupac Shakur – were among the only truly racially integrated housing in the United States.
But even with added interactivity, there is little here you couldn’t find on a well curated website devoted to On the Road, and cynics will suggest that Penguin is only trying to push sales of a popular backlist title by forcing fans to buy a new digital edition just to see a few cool bits of memorabilia from the archives. And, of course, the cynics would have a point. That is no doubt part of what is driving this sudden interest in putting out “enhanced” digital editions of titles like On the Road and The Waste Land, and if these new iPad apps do no more than draw in a few old Kerouac and Eliot heads, this will prove to be a pointless exercise. If, on the other hand, it draws in new readers, wired iKids who love wriggling down the hypertextual wormholes of the web, then book apps of classic texts will serve a valuable, if somewhat limited, purpose. As I dipped into On the Road’s digital archives, I couldn’t help thinking of other classics that would benefit from similar treatment. Wouldn’t you love to peek into the files that famous pack rat, Hunter S. Thompson, kept on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? (See my recent essay on Fear and Loathing here.) Or what about a book app for Tim O’Brien’s metafictional Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, with maps and photos and bios of the real people behind O’Brien’s characters?
But, again, if the book app phenomenon ends there, as virtual attics for the houses of a few great books, then I doubt the book app will draw many iPad users away from their treasured GarageBand and iMovie apps. The real promise here, as I see it, is the underlying technology, which, with any luck, will some day allow a kid now sitting in his eighth-grade English class playing Spider-Man: Total Mayhem HD to write an original literary app: a truly interactive novel that not only combines text with hypertext, but also with sound and images and reader responses, all at the swipe of a finger. This notion has been the holy grail of a certain school of digitally avant garde writers since the days of dial-up connections, but the technology has always been clunky, and the stories, at least in my own admittedly limited experience, damnably dull.
Two factors suggest the lackluster track record of the interactive novel may be due for a change. First, it takes only a few minutes on an iPad to see that this sleek hand-held device, with its gleaming touch screen and seemingly bottomless array of multi-media features, is a quantum leap forward in terms of flexibility and user friendliness. Second, until very recently, the minds of the people creating interactive novels have been as old school as their equipment. If the central building block of most interactive novels has until now been the codex text – otherwise known as the book – that’s because most of the people making them were raised on codex texts. Every day, as more toddlers read The Little Engine That Could on their parents’ iPads and Skype their grandparents on their smart phones, this is becoming less true, and soon a young writer whose brain is more supple than mine may well take this technology and bend it to uses that my mind, hopelessly mired in the linear, cannot even imagine.
In the meantime, old fogies like me can happily potter around in the virtual attics of classic novels like On the Road and recall a day when blowing up a venerable piece of technology took only a big stack of paper and some tape.
To get to the movie theater that’s playing the new documentary about William S. Burroughs, I had to pass a six-story tenement at 170 E. 2nd St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A plaque by the building’s front door reads:
ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-1997) Internationally acclaimed poet and Member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters lived here from August 1958 to March 1961. His signal poem Howl (1956) helped launch The Beat Generation. Kadish (1961), a mournful elegy for his mother Naomi, was written in apartment #16.
The documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, taught me several things about the author of Naked Lunch and other scabrous novels that, along with Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, got the Beat Generation off the launch pad. I learned that Burroughs was fascinated by poisonous snakes, particularly when they were feeding, and he almost died when he rashly positioned a live mouse within range of a Gaboon viper’s fangs. I learned that Burroughs was a gun nut who liked to get liquored up before he started blasting, and that his beverage of choice was vodka and Coke. (This, surely, helps explain the “accident” when Burroughs shot his wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in Mexico City in 1951.) I learned that Burroughs was not much of a father either; his only son died of acute alcoholism at the age of 33. I learned that the poet-rocker Patti Smith, who recently won a National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids, used to have a crush on Burroughs and that the cult filmmaker John Waters considers Burroughs a “saint” and that Burroughs had a hard time expressing love because he was terrified of rejection and so he usually turned to young gay hustlers for sex and finally I learned that the poet who wrote Howl and Kadish was the great unrequited love of Burroughs’s life. Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997 and Burroughs died less than four months later and A Man Within suggests, not very convincingly, that Burroughs died of a broken heart.
