Archive | August, 2013

National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

28 Aug

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Augie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

A light, breezy thin novel. At 600 pages.

A light, breezy thin novel. At 600 pages.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Augie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Augie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Augie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.

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National Book Award Winners, part 7: 1955’s A Fable, by William Faulkner.

27 Aug

(in ten beautiful bullet points)

1. William Faulkner won his second national book award for A Fable. He published it in 1954. I didn’t finish it. I will never finish it. I will never, if I can help it, read another sentence of it.

2. Life. Is. Too. Short.

3. Reading Faulkner’s novels is an unpleasant experience. I don’t like it. I have an appetite for experimental, dense fiction, but Faulkner’s appeal escapes me. His novels are obtuse, dense, strangely worded. Their meaning is elided through heady slips of time and pronoun switcheroos[1]. If writing is, in essence, a form of communication, then Faulkner is often a terrible writer.

4. A Fable is a lazy, miserable title for any novel, and doesn’t fit this book at all. Compare it to Faulkner’s other titles: As I Lay Dying; The Sound and the Fury; A Light in August; Go Down, Moses. Even if you like Faulkner, that’s all you need to know right there.

5. A Fable takes place during World War I. The story involves a battalion of French troops who mutiny and refuse to fight. The German soldiers soon follow suit. The war stops because the soldiers won’t fight anymore. The commanders on each side get together to kick-start the violence once again. It’s a parable with tons of symbolism thrown in. I learned this from the back cover. Reading 50 pages offered up little in the way of understanding. I think instead I’ll go and re-watch Paths of Glory again.

Bad title + hazy writing = unpleasant reading experience.

Bad title + hazy writing = unpleasant reading experience.

6. This same year, William Golding published Lord of the Flies; J.R.R. Tolkein released The Fellowship of the Ring; Kingsley Amis published Lucky Jim; and Iris Murdoch published Under the Net. The British had invaded once again. Left us yanks miles behind.

7. And what the hell was happening to American fiction anyway? 1954 was a dreadful year. (So was 1953.) Steinbeck published one of his weaker novels, and James Michener and Richard Matheson each put out books. The other novels of the year are all forgettable or forgotten.

8. Dr. Seuss published Horton Hears a Who. Seuss had arguably the best American book of the year. Strangely, it wasn’t nominated.

9. Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner’s friend and occasional rival, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Seems relevant. Not sure what to make of it.

10. James Jones, Saul Bellow and William Faulkner in a row has me rethinking my reading plan. Will soldier on.


[1] I love when Josef Conrad does it; The Secret Agent is one of my favorite novels.

National Book Award winners, part 6: 1952’s From Here To Eternity, by James Jones.

17 Aug

(In which I read all the previous National Book Award winners, so you don’t have to.)

James Jones might be the strangest winner of the prestigious National Book Award. He’s one cut above a hack. He was a popular success, with two very fine movie adaptations out of Hollywood, but (mostly) a critical failure. His characters are for the most part one-note and nasty. He’s sour, unsophisticated and blunt. He’s sexist and racist. Worse, he can’t write. His sentences are murky. His thoughts are hazy. He seems bewildered by basic grammar.

Full disclosure: I couldn’t get through it. I didn’t even get close. Worse, I’ve tried to read it before.

But let me say unequivocally: Eternity is a bad book. It doesn’t belong on the top 100 novels of any century, much less the 20th. It’s a confounding, bizarre anomaly in the history of American letters.

There’s a long tradition in popular fiction for big, broad novels with a large cast of characters. Sometimes these are great; The Naked and the Dead is probably Norman Mailer’s best novel. Often these big novels are boilerplate, forgettable, tolerable only if the reader relaxes his/her standards and gives in to the story. Big, epic novels tend to stay pretty close to a familiar formula: linear, cinematic and chronological, with flashbacks to seminal events in the lives of the characters. Eternity follows the formula. The writing is in the third person. Jones seems less central to the story, more of a guide.

