Richard Vine has a day job, a very good one. He’s managing editor of Art in America magazine, where he has written hundreds of articles about Chinese ink art, the Chicago Imagists, photographers from Mali, Korean sculptures installed in the gardens at Versailles, and the way art subsidies work in Singapore. Now Vine has a new entry on his globe-spanning resume: noir novelist.
Vine’s debut novel, SoHo Sins, has just been published by the Hard Case Crime series, and it’s a terrific addition to the pulp tradition, which Charles Ardai, a co-founder of Hard Case, summed up this way: “There’s a body on page one. The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture.”
SoHo Sins checks all the boxes. The moody cover art is by Robert Maguire, a prolific illustrator who produced more than 600 pulp covers beginning in the mid-20th century. It shows a man in a fedora and trench coat in a darkened alley, looming over a seated blonde in a red dress, a fallen woman in obvious distress. There’s a dead body in the opening sentence: “I slept rather badly the first few nights after Amanda’s murder.” And the story that unspools from there, as narrated by the suavely decadent SoHo art dealer and real estate speculator Jackson Wyeth, is a wonderful blend of high art and low-down deeds, a whodunit with room for de Kooning paintings and child pornography, art biennials and back-room deals, millionaires and mistresses and murder. The novel spins around a question: did the mentally unstable art collector and tech millionaire Philip Oliver murder his socialite wife in their SoHo loft, as he claims, even though he was apparently in Los Angeles when the killer pulled the trigger?
The novel is set during the late 1980s or early1990s, when big money like Philip Oliver’s had begun to infect and distort the New York art scene. The money has gotten even more obscene in the ensuing quarter-century, partly because dealers like Jackson Wyeth have never been inclined to ask indelicate questions. “You can’t deal successfully in art if you dwell on where the money comes from and how it gets made,” the glib Wyeth says at one point. “I concern myself with my clients’ tastes and credit ratings, not their ethics.” The novel’s money-drunk art scene is described on the cover, in suitably breathless prose, as “a world of adultery and madness, of beautiful girls growing up too fast and men making fortunes and losing their minds. But even the worst the art world can imagine will seem tame when the final shattering secret is revealed…”
The worst the art world can imagine — those words are the key. Simply put, SoHo Sins succeeds because it was written by a man with a day job, a job that gives him intimate knowledge of how a subculture works – its personalities and preoccupations, its business practices, its styles, its silliness and occasional beauty and, above all, the ugly money that pumps through its rotten heart. You have to be inside such a world to plausibly imagine the worst it can imagine.
In America today it’s maddeningly difficult to make a living writing books, and it’s just about impossible to make a living writing fiction. That’s largely because the pool of writers is constantly growing while the pool of serious readers, especially readers of fiction, is constantly shrinking — never a good business model. As a result, all but a few writers of fiction have some sort of day job, which most of them view as a time-sucking, soul-crushing impediment to the making of their art.
But as Richard Vine has shown, a day job can be a counter-intuitive blessing to the writer of fiction. Since most people spend nearly half of their waking hours at work, the workplace would seem like natural and fertile ground for setting a novel. We already have more than enough novels, written in flawless, bloodless MFA prose, about a bunch of Oberlin grads struggling to find themselves in brownstone Brooklyn. As Jason Arthur pointed out on this site recently, we need more novels that draw on worlds where people do actual work — like the art dealers and pornographers and tycoons and cops in SoHo Sins, or the metal scrappers in Matt Bell’s Scrapper, the eco-saboteurs in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, the wheat-threshers in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the drug dealers in Richard Price’s Clockers, the admen in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, John le Carré’s spies, Elmore Leonard’s hard-working petty criminals, and the lonely department store clerks in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. These can be worlds the author knows first-hand, or they can be vividly imagined worlds of the past, such as the 17th-century Dutch commodity speculators in Davis Liss’s The Coffee Trader, or the Irish immigrant sandhogs who dug the New York City subway tunnels in Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness.