Whew. That’s a lot of learning to get from a 90-minute documentary. But now the question must be asked: Am I better for knowing these things – richer, wiser, closer to some essential truths about Burroughs’s literary output? Not at all. I’m just a bit more stuffed with useless information because Yony Leyser, the writer-director of A Man Within, is a foot soldier in the army of Beat hagiographers who operate under the illusion that dissecting the personal lives of writers is essential to – even preferable to – understanding their writing. Burroughs’s writing is barely mentioned in the movie, just a quick note about how he appropriated his “cut-up” technique from the artist Brion Gysin. For the Beat hagiographers, not only is the work never enough, it’s almost beside the point. They’re in the business of erecting a cult, after all, and all cults need icons. It’s telling that A Man Within was released shortly after Howl, a documentary-feature hybrid starring the ubiquitous James Franco as the poet from apartment #16. At least there’s some poetry in Howl. At one point an interviewer asks Franco/Ginsberg, “What is the Beat generation?” He replies: “There is no Beat generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
That may have been true in 1957. No more. Today the Beat generation is a thriving cottage industry.
What makes A Man Within such a dreary viewing experience is that it’s largely a parade of talking heads yammering on and on about what Burroughs meant to them. In addition to Patti Smith and John Waters, we get to hear from Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Peter Weller (who played Burroughs in Cronenberg’s fine 1991 film version of Naked Lunch and also does this documentary’s voice-over), plus assorted lovers, writers, sycophants, enablers, academics, gun dealers, snake handlers and hangers-on.
My favorite of the bunch is Regina Weinreich, who is identified as “a Beat generation scholar.” While it’s no secret that the academic racketeers can turn just about anything into a “discipline,” Weinreich’s job description struck me as particularly delicious. Here is a woman who was canny enough to hitch her professional wagon to the Beat caravan more than 20 years ago. In 1986 she met Paul Bowles while teaching a creative writing workshop in Tangier, where Bowles had moved in the late 1940s. His home there became a station of the cross on the Beats’ holy itinerary. The year after she met Bowles, Weinreich co-wrote a documentary, The Beat Generation: An American Dream, that featured archival footage of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and Kerouac reading from On the Road accompanied by Steve Allen on piano. In 1994 Weinreich and Catherine Warnow co-directed Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider, an hour-long documentary about the author of the proto-Beat novel The Sheltering Sky. Weinreich also wrote a critical study called Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics and edited Kerouac’s Book of Haikus. Today she contributes to numerous periodicals, teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, talks into cameras and, for good measure, blogs at Gossip Central.
Such industry is exhausting to contemplate but, it turns out, not unusual among the Beat hagiographers. The critical studies keep coming and the documentaries keep piling up, with titles like What Happened to Kerouac?, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, The Source (a hash of TV and film clips spiced with performances by Johnny Depp as Kerouac, John Turturro as Ginsberg and Dennis Hopper as Burroughs), and One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. This last train wreck – people getting weepy talking about Kerouac’s crack-up on the California coast – inspired Slant magazine to ask the one question that must be asked: “Who keeps inviting Patti Smith to these Beat docs?” Writing in The Millions last year, Lydia Kiesling speculated that Smith keeps getting invited back because she’s “perceived as having a never-ending fund of ‘cred.'” That must be it. It can’t possibly be that anyone still cares that she used to have a crush on William S. Burroughs.