A nifty cover that makes the book look great; it isn't.

A nifty cover that makes the book look great; it isn’t.

And he has an axe to grind. Eternity isn’t about heroes, sacrifice, or valor. It’s about selfishness, boredom, and cruelty with plenty of raunchy sex thrown in for good measure. Jones’s tastelessness and his anger shine through. The hypocrisy of American society rankles Jones on page after page. Here’s an example, where a soldier looks at a photograph of a pinup girl while sitting in his tiny room:

All right, he thought, okay; if that’s the way it is; a savagery of anger in him now at the pictures. They call them “pin-up girls” and think it’s cute how “our boys,” now that they’re drafted, love to hang them in their wall lockers. And then close up all the whorehouses, every place they can, so our young men will not be contaminated.

Here are the men of war at peace. And they are miserable. Jealousy, resentment, and petulance percolate in the chain of command. The main character is a hard-ass named Prew, a stubborn, virile loner. He can bugle, he can pick guitar, he can box, and he can screw. He’s a thinner, less substantial version of that badass, lonesome male hero we seen in so many American novels (and films). Think McMurphy spliced with John McClane, as principled as John Grady Cole and as implacable as Harry Callahan. Like so many of these tough guys, Prew creates most of his own problems. For 850 pages.

A rare instance where the film is better than the book.

A rare instance where the film is better than the book.

I like big books. I like unadorned writing. I like epic stories. I have a place in my heart for the Leon Urises of the world. But I can’t abide bad writing. It’s toxic. It’s exhausting. I despised The Da Vinci Code. I thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an unreadable mess (although, in all fairness, I finished it). I’m an inveterate snob with peculiar tastes[1]. I would put Jones beneath many of our popular writers now, such as Stephen King or Dan Simmons.

Jones is a sloppy writer, unforgivably so. Here’s an example:

Up until then it had only been himself. Up to then it had been a private wrestle between him and himself. Nobody else much entered into it. After the people came into it he was, of course, a different man. Everything changed and he was no longer the virgin, with the virgin’s right to insist on platonic love.

 

The writing goes on and on like this. Sentences that don’t go anywhere, clunkers in every paragraph, misplaced adverbs, weak descriptions, a distinct lack of any type of strong editing. In a word, it’s a mess. Jones isn’t studied, referenced, or admired. He’s fading into obscurity. So many other writers have tackled the same things with so much more verve, compassion and skill.

Finally, to put Eternity into perspective, it beat out Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; Bernard Malamud’s The Natural; Steinbeck’s East of Eden; Vonnegut’s Player Piano; and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. The official nominees included Truman Capote, Thomas Mann, J.D. Salinger (for Catcher in the Rye), and William Styron. He doesn’t deserve to be in the same company as any of them. His brief ascent with Eternity—how he was proclaimed a genius and heralded as some new voice in American fiction—remains one of life’s little mysteries.


[1] If you’ve been following this blog at all, you have an idea what’s those are.

National Book Award winners, part 5: 1960’s The Waters of Kronos, by Conrad Richter.

16 Aug

Almost all writers are eventually lost to time. In some cases they are rediscovered, to great import. (Read The Swerve to see how important a single book can be.) In some cases, they slither along, held in print by cabals of devoted fans. (Read Lovecraft, Portis, Himes.) In some cases, a writer slips from the canon as a travesty of American letters. (Read any of John Williams’s books, especially Stoner, to see what I mean.) And in some cases, a writer was over-esteemed to begin with and needs to go gently into the good night.

So we come to Conrad Richter. Richter’s The Waters of Kronos won the 1960 National Book Award. He beat out Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away, (ridiculous) Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (absurd), and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (a travesty). That same year John Barth published The Sot-Weed Factor,  Walter Miller released A Canticle For Liebowitz, and Graham Greene, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, and Philip K. Dick, to name a few, all toiled over their best works.