The point is that a day job — as a commodities trader, say, or a construction worker or an art dealer — can be a way for a writer to admit readers to plausible, fully realized worlds that would otherwise be off-limits. Richard Vine grasps this. In a recent interview in Brooklyn Rail, Vine discussed how his day job informed his novel:
SoHo Sins, you might say, is a lament not for the art world that was, or is, but the art world that is rapidly emerging. By now, its corruption by unregulated wealth is almost complete; this book simply imaginatively extends present trends…My projection goes into the immediate past rather than the immediate future, but that reversal of vectors is just an amusing bit of game-play to help highlight the present.
An argument could be made that the art world today, ultimately dependent as it is on the buying decisions of a few super-rich individuals, is fatally tainted throughout. (Artnet.com reports a new financial scam almost every week.) Do some further digging, and the facts soon reveal that no one can become that rich, or maintain that level of inherited wealth, without being a moral criminal. Such disproportionate lucre is accumulated either through activities that are literally illegal or through the utterly unconscionable exploitation of employees, stockholders, taxpayers, and customers — an economic crime and a moral one.
A world that’s “fatally tainted throughout” — and populated with operators like Philip Oliver, who uses his tech company to both finance his art acquisitions and distribute child pornography around the world. Could there be a richer backdrop for a noir novel? And could there be a better person to write it than someone who has a day job on the inside, deep in the tainted shadows, where the dirty money does its work?
A dozen years ago Colum McCann told an interviewer that novelists who write about real historical figures are, in his opinion, guilty of a failure of imagination. A week ago McCann told an interviewer that what interests him, increasingly, is the “real that’s imagined and the imagined that’s real.”
In the dozen years since the first of those two interviews, McCann has published four novels that testify to this evolution of his novelistic enterprise. The novels all used real historical figures, to varying degrees and with widely varying degrees of success. First came Dancer, in 2003, built around the ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev — his youth in Russia, his defection to the West, and his flowering in the hot house of 1970s New York City. It was followed three years later by Zoli, set largely in Slovakia, the fictionalized telling of the life of a renowned Gypsy writer of poems and songs. Then came McCann’s break-out novel, Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. And now he is out with TransAtlantic, a novel built around three very different voyages across the ocean, from the New World to Ireland, that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In this new novel, as in everything he has written, McCann brings deep historical research to his story. This is very different from saying he writes “historical novels,” a term he claims to detest. On the other hand, he has also admitted to the truism that all novels are, in some sense, historical.
McCann’s use of historical figures in his fiction has produced what I have come to think of as an inverse barometer of his work’s quality: the more heavily he relies on historical figures, as distinct from history, the weaker his writing is; the more sparingly he uses historical figures, the stronger the writing is. And when he places imagined characters in historical settings, his writing shades toward the sublime.
For these reasons, I think his 1998 novel, This Side of Brightness, stands as his strongest book. It tells the story of the immigrants, the sandhogs, who dug the train and subway tunnels beneath the streets of New York City, then it telescopes to tell the story of a homeless man living in those tunnels years later, trying to live down a lifetime of dark regrets. These fictional characters come to vivid, bruising life precisely because of McCann’s meticulous research, which serves as the springboard for his fertile imagination and wickedly beautiful prose style.
Dancer, on other hand, is a work of portraiture that feels handcuffed by its historical backdrop, rich and grim and florid as it sometimes is. We meet Andy Warhol, Margot Fonteyn, President and Jackie Kennedy, among others. But the story never takes flight, despite some plush writing, such as this sketch of a popular gay cruising spot in Central Park in the 1970s:
oh the Rambles! all the scraddlelegged boys strung out in silhouette! all the tramping of weeds! all the faces shoved into brambles! all the bandanas in back pockets! all the drugs fermenting in all the bodies! all the horsewhips and cockrings and lubricants and chewable delights! all the winding paths! the soil indented with the patterns of knees! the moon out behind a dozen different trees! Johnnie Ramon with his shadow long on the grass and oh so tautly bowed! yes! Victor and the Rambles know each other well, and not just for nature walks, once or twice he has even accompanied Rudi there, because Rudi sometimes likes the tough boys, the raucous ones, the hot tamales who come down from the Bronx and Harlem.