I’m no fan of hagiographers, obviously, but I’m only a bit less distrustful of literary biographers. Too often their books slide toward what Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “pathography,” which she defined as “hagiography’s diminished and often prurient twin.” Its motifs are “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”
Since we live in an age that’s obsessed with personalities and celebrities, it’s not surprising that so few readers are satisfied with loving a book and so many insist on knowing as much as possible about the person who wrote it. While this appetite has inspired literary biographers to produce a long shelf of pathographies and other monstrosities – does the world really need Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene? – it has also resulted in some well researched and finely written literary biographies that did what such exercises do at their best: they led readers back to the subject’s books. Among these I would include Blake Bailey’s recent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever and, strangely enough, Ann Charters’s thorough and balanced 1973 bio of Kerouac. In her introduction, Charters wrote insightfully, if a bit clunkily: “The value of Kerouac’s life is what he did, how he acted. And what he did, was that he wrote. I tried to arrange the incidents of his life to show that he was a writer first, and a mythologized figure afterward. Kerouac’s writing counts as much as his life.”
I would argue that his writing counts more than his life, much more. Eventually Charters seemed to come around to my way of thinking. In 1995, after she’d edited two fat volumes, Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and The Portable Jack Kerouac, I interviewed her for a newspaper article. “I wanted (the book of letters) to be a biography in Jack’s own words,” she told me. “His life is in his books, but on the other hand the most essential thing is missing from those novels. What he tells you in the letters is that the most important thing in his life is writing.”
At the time The Gap was using Kerouac’s image – and images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and other ’50s icons – to sell its khaki pants. In the face of such shameless hucksterism, Charters’s insistence on the importance of Kerouac’s writing seemed both quaint and heroic to me. It still does today, as the hagiographers keep bombarding us with abominations like One Fast Move or I’m Gone and Howl and A Man Within.
In the end I must admit that “A Man Within” did teach me one thing worth knowing. I’d spent years believing that Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote were the Holy Trinity of Shameless Self-Promoters among American writers. (That, by the way, is not a putdown; it’s a compliment laced with no small amount of envy.) Thanks to this documentary, I now realize that Burroughs was easily their equal as a self-promoter. This came home to me as I watched the archival footage of him rolling up his shirt sleeve and shooting dope into his left arm. The effect on me was very different from the shiver Yony Leyser was surely hoping for. My first thought was: No man would allow himself to be filmed shooting dope unless he was eager to package and promote his image as an outlaw.
It’s not hard to see why Burroughs is catnip for documentary filmmakers more than a dozen years after his death. In his late years he became a weirdly irresistible figure – the bag-eyed, fedora- and three-piece-suit-wearing patrician junkie misanthrope with the deadpan baritone who droned on and on about the rot festering at the core of the American Dream. He is the closest we’ve ever gotten to an American Jonathan Swift, and he’s to be credited for shunning those who tried to idolize him, including many Beats, hippies, punks and gay libbers. The only organization I could imagine him joining is the National Rifle Association because, as he put it, “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed to have guns are the cops and the military.” He shrewdly burnished the Burroughs brand by branching into recording and acting, reminding us that the man who wrote Junkie and Naked Lunch could be caustically funny. His turn as dope-hungry Tom the Priest in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy is not to be missed, and one of the highlights of “A Man Within” is Burroughs reciting his “Thanksgiving Prayer” as Old Glory flutters behind him: “Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison…thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes…thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through…” Sadly, the documentary does not include any of Burroughs’s “Words of Advice for Young People,” such as, “Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. What they mean is, they want more money. Much more.”
A word of advice for readers and filmgoers of all ages: Beware of hagiographers who tell you a writer’s life is more important than the books he or she wrote. It never is. It might be diverting to watch a guy shoot dope and shoot guns and feed poisonous snakes. But the books are more important. Much more.
“I first met Dean not long after Tryscha and I hooked up. I had just gotten over a wicked fucking hangover that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with a six-foot-five douchebag and a beer bong… Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see hot LA actress chicks and try In N’ Out burgers, always vaguely planning and never taking off.” – From On the Bro’d, where every sentence of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is retold for Bros. (via The Rumpus)
James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime. This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again. Once is almost never enough. The agony is just too delicious. Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels. When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.
Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit. When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”
Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes. I count myself among them. So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.” Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels. In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson. “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”
True on every count. There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned. But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment. Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties. As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”
The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes. Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele. With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.
The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”
Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.
Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”
In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity. Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not. Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.
Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time. In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote. To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”
Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up. The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning. In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar. A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30. All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system. Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.
Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money… They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too. Henry Fisher is got plenty of money. But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it. They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.” And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things… I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”
Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then. And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.” That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.
Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit. Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river. You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you. When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”
And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:
“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.
“A quart of my own private Scotch. Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that. I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”
“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.
“He don’t drink much. Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”
“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.
“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.
Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity. Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk. A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived. I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic. Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves. He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery. It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get. Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.
While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years. To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves. Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.
Right off, she stunned me. She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim. She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red. I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s. When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.” Then his voice had trailed off. I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone. Marnie set me straight.
“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said. “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it. I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health. I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell. He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell. They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.” (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.) Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent. If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.
So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder. He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good. There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.
Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis. Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”
“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore. I don’t write what they look for today.’ He was probably right. He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”
Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year. “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested. I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross. I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor). I’m still collecting archival material. In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul. My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work. I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.” Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.
So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine. This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book. The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877. A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis. That is just plain wrong. (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)
And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind. Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.
And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated. Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in. Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover. The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.
Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”
Well, believe it. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison. Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger. It definitely happened to Harper Lee. And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter. “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said. “It’s pretty unreal.”
What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal. It’s just about impossible.
When I was back in the States for Christmas last year, what surprised me more than Obama-mania, or the eerie presence of snow, was the widespread fame of Roberto Bolaño. He went from obscure to star in little over a year, following the English translation of The Savage Detectives. Every reader seemed to have his own version of the story: the desperate bohemian, the heroin addict love poet, the Chilean-Mexican-Spaniard. For the next week I saw the book’s tabloidish cover on nearly every train I got on. Such are literary trends I guess.
There has been so much written about him by now, it’s hard not to disagree with somebody about who Roberto Bolaño was, never mind who he is. Without getting into any of the biographical debates, he was poet for most of his life, until he began writing novels in the 80s. Like most poets he was poor. As he tells it in his forward to Monsieur Pain, he began writing his first novels to win the literary contests that nearly every rinky-dink town in the Iberian peninsula awards annually. As absurd as that may have sounded, it paid off. Nearly every novel and novella won him something. So he repeated the formula and kept on winning. This went on for some time, maybe ten years, until his best friend died and he began writing The Savage Detectives, the book that would win him the grand mother of literary prizes in Spanish, the Premio Romullo Gallegos. His work was certainly popular by then, especially in Latin America, but nothing like the craze one finds in the States. I wouldn´t be surprised if someone gave Obama a copy of 2666 as a welcoming gift in the White House. Ten years ago when I bought Bolaño’s books in Spain, where seemingly everyone reads (or at least acts like they do), my friends would ask me why I was buying him. Why not Javier Marias? Why not Almudena Grandes? Because Bolaño’s books are dark, funny, allusive, erratic, and most importantly, sincere — at least, that’s what attracted to me about him. And I had never read anything like him. I just didn’t know what to make of him, so I read his novellas and his books of short stories, until I worked up enough courage to take on The Savage Detectives.
After reading just the first half of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima’s adventures I knew: (1) I wanted to be them, (2) I was only getting a quarter of the literary references, (3) I would likely have to reread it. As Belano and Lima poetically conquer Mexico City, and later the world – talking lit, getting drunk, falling in love, writing manifestos, being poor, being really poor – they emulate an entire generation’s experience. Like On the Road many key literary figures appear, in some cases cryptically, in others blatantly, sometimes with pseudonyms, other times with their real names. They are not solely from Mexico, or Spain, or Chile, where Bolaño had lived; they are all from that larger republic of letters, Spanish. (When asked about his nationality he told the Mexican newspaper La Reforma that he was from “Strangerland, whose natives are foreigners.”) I thought if I had spotted one or two writers halfway hidden behind a pseudonym, there were probably more. A name is just a name, but I don’t know if the book wouldn’t be as “extremely fun” as it could be – and as the Argentine writer Cesar Aira described it – without wondering about the real person behind each character. As revealed in an article published last year in the Spanish newspaper Vanguardia, Bolaño was a gamer, and as such clearly wants us to play. The mystery is laid out in the very first line of the novel, “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.“ But who are the visceral realists?