Richter isn’t studied. He isn’t read (except his young adult novel, The Light in the Forest, which is a middle school staple). I don’t know anyone who even knows who he is. The gates have shut on his work. In fifty more years he’ll be nothing more than a footnote. It’s a tough thing to say about a writer’s entire body of work, but in Richter’s case, this isn’t a bad thing.

He isn’t a bad writer. He has technical skill, a nice, evocative way of describing turn of the century small-town American life. He writes direct, at times elegant sentences. He has ideas. He grapples with moral issues. But he lacks the fire, the madness, the strangeness, and the richness of great works of art. He’s intriguing, serious, and square. He’s a small novelist who somehow made it to the top of the field. There’s probably an interesting story in how he did this, I just don’t know it.

Richter was raised by Lutherans in Pennsylvania. His father was a Lutheran minister. His grandfather was a Lutheran minister. So were his uncles. A dour, moodiness saturates this novel. Darkness, storm clouds, barren earth, aging people, an inevitable pall of death; Martin Luther would have been proud. Everything is cast in a pre-destined shroud. It doesn’t make for thrilling reading.

Dour, self-serious Lapsed Lutheran revisits his memories. Nothing is accomplished.

Dour, self-serious Lapsed Lutheran revisits his memories. Nothing is accomplished.

The story is simple, almost a fable. An old man returns to his hometown to find it buried under tons of water. A dam has been built, the graves have been moved, and the old man wanders a cemetery looking for the family plot. He reads the engraved etchings of his ancestors, coming to this mirthless conclusion: “Their wives, who outlived them, had no epitaphs.

In so doing, the old man moves backwards in time. He meets his parents when they were young, his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, his younger self. He asks questions, is stymied, confronts old mysteries and anger from the past. Everything he sees will be destroyed, all the people are already dead, the buildings and roads at the bottom of a man-made lake.

That’s the novel, entire. With a few dozen adverbs and twice as many similes, and a switch in setting to the Midwest somewhere, it could be a Ray Bradbury short story. There’s little villainy, plot, or even mischief. The old man wanders here and there, no one helps him, no listens to him, his family spurns him, the end.

Kronos is personal. You can feel Richter’s actual family shimmering beneath these fictional characters. He’s confronting the limits of his own love for his family. And, I’m guessing, investigating his own lack of belief in his forefather’s religion. Here’s a great little passage, where the old man explores his ambiguity towards his father:

Standing there outside his father’s store after all these years, he could feel it tonight, gripping him without rhyme or reason, holding him back, a grown man, even today. Sometimes he wondered if, whatever it was, it hadn’t been the origin of his interest in books and nature, not born of commendable thirst for knowledge, but from a shying away from his father’s world of enthusiastic socialibility with people, which had given him as a boy only difficulty and suffering so that he found relief in freedom and solitude in fields, the forest and the printed page, like an unreasoning moth released from the hand and soaring in air it had never taken cognizance of before.

He’s another passage, where the old man witnesses his grandfather’s funeral:

It was more pagan than he realized, John Donner told himself, closer to the Greeks. As a youth he had thought it criminal to torment the bereaved with mournful words and dirges. The feeble efforts to disguise evil with the words, “Asleep” and “At Rest,” carved serenely over pits of corruption had angered him. Now that he was older he wondered if he might not have been too thin-skinned and refined. If you had friends and neighbors to climb the hill and raise well-meant words over you at last, why should you prefer paid strangers consigning you to earth or fire?

Nifty, tidy writing, with erudition and heart, but little else. Time to move on. Goodnight, Conrad. Other writers await.

National Book Award Winners, part 4: 1951’s The Collected Stories of William Faulkner.

15 Aug

1.