Even such firecracker prose cannot ignite the novel. Zoli is just as closely based on historical figures, and it feels just as tightly handcuffed and inert. Perhaps sensing that he needed to change direction without changing horses, McCann opened Let the Great World Spin with Phillippe Petit’s breathtaking hire-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (at about the time Rudi Nureyev was cruising the Rambles for rough trade). After that bravura opening, McCann pulls back to examine the lives of a handful of fictional New Yorkers who witnessed Petit’s historic walk, and the result is some of his best writing since This Side of Brightness, writing that brings all layers of the city to life, high and low and middling, then peoples it with a diverse gallery of characters and takes us not just into their minds but into their marrow. It’s a blissful marriage of the imagined and the real.
Coming in the wake of that performance, TransAtlantic feels like a relapse to many of the flaws that bedeviled Zoli and, to a lesser extent, Dancer. The first half of the new novel — what I have come to think of as the male half — unspools the story of three trans-Atlantic journeys that end in Ireland: the first non-stop airplane flight, in 1919, by two English veterans of the Great War, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown; the former slave Frederick Douglass’s trip by boat in 1845 to lecture and write and raise money for the cause of abolition; and the years of repeated crossings by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell that resulted in the Good Friday Accords in 1998, bringing an end to the Troubles that had tortured Northern Ireland for more than a generation.
These historical figures do not come to life on the page. They are little more than ideas and the roles they must play to advance McCann’s novelistic scheme. We never enter their marrow because they are little more than dots awaiting connection. Fortunately, McCann returns to form in the second half of the novel — the female half — telling the stories of several generations of women, some of whom were introduced as minor characters in the first half. Now we’re inside a Civil War hospital, we’re learning how ice was harvested in the 19th century and what the streets of St. Louis looked and sounded like. Our guides through these worlds are the remarkable women who descended from Lily Duggan, a maid in the house where Douglass stayed during his Irish sojourn, a woman who made her own trans-Atlantic crossing to America in 1846 to escape the coming famine.
McCann employs a style here that seems like a willful repudiation of his ability to write gorgeous prose. I can only guess that he was striving for an incantatory tone. To my ear, the effect is merely jarring, as in this description of George Mitchell musing in his Belfast office:
He cracks the window further. A sea-wind. All those ships out there. All those generations that left. Seven hundred years of history. We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation. Everything constantly shifted by the present. That taut elastic of time. Even violence breaks. Even that.Sometimes violently. You don’t know what this means, Senator.
Fortunately, there are also flashes of the kind of writing that made This Side of Brightness and Let the Great World Spin so unforgettable. Here’s the scene aboard a ship setting sail from America in 1929: “A bell rang and a cheer went up. The boat was far enough to water. An opera of anti-Prohibition toasts unfolded. The air itself seemed to have already drunk several glasses of gin.” Here’s how Emily, a journalist, confronts the terror of sitting down to write: “Stories began, for her, as a lump in the throat. She sometimes found it hard to speak. A true understanding lay just beneath the surface. She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a sheet of paper.” And here’s Emily interviewing Teddy Brown at his home for a 10th-anniversary article about his historic flight aboard the Vickers Vimy: “This was his performance now, she sensed, he brought a breezy irony to his fame. She laughed, drew back a little from him. His days now were an ovation to the past. She knew he had probably talked the Vickers Vimy out of himself, hundreds of interviews over the years. She would have to turn away from the obvious, bank her way back into it.”
I could have used much more fine writing like this. Here’s hoping that next time out Colum McCann sticks with the history he does so well, writes the kind of prose only he can write, and steers clear of his Alcocks and Browns, his Douglasses and Mitchells. Real historical figures are a crutch this wildly gifted writer doesn’t need. His imagined characters are so much more vivid, alive and real.