They begin as teenagers in Mexico in the 1960s, an unprecedented period of turbulence, optimism, violence, vivacity for all of Latin America. In the rash optimism of their youth, they rebel against everything and everyone. They joke about murdering future Noble Laureate Octavio Paz, member of the New Left. They stumble into the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968 (retold in Bolaño´s novella Amulet; something like the Tianamen Square of Latin America); the very same year, socialist Salvador Allende is elected president. In 1970 Argentine former dictator Aramburu is kidnapped and killed by the leftist guerrillas the Montoneros. Three years later, Pinchoet strikes Chile with a military coup. Through Lima and Belano, they peripherally witness the fall of Franco. Finally, they follow the last Latin American leftist movement of the twentieth century to Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas have just claimed victory. Then the Sandanistas sink and the last hope for the Left is gone. From there some go to the Feria de Libros in Madrid, the world of boring book signings and banal book discussions. By the end of the twentieth century, the balls-to-the-wall bravado of avant-garde literature has gone the way of Barnes and Noble. By then our hero Ulises Lima, along with his nonconforming optimism, has also vanished; Belano, like an inverse Che in the Congo with a touch of Rimbaud, wanders through warring Monrovia hoping to die.
In Latin America, literature has always been a part of politics. Colombus’s records are the new world’s first book in Spanish, followed by other conquistadors and later their mendicant colleagues. Before Ronald Regan, Simon Bolivar was considered the great communicator. In fact, name any Latin American leader in the 19th century and chances are they have written a book of grammar or poetry. Likewise, many famous writers become politicians (i.e, Vargas Llosa’s presidential campaign in Peru; Ernesto Cardenal’s position in the Sandanistas). If not, being exiled because of your writing remains a possibility, as it was during the military dictatorships (the –ettis, Uruguayans Benedetti and Onetti suffice as examples). Thus, to write a book about Latin American writers – from the obscure to the famous – is to write a political work. The Savage Detectives is as much a story of a two artists as young men, as it is the trajectory of the Left in the second half of the twentieth century, which Bolaño eulogized in a brilliant speech when he won the Romulo Gallegos.
Traditionally Spanish publishers (most publishers that publish in Spanish are owned by Spaniards) stuff their books with introductions and notes. You have to skip the fifty pages of critical essays to read the twelve pages of poems. Although I don’t think this novel needs all of that, an answer key, a cheat sheet, what in Argentina they call a machete, might do.
Let’s start with the easy ones. Bolaño is Belano, although sometimes, Juan Garcia Madero. Ulises Lima is Bolaño’s real life friend the late Mario Santiago Papsquiaro. In Nicaragua, we encounter Pancracio Montesol, an older Guatemalan writer (referred to as don Pancracio), who, despite being often compared to Borges, is called the “legitimate son of Alfonso Reyes.” This is none other than Augosto Monterroso, modern fabulist, writer of the shortest short story in the Spanish language, who, in his playful, concise modern allegories, does resemble Borges, as the narrator, Hugo Montero alleges. Then there’s Reinaldo Arenas. If you’ve seen the movie starring Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls, you know the Cuban writer described in The Savage Detectives as “not afraid of police, or poverty, or of not being published.” Later Felipe Muller describes the Cuban as struggling to write his last book before he dies of AIDS, just as Arenas did. In Madrid, Pedro Ordoñez’s ultra-conservative complaints and aspirations to enter the Real Academia have brought many to conclude he is the nonagenarian Catalan poet Pere Gimferrer, who not incidentally was Bolaño’s friend. I think it’s worth mentioning that Bolaño was very sociable during his short period of fame; he seems to have met nearly everyone with a novel published in Spanish; like Belano, everyone has a Bolaño story.
