Archive | September, 2013

National Book Award winners, part 12: 1958’s The Wapshot Chronicle, by John Cheever.

30 Sep

(recuperating from pneumonia in fits and starts; balancing working on my new manuscript with writing about award winners from the past; finding that old anhedonia creeping into the daily grind)


In 1958, John Cheever won the National Book Award for The Wapshot Chronicle. He deserved to win, it’s a superb novel, and a foundational text on which his reputation rests.

The story follows three generations of the family Wapshot: an old salty sailor Leander; his prodigal son, Moses; his other son, Coverly; and his eccentric, elderly aunt, Honore. It’s a sprawling, lively, lusty tale, written in beautiful, poetic prose. The novel swoops in and out of the four characters lives. Moses has wild peregrinations, living penniless in New York and pursuing insane love affairs. Coverly grapples with his homosexuality, his ambiguous feelings towards his father, while attempting to marry a decent woman. Honore struggles with the swift social changes all around her. And Leander spends much of the novel trying to maintain his dignity through aging, increasing irrelevance.

One of the 20th century's great novels.

One of the 20th century’s great novels.

It might not sound like much, but the way Cheever writes it, this novel contains multitudes, a vastness, a rich zestiness, an epic scope and feel. These four characters traverse an immense emotional terrain, and by the novel’s end you feel elated, giddy, excited to be alive.

And the writing, good God, it’s spectacular. Cheever spent eight years working on Chronicle, and it shows. The sentences are perfect. Here’s a section following Honore as she wanders around town:


She eats two frankfurters and a dish of ice cream. “That was delicious,” she tells the counter girl, and gathering her things she starts down the street again toward the bus stop where she notices the sign above the Neptune movie theater: ROSE OF THE WEST. What harm can there be, she thinks, in an old lady going to a movie, but when she buys her ticket and steps into the dark, bad-smelling theater she suffers all the abrasive sensations of someone forces into moral uncleanliness. She does not have the courage of her vices. It is wrong, she knows, to go into a dark place when the world outside shines with light. It is wrong and she is a miserable sinner. She buys a box of popcorn and takes an aisle seat in the last row—a non-committal position that seems to lighten her burden of guilt. She munches her popcorn and watches the movie suspiciously.

And here, Leander writes his memoirs of his early days:


Found self, although not yet of legal age, powerfully attracted to opposite sex. Picked up hooker on riverbank. Big hat. Dirty linen. Girlish airs, but not young. What matter. Writer on fool’s errand. Red hair. Green eyes. Talked. “What a pretty sky,” says she. “My how nice the river smells,” says she. Very ladylike. River smells of mudbanks. Bad breath of the sea. Low tide. French kissed. Groin to groin. Put hand in front of dress. Little  boys in bushes giggled. Tomfools. Walked in dusk, hip to hip. “I have a little room on Belmont Street,” she says. No thanks. Took her to railroad embankment. Cinders. Cornflowers. Stars. Big weeds like tropical vegetation. Samoa. S——d her there. Grand and glorious feeling. Forget for an hour all small things. Venalities. Money worries. Ambitions. Felt refreshed, generous towards sainted old mother. Hooker named Beatrice. Met often afterwards.

If I could only read one novel for the rest of my life, I would probably pick Wapshot. It’s that good.


Cheever was famous for his short stories by 1957, and he is a superior craftsman of the short form. He wrote hundreds of them. He won all the top awards, sold boatloads of books and was heralded by critics and peers. He’s been called an American Chekhov.

But I think Cheever is worthy of all these accolades and more. I would list him as one of the great stylists of the 20th century, with a few important caveats.

Here we go:

One, he’s odd. There’s a rattle in his fiction, opposing forces fighting for control, and the battle seems to be taking place within Cheever’s mind. It’s as if his dark self and light self picked fiction to battle for control. The effect can be unsettling. As if Cheever himself were as unhinged as some of his characters.