Faulkner is . . . difficult to write about. He’s dense. He’s mercurial. He comes to us with decades of jargon-filled baggage, diluted and refracted through an army of professors putting their spin on the already difficult to comprehend southern gentleman from Mississippi. It’s hard to pin down his beliefs. It’s hard to see the man behind the words. His style is baroque. The quality of his work is all over the place. He’s known for his absurdly challenging novels set amongst the denizens of Yoknapatawpha County. His output was immense. He wrote ghost stories, satires, little colloquial sketches, grim adventures, and even a sort of precursor to the rural noir that has been popping up for the last couple of years.

He drank. A lot. He wrote some screenplays in Hollywood[1]. He fell off the literary map—and thanks to the French intellectuals of the 1940s, including Sartre and Camus—he was rediscovered in his lifetime.

Faulkner, smoking that goddamn pipe, at his typewriter.

Faulkner, smoking that goddamn pipe, at his typewriter.

He’s been lionized. He’s been feted. He’s been the subject of thousands of doctoral theses. He won the National Book Award twice, the Pulitzer Prize twice, and in 1949, was awarded the Nobel Prize. If there’s an American writer more secure in his place in literary history, I can’t think of one.

So I admit with some difficulty (and a little shame) that I’m not crazy about him. I find him labyrinthine, confusing, bewildering, at times just plain cheesy and dated. The Sound and the Fury has some incredible writing, but the structure and the loopy narrators make it difficult to understand. Ditto for many of his other most famous novels. I’m not a huge fan.

But his short stories, taken as a whole, are superb, and worthy of the critical accolades and attention.

But first, a brief interlude.

2.

There are three major divides in American fiction. The urban/rural thing. The maximalist/minimalist thing. And the North/South/West thing. Faulkner hits all three.

He’s an unabashedly rural writer. His characters live in hamlets, small villages, tenant farms and the places between things, woods, mountains. He’s also a major shaper of the country’s view of the South. From Faulkner we get the agrarian South of grand dames, crumbling families, armed moonshiners, casual racism, even more casual violence, and a vicious ignorance that often results in murder. He skirts the line between grotesques—think “A Rose for Emily”—and vivid, complex characters, such as Nancy in the fantastic “That Evening Sun.”

He’s one of the first major experimental writers who found a large audience. Faulkner is a Deep South Joyce. He is perhaps the best example of modernism in America—that hurricane that wrecked the arts, beginning some time in the early 1900s—I can think of. The old forms were exhausted, so the modernists blew them up. Painting became abstracted. Music became atonal. Fiction became fractured.

Modernism in music fell out of favor a long time ago. It stuck around in fiction for a while. Post-modernism added a spirit of playfulness to the mix, but experimental fiction—at least in America—has been relegated to small presses and tiny releases[2], with a few notable exceptions. We have little appetite for it.

Faulkner represents an extreme example[3] of the maximalist strand of American fiction: big, stream of consciousness,  byzantine, complex, often overly descriptive with swirling sentences and daunting diction. Faulkner gives us Pynchon, DeLillo, Doctorow, Gass, Gaddis, Wallace[4]. He gives us daring and verve, but also obfuscation and frustration.

We come to Faulkner on the losing side, in a sense, of all three major schisms in American fiction. It’s hard to see him on his own terms. His novels are  hulking, immense mansions, with many rooms, held together with long swooping sentences.

3.

Back to the stories. Faulkner knew how to bring readers along, especially in his short fiction. “Barn Burning” is correctly studied as one of the greatest short stories ever written. I read it routinely, and find new things in it with each revisit. “Lo!” is a very funny story about American Indians visiting the president in DC, and running around as his guests, just without pants. “Two Soldiers” is just great. With just a few duds, his short stories are strong, swift, often brutal, packed with great cinematic scenes. He dazzles. He beguiles. “That Evening Sun” is one of the great short stories that most people don’t know.

One of the great single volumes of American short fiction. (John Cheever is the other.)

One of the great single volumes of American short fiction. (John Cheever’s collected stories is the other.)