In the end, the visceral realists are or were real people, a group called of poets the infra-realists, hardly known until The Savage Detectives rocked the world. Since then, Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s poems have been anthologized and released by a major publisher last year. Thanks to Bolaño’s immortalization of his friend as Ulises Lima, his name lives on.
The last mystery, and the hardest to solve, is that of the mother of visceral realism Cesárea Tinajero. Some characters in the book think that Lima and Belano made her up, but at the end of the novel Octavio Paz remembers something Tinarejo published in 1924.
Literary detectives think Tinarejo is Salvador Novo, Mexican poet, playwright, a sort Modernist Mexican version of Oscar Wilde. Novo was respected greatly by the visceral realists as much as the real life infra-realists, and he began publishing just when Paz says. Also, like Tinarejo, Novo led a grandiose life of letters, much grander than his books bécame after his death. There’s only one catch: Cesárea is a woman. There are hardly any famous female poets from that generation in Mexico, at least none that I can find. So Bolaño wins. The Case of Tinarejo has not been solved.
I’m left like Amadeo Salvatierra raising my glass to “all those strange or unfamiliar names, remembered or forgotten even by their own grandchildren.” Is that it? Are they now just names? After rereading the novel a few times, I’m left wondering if who’s who is the really the stuff of literary history. If so, Ulises Lima’s poetic quest is an empty one, as is the reader’s. Or is this a parody of the secret language of literati? Or is it about the suffering, the innocence, the loss and loneliness that accompany artistic ventures? I can’t answer that; however, in an epoch that allegedly traded in sincerity for visibility, The Savage Detectives seems particularly apt at presenting us with difficult questions. I hope this machete can make those questions as real as it was to those who were living them.
Here in no particular order is a machete to cut The Savage Detectives to size:
Mario Santiago Papsquiaro, born José Alfredo Zendejas
Unnamed Cuban poet
Bonus Link (Spanish): The lesser known infra-realists are identified by José Vicente Anaya and Heriberto Yépez in their article “A Guide to The Savage Detectives” along with other suspects.
Goodreads is a vibrant and feisty place – if you can even call an online community a place. Its slogan boasts, “it’s what your friends are reading!” and perhaps that’s true: the site’s more dedicated members are so busy posting the books they’ve read, and want to read, or are currently reading, that you might assume they no longer have time to actually read. But the opposite is true for me – since joining the site, and becoming obsessed with it, I’ve been reading quite voraciously. Chalk it up to a pure-hearted love of sharing my thoughts about literature; or to some illusory sense of accountability (“Everyone’s breathlessly awaiting my opinion of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao!”); or to my desire to read a novel as soon as it’s lauded by a friend (“Wow, Katie gave 5 stars to The Dud Avocado, I must see what’s so great about it!”). Or maybe it’s just a primitive lust to build up my roster of books read, to assert myself as the most bookish.Goodreads allows you to organize your books in self-created bookshelves (mine include “Theory” and “Tried but Failed to Read”), and to see if you and a friend have similar reading tastes (apparently, my taste is 100% similar to the aforementioned Katie’s, which is just creepy). Most importantly, the site lets you rate books on a star system, one star signifying “I didn’t like it,” and five signifying, “It was amazing.” The fact that there isn’t an “I hated this piece of crap” option suggests that Goodreads is generally promoting a positive reaction to books. You can, however, say whatever you want in your reviews, and your friends can respond as they wish in the comments section. On my page, for instance, there’s a 33-comment thread that covers Jonathan Lethem (the original subject of my review), Haruki Murakami, Miranda July, Michael Chabon, hipsters, blonde women, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford (that is, who’s hotter), Rushmore, irony, Colson Whitehead, and more. Another friend’s two-star rating (denoting “It was okay”) of On The Road caused another friend to comment, “You also gave two stars to The Stranger, you tool. For that I should bypass this comment box and toss a flaming bag of shit at your house.” This, unsurprisingly, led to a heated ping-ponging of comments. My, my, reading is more fun than I thought.I’d say more, but I must get back to that Junot Diaz novel – which is definitely already 4 stars-good, if not 5.