To blurb or not to blurb?
This seemingly innocent question was put to me for the first time a couple of weeks ago when a paperback review copy of a non-fiction book arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming. The author, Earl Swift, is a former newspaper colleague and an old friend, and he had written earlier to say he was hoping I would give his new book a blurb. At the time I didn’t even consider saying no because, as a blurb virgin, I thought I was simply being asked to do a friend a small favor. I had no idea I was agreeing to walk across an artistic, personal and ethical minefield.
When I opened the envelope, my heart sank. The book’s title had that distinctive rotten-egg aroma of something that came out of the hind end of a focus group. It’s called The Big Roads. Worse, the subtitle is one of those 15-car pile-ups that sound like somebody in the focus group was trying way too hard: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. All the subtitle lacked was three exclamation points.
What had I gotten myself into? Earl Swift, as I say, is an old friend, but I also know that he’s a dogged reporter and a deft writer. (Full disclosure: when we first met I owned a pink-and-black 1954 Buick and he was driving a creamy white 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible. Never underestimate the power of classic Detroit pig iron to make two men bond.) So of course I wanted Earl’s book to succeed. Besides, he had shrewdly softened me up in advance by telling me how my first novel had changed his life: “I remember reading (it) and thinking: I’m a newspaper writer. This guy’s a writer who happened to work for a newspaper. I’m not overstating the case to say that reading that book helped prod me to get serious about my own work. It was a wake-up. True story.”
Now Earl was counting on me. What should I do if the book was as bad as its generic title and breathless subtitle? Was I obliged to lie in my blurb like most other blurb writers presumably do? Or did ethics require me to back out and, in doing so, break an old friend’s heart?
I’ll admit that I’m swayed by blurbs from time to time even though I’ve always thought of them as suspect, vaguely sleazy. I suppose I’m suspicious partly because I was a big fan of Spy magazine in its heyday, and my favorite feature was “Logrolling in Our Time,” a hilarious and devastating monthly roster of writers who shamelessly plugged each other’s books. It was my first hint that book publishing might not be the gentleman’s game it then pretended to be. That it might, in fact, be a sweaty little orgy of incest.
In due time, I got a glimpse of how blurbing actually worked. When my second novel was nearing publication, someone in my agent’s office persuaded the best-selling author Nelson DeMille to read a galley of the book, which is set in Southeast Asia in 1963 and climaxes with the American-backed assassination of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, less than three weeks before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. DeMille, to everyone’s amazement, sent back the following blurb: “This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel that captures time and place, an illumination of a pivotal point in history. Bill Morris is an exceptionally gifted and savvy writer. The comparison to Graham Greene is fully merited.”
When I got my jaw off the floor, my first thought was, This is bullshit! Nobody in his right mind would compare me to a god like Graham Greene! But then I let it sink in for a while and I thought, Hmm…I’ve got no quarrel with “wonderfully atmospheric” or “exceptionally gifted and savvy.” And even if the Graham Greene bit is bullshit, it’s the kind of bullshit I can learn to live with. So I kept my mouth shut and let the publisher put DeMille’s quote on the front flap of the dust jacket. Did this blurb sell any books? Sadly, we’ll never know.
To find out if blurbs help sell books, I decided to conduct a highly unscientific survey. I asked several well read friends the following questions: Do you ever buy books on the basis of blurbs? If so, do you have to know something about the blurb writer, or will any intriguing blurb do the trick?
Marianne Schaefer, a woman who makes documentary films and devours science fiction and fantasy novels by the metric ton, said, “Yes, blurbs from respected publications frequently convince me to buy a book. If I know the blurb writer and really like his or her writing – Neal Stephenson, say, or China Mieville – I’ll do further research about the book because it’s possible the blurb writer is a friend of the author.” Now comes the juicy part. “I have also not bought a book because it was blurbed by a writer whose recommendations I distrust. Ursula K. Le Guin is a perfect example. If she liked a book, I know it’s politically correct, female-empowering, pretentious crap.”