I’d quote from him, but the Faulkner Estate is extremely litigious over copyright. By all accounts they sue at the drop of a hat, send cease and desist letters and so on, which is short-sighted, irritating, and just plain wrong. I run a tiny shop here with an even smaller audience, so I’ll run just a single line, for academic/review purposes, the second line in “That Evening Sun” (Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner, p. 76):

 

The streets are paved now, and the telephone and electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees—the water oaks, the maples and locusts and elms—to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry which makes the rounds on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially-made motor cars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees apparition-like behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like tearing silk,  and even the Negro women who still take in white people’s washing after the old custom, fetch and deliver it in automobiles.

They don’t write them like that anymore.

 


[1] John Mahoney plays a Faulkner-esque character in Barton Fink. A great performance.

[2] The National Book Award committee grappled with this issue themselves, in 1973, when they awarded two winners, the experimental John Barth, and the classical John Williams. I love them both.

[3] Hemingway represents an extreme example of the other: spare, understated, elegant. I would argue that Dos Passos bequeathed to us a third way, a bit of both, against the epic sweep of history, with a historian’s knowledge and a poet’s precision.

[4] As well as the inimitable Barry Hannah, among a host of others.

National Book Award Winners, part 3: 1950’s The Man with the Golden Arm.

13 Aug

(In which I read all the previous national book award winners, so that you don’t have to.)

The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award in 1950. It is the story of America’s losers: drunks, junkies, prostitutes, railbirds, convicts, hustlers, hobos and the aged and infirm. The characters live in unheated studio apartments. They eat the cheapest food they can find. They eke by in a society indifferent to their suffering. They drink, shoot heroin, rip each other off. They get fat and soft, they contract diseases, they give in to every temptation because they have nothing else. It’s a hell of a novel, complex, challenging, demanding, formidable, haunting, despondent and beautiful. It made Nelson Algren famous.

The poetic epic of America's underclass.

The poetic epic of America’s underclass.

The main character is Frankie Machine, a down on his luck ex-enlisted man with a heroin habit, a wife who might or might not be paralyzed by an injury he caused, and a job dealing cards that pays just enough to keep him alive. Machine’s best friend is a penny ante conman named Sparrow, who steals dogs when he can’t work and drinks away his money as fast as can. Machine and Sparrow connive, cheat and steal. Frankie isn’t just an anti-hero. He’s pathetic, weak, bored, disaffected and at times just nasty. He’s degraded, insulted, arrested, and he just takes it all with a grim, taciturn stoicism. Sparrow is worse, so incompetent he can’t hold onto a job, steal without getting caught. But Sparrow has words, and a sense of self-irony. You root for them both, even as you know they are doomed.

It feels like a Depression-era novel. The characters are on the fringe, they have no prospects, they have no social mobility, they are trapped. It’s The Grapes of Wrath, minus the journey, the beauty of nature, the dream of a socialist utopia. You can smell the characters on the page, you can see their degradation and discomfort[1].

Algren was a hard-living dude who lived as a hobo and hustler himself during the thirties. He tramped around the southern United States for a while, supposedly living on free bananas and rotgut coffee in New Orleans for months. He saw immense poverty and suffering, and came out of the experience a life-long communist. He’s one of these writers[2] whose legend seems to have outgrown the work, which in this case is a travesty. Golden Arm isn’t some tough guy ledgermain, or faddish novel; it’s a faithful, poetic rendering of America’s underclass. In lesser hands this would be a social ills novel, with speeches, even a foreword explaining how things could be so much better. Which would ruin the novel’s power. Algren offers no solutions. There’s nothing proscriptive at all. Algren doesn’t preach. He bears witness. He also writes vivid, beautiful prose, and carries an immense amount of love for his characters. They have dreams and schemes, and Algren records their struggles with pristine insight and affection.

 

Algren at his typewriter.

Algren at his typewriter, smoking like a son of a bitch.

Golden Arm has a peculiar cadence, running in and out of different characters thoughts and impressions, held together in a jazzy street-slang patois. In some ways it’s the proto-Beat Generation novel—if the crime novel Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on had been edited by Upton Sinclair—but Algren isn’t interested in autobiography, eastern religions or post-adolescent authenticity. He isn’t turning his own life into a story. He’s opening his heart, and the hearts of others, to the stories of the world. There’s a plot, but it’s secondary. The impressions, the writing, the characters—these are what you’ll remember.

The novel has some problems. It’s repetitious, and some of the little asides could have been cut. The dialogue at times feels dated. The urban naturalism, for lack of a better term, isn’t in vogue. Frankie and Sparrow’s inability to accomplish anything is frustrating, even exhausting.

But Algren is also unexpectedly funny. The best scene in the book follows a precinct captain who has to take each man’s statement as he is locked up for the night. This is his life, every night, recording statements from a motley crew combed from the city’s dregs, and the effort to stay decent is ruining him. The scene follows some two-dozen men as they try to trick the captain into letting them go, while the other men snicker and goad and watch on. It’s a stunning set-piece, hilarious and heartbreaking, some fifteen pages of it. Here’s a taste, from page 190:

So the men came on again: the ragged, crouching, slouching, buoyant, blinking, belligerent, nameless, useless supermen from nowhere. . . .

A shock-haired razorback with a bright Bull Durham string hanging over his shirt pocket’s edge: “Just throwed a rock at a wall ’n it happened to go through a window instead. So I followed through. But I didn’t have no intent of stealing.”

“You never have. But you’re in and out like a fiddler’s elbow all the same. What was the stretch in the Brushy Mountain pen for?”

“I got the wrong number was all.”

“I bet you did. The wrong house number.”

“That’s right. The people were home. I was drinking pretty heavy.”

“What do you do when you’re drinking light?”

“Minding my own business.”

“You haven’t got any business. For a quarter you’d steal the straw out of your mother’s kennel.”

And, so on. A few paragraphs later:

The captain’s eyes went down the line. The masks were managing to change, slowly and ever so slyly, to look less like plastic men and more like some plastic zoo: animals stuffed for some State Street Toyland the week before Christmas. Here was the toothless tiger and here the timid lion, here the bull that loved flowers and there some lovelorn moose.

The toothless tiger stood in a faded yellow hat from some long-faded summer, his stripes blurred by the city jungle’s dust and sprayed blood dried on the hat’s stiff brim: but still trying to look like a tiger.

Fantastic writing, eh?

Saul Bass's great ending credits to the lackluster Otto Preminger film adaptation.

Saul Bass’s great ending credits to the lackluster Otto Preminger film adaptation.


[1] There’s a character named Pig, for example, who is blind. Out of spite for the world, he refuses to perform any hygienic tasks, using his physical repugnance as a protective shield.

[2] Hemingway, Plath, Bukowski, and Burroughs, among others, belong to this group.

National Book Award Winners, part 2: 1979’s The Green Ripper.

11 Aug

(In which I read all of the previous National Book Award Winners, so you don’t have to.)

Fans of genre fiction often gripe about the lack of awards given to their people. You hear this with science fiction—although as a genre sci fi novels have for decades flirted with respectability, usually in the form of the dystopian novel—fantasy, romance, horror and crime fiction. Most genre writers, until recently, flew below any literary radar[1].

The National Book Award organization shook things up in 1980. They decided to award the top honor to a mystery novel. (At the time, this included procedurals, detective stories, and crime fiction.) They picked John MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, the eighteenth novel in a series of novels about Travis McGee, a salvage consultant who repeatedly finds himself in violent and extreme situations. When I saw the cover I thought it was some type of joke. It isn’t. The book is a very fine crime novel with a punishing moral center.

The cover is misleading; this is a potboiler with a melancholy center.

The cover is misleading; this is a potboiler with a melancholy center.