Sara Nelson is probably as close to an authority as anyone on the question of whether or not blurbs sell books. She was once editor in chief of that industry bible, Publishers Weekly, and she’s now books director of O, the Oprah magazine. For good measure, she’s also an omnivorous reader and the author of a book about reading, So Many Books, So Little Time, which got its share of blurbs from brand-name authors. “A feast,” wrote Pat Conroy. “A joy,” wrote Susan Isaacs. “A smart, witty, utterly original memoir about how every book becomes a part of us,” wrote Augusten Burroughs. Most writers would kill their own mothers for such blurbs.
Nelson told me, via e-mail, “I always look at blurbs when I’m in a bookstore, and I’m always intrigued by them, but…I’m more interested in figuring out how/why this particular author got that particular author to blurb him (‘Oh right, they have the same agent!’) than in thinking like a consumer. Obviously this is not typical. When I was at Publishers Weekly, I often spoke to consumers about their buying habits, and usually asked if blurbs influenced their book-buying decisions. Most of the time their answer was ‘yes’ – so I guess that’s why we keep going after blurbs. But of course there’s no way of knowing” if they work.
Many writers who have hit the best-seller lists or won major awards have a strict policy of not writing blurbs. Some even talk about being in a “blurb-free zone,” which sounds like a bad Rod Serling spinoff. Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award in 2009 for his novel Let the Great World Spin, admits that he has been tempted to step into the blurb-free zone. The reason is simple.
“In the past week I got exactly eight books in the post to blurb. Eight!” he wrote in an e-mail. “I also got six separate e-mail requests from publishers and friends. Then I got two requests from former students. That’s a total of sixteen requests in just one week. The mailman hates me!”
That works out to 832 blurb requests per year.
“I feel so damn guilty not being able to blurb all the books, but it is just plain impossible,” McCann went on. “I’ve been trying to institute a policy of no blurbs, but I understand their necessity. They’re not even designed for readers since I think most people see through the bullshit factor. They are designed more for bookshops and just helping to get the books on the shelf… But again I understand the necessity. The blurbs for Let the Great World Spin (by Richard Price, Dave Eggers, Frank McCourt, Amy Bloom, John Boyne) were very, very important to its initial bookshop push. They helped the book succeed.”
Frank McCourt, by the way, never entered the blurb-free zone. Prior to his death in 2009 he was a tireless blurber, a true champion of other writers, proof that some authors write blurbs even if they’re not trying to curry favor with other writers as possible sources of future blurbs. The prolific McCourt did, however, tend to get a bit repetitious, which seems to be an occupational hazard for serial blurbers. He wrote that Peace Like a River by Leif Enger has passages “so wondrous and wise you’ll want to claw yourself with pleasure.” He also wrote, “Open to any page of Helen Gurley Brown’s I’m Wild Again, and you’ll claw yourself with pleasure.” And of Colum McCann’s 1998 novel This Side of Brightness, McCourt wrote, “In language that makes you claw yourself with pleasure, he powerfully evokes the stink of the present and the poignancy of the past.” We can only hope that McCourt was diligent about trimming his fingernails.
As for McCann’s theory that blurbs help to get books on store shelves, Toby Cox, owner of Three Lives & Company in New York’s Greenwich Village, has his doubts. “When I buy books I do it by looking through publishers’ catalogs, and they have blurbs,” Cox told me. “A blurb generally doesn’t sway me that I should bring a particular book into the store, but it does give me a feel for how a publisher is trying to position a book.” As for his customers, “If the blurb is by a favorite writer of theirs, it may have an influence. For my market it’s mostly reviews and word of mouth that sell a book. I think you can probably trace most blurbs back to a connection – the author and blurb writer are friends, or they have the same editor or the same agent – so I tend to take them with a grain of salt.”
One man who decidedly did not take blurbs with a grain of salt was the writer who coined the word, a turn of the last century humorist named Gelett Burgess (1866-1951). The cover of his 1906 book Are You a Bromide? shows a woman identified as MISS BELINDA BLURB IN THE ACT OF BLURBING. She’s shouting the book’s praises in no uncertain terms:
YES, this is a “BLURB”! All Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We? Say! Ain’t this book a 90 H.P., six-cylinder Seller? … WE consider that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked into the coal bin, telephoning for “Information.” WE expect to sell 350 copies of this great, grand book. It has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck. No hero, no heroine, nothing like that for OURS, but when you’ve READ this masterpiece, you’ll know what a BOOK is, and you’ll sic it onto your mother-in-law, your dentist and the pale youth who dips hot air into Little Marjorie until 4 A.M. in the front parlour. This book has 42-carat THRILLS in it. It fairly BURBLES. Ask the man at the counter what HE thinks of it! He’s seen Janice Meredith faded to a mauve magenta. He’s seen BLURBS before, and he’s dead wise. He’ll say:
This Book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!!
Aware that I had a lot of tough acts to follow, I dug into The Big Roads. The title still bugged me, not only because it was bland but because I had a much better one: Six Sidewalks to the Moon. From the research I’d done while writing the novel that prodded Earl Swift to get serious about his own work, I happened to know that President Dwight Eisenhower, the putative father of our interstate highway system, had once gushed that this engineering marvel would require enough concrete to build “six sidewalks to the moon.”
But my misgivings began to evaporate when I reached page 5, where Swift notes that the interstates used enough concrete to “fill sixty-four Louisiana Superdomes to the rafters.” No flies on Earl! Soon my dread was replaced by relief, then pure delight. Earl Swift is still a deft writer, but the dogged reporter has turned into a prodigious researcher, a real-live historian, someone’s who’s willing to paw through acres of archives, troll the internet, conduct interviews, and read every available book, government report, biography and article on his subject. Along the way he gives us delightful thumbnail histories of motels, McDonald’s golden arches and that mother of all tourist traps, South of the Border. And he can be drolly funny. One man “seized on the task like a pit bull on a flank steak.” And Ike “wasn’t much of a detail man” but he did adhere to a “rigorous golf and vacation schedule.” Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is to dispel the prevailing myth that the interstate highways popped fully formed out of Dwight Eisenhower’s shiny, empty skull. They did not. Nothing did.
As good as it is, the book isn’t perfect. It could have used a bit more…artiness. Earl does quote a beautifully surreal passage about road-weary motorists that James Agee wrote for Fortune magazine in 1934, but he missed the chance to illustrate his point that the flame-throwing, technicolor cars of the 1950s had outgrown the roads they traveled on and, as a result, the country seemed to need the interstates. Here’s Richard Yates on the subject, from his immortal novel Revolutionary Road, which was written at the precise moment when Ike was talking about all those sidewalks to the moon: “Their automobiles didn’t look right either – unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that led from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel – KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT – but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road…”
I was off the hook but I still had to write the blurb. Thinking of Pat Conroy and Susan Isaacs, I wanted to open with something pithy. A joy ride, I thought. Not bad. Now follow it up with something that has gush and go to it. An epic tale of… No, that’s as flat as the title. After many false starts and wrong turns, I came up with this: Earl Swift has written the best kind of popular history – one that paints vivid portraits, debunks myths and brings to life the fascinating and appalling stories behind the creation of that massive mixed blessing known as America’s interstate highways.
It may not have been a work of art but at least it wasn’t bullshit. I re-read it a dozen times, then typed it into an e-mail addressed to the book’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. My finger hovered over the keyboard for a long time. I’m no Colum McCann, but once my blurb got published I had visions of the mailman dropping off stacks of review copies in front of my door. Did I really want to dive down that rabbit hole? I took a deep breath. Then another. And then I hit Send.
Yes reader, I blurbed him.
Image: Pexels/Jade Stephens.