The Green Ripper starts with loss and ends in carnage. McGee isn’t a detective or a cop. He’s an ex-military badass looking for happiness but continually finding dissolution and death. The novel begins with the death of McGee’s girlfriend. He mourns. He drinks. He suffers. Then he investigates. His travels lead him to a Weathermen-type terrorist organization. He infiltrates. He tries to ascertain who gives the orders. Then all hell breaks loose.

The novel is simple, logical, but untidy. Mistakes happen. Some decent people die. Most of the destruction is pointless. Little is resolved. A deep melancholy permeates its pages.

MacDonald belongs to a small group of professional writers with prodigious outputs and a (fairly) consistent level of quality. (Joseph Wambaugh, Stephen King, Anne Rice, George Simenon, Arthur Conan Doyle, and John Updike, I suppose.) He has a staggering 80 plus books to his name.

MacDonald is a fine writer of action, an underrated virtue. Action is hard to do; poetic descriptions of nature are much easier. He’s also insightful, incisive and spare, with aphorisms galore. Here’s a sample passage:

“We are all at the mercy of the scriptwriters, directors and actors who work in cinema and television. Man is a herd creature, social and imitative. We learn the outward manifestations of inner stress, patterning reaction to what we have learned. And because the visible ways we react are so often borrowed, we wonder about the truth of what is happening underneath. Do I really feel pain, grief, shock, loss?”

MacDonald earned tons of accolades from writers all over the map. He kept churning out novels of every stripe. He was one of those restless souls, banging out stories on his typewriter, never satisfied, never content, driven by unseen demons to keep writing, writing, writing. I don’t know if I’ll read another of his novels, but this one was pretty damn good.

2.

The Green Ripper is solid, professionally written and intriguing. It isn’t a great novel, however, and not a great mystery novel either.

I can think of a dozen or so mystery/crime novels that deserve top awards. The Long Goodbye is a great American novel. So are James Ellroy’s American Tabloid and James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. David Goodis’s Shoot the Piano Player is superb. Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon are both amazing. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is perfect. Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us is fantastic. Ross MacDonald is good, Dwight MacDonald is good, George Higgins is good (The Friends of Eddie Coyle is incredible!), Patricia Highsmith is good. Fat City, A Rage in Harlem, The Killer Inside Me, I could go on and on. And Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, sort of a crime novel, is one of the great novels of my life so far.

None of these won national book awards. None of them won much of anything. The writers, almost to a person, made their living submitting to b-grade magazines and publishers. Ellroy was a drug addict, Chandler was a lush, Crumley was a drug addict, and so on. They were a tormented bunch. They had what many of the literary establishment don’t have, which is real-world, and world-weary, credibility.

The trend for the last fifteen years or so has been literary writers trying to sneak into the hard-boiled club (or other genre fiction). They try and (almost) always fail[2]. Even a writer as talented, fascinating and strange as Denis Johnson was foiled by the genre; Nobody Move is flimsy, warmed over treacle, way beneath his talents. It seems easy, but it isn’t. Noir isn’t just guns and dames and heists and double-crosses. It’s atmosphere and attitude, neither of which can be faked.

3.

The National Book Award people picked a strange year to highlight mysteries, because 1979 was as strong as year as any for fiction. Cormac McCarthy released his magnificent Suttree[3]. Angela Carter put out the odd and creepy The Bloody Chamber. William Kennedy published the critically heralded (if disjointed and dated) Ironweed, Anais Nin released Little Birds; Charles Portis published one of my all-time favorite novels, The Dog of the South; and Tom Wolfe released The Right Stuff (which probably would have won the award if it hadn’t been a mystery year).


[1] Which isn’t a bad thing. Part of the appeal of genre fiction is its ability to be nasty, trashy, transgressive, unpredictable, and fun.

[2] No Country for Old Men is unapologetically a crime novel and very, very good.

[3] Strangely, a descendant of The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Award Winner. No one points this out.