Two, he’s inconsistent, in a way that I love, but academics often hate. He breaks every rule of writing, his style is difficult to identify and he tosses bizarre stuff into his stories at random times. This makes him fun to read, but hard to critique. And without academic reappraisals, it’s tough as hell for a writer to remain in the American consciousness.

Three, his fans are split; some think he’s a short story writer who dallied with the novel with varying degrees of success, while others feel like he’s a novelist who happened to write killer short stories. (I’m in the second camp.)

Four, his body of work (mostly) deals rich people drinking too much and having affairs. Almost two thousand pages of the stuff, and taken as a whole, it can seem like an enormous WASP pity party. Look at us rich, white people! We can be so mean-spirited and sad!

Five, expanding on his oddness, there’s a tension in his work, basic decency dueling with cruel avaricious lust, and the lust often wins. His humanism and decency often feel outweighed by meanness and despair. It’s what makes reading him fascinating, but also in the aggregate unbearably sad.



But, really, what can I say about Cheever that hasn’t already been said? Three years ago I read everything he’s written, save for that last little fable thing[1] that I can’t bring myself to try. He’s a magician with his sentences, tucking in bizarre little things in the middle of his paragraphs. He was a major American artist who slipped into near-anonymity and has now returned. I love him. I rate him higher than Bellow, equal to Roth[2], and probably just a bit below Malamud[3].

Philip Roth called Cheever “an enchanted realist.” This is the best description of his allure I can find. Cheever’s stories are realistic[4], often detailing upper crust new England families. But there are ghosts of despair, loneliness, melancholy and even murder rattling around between the lines. Cheever balances a big-hearted empathy and genuine affection for his characters with a vicious, and often deranged joy at their unraveling.

Cheever—especially after the publication of his journals and then later Blake Bailey’s award-winning biography—is less a novelist and more a brand. He’s read psychoanalytically; readers know of his late-in-life homosexual dalliances, as well as his infamous alcoholism, and read his novels looking for clues. His novels and stories are chock a block full of homosexual encounters amongst “straight” men and epic consumption of liquor. But it’s a classic fallacy in dealing with artists, interpreting the art through the life of the artist. And his work transcends the borders of his life and carries within it an otherworldly vitality. Reading it as his unclaimed autobiography is a miserable way to experience his talent, humanity, weirdness, and skill. But that seems to be how many readers now approach him. ’Tis a pity.

Yes, there probably is whiskey in that coffee, but who cares?

Yes, there probably is whiskey in that coffee, but who cares?



Anyway, to the books.

My favorite novel of his is Bullet Park. It’s lean, taut, eerie, complex, erotic and thrilling to read. I would recommend it as a good entry point into Cheever. It’s split into two sections. The first seems like a realistic novel detailing the lives of middle class suburbanites, intriguing and well-written, but middlebrow and safe. The second half follows a neighbor as he wanders through an increasingly nightmarish world of drugs, gay encounters, and weird religious mania, deciding that he has to murder his neighbor’s son. It’s fabulous.

The Wapshot Scandal is a good novel, a continuation of the Wapshot family troubles, but a much simpler and less rewarding read than Chronicle. It’s funnier, more overtly ribald, easier to read and more streamlined—it has none of the Leander reminiscences that make Chronicle so rich and dense—and Cheever does some fascinating things with the characters. But it’s a parenthetical work, a must-read for fans, but not essential reading.

Falconer is a prison novel, about an upper class dude adapting to his new surroundings and taking a gay lover behind bars. It’s a very fine novel—many writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, cite it as their favorite and it’s on a handful of best of the century lists—but not his finest[5]. (I would recommend Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, or Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, if you want a killer prison novel.) He feels a touch out of his element here.

And the collected short stories—which won the National Book Award in the 1980s and I’ll return to it on another post—is essential to any library. It’s spectacular.


Although Cheever deserves the top award, 1957 was a good year for American fiction. Bernard Malamud’s superb, heart-breaking The Assistant was released. So was Andre Lyttle’s The Velvet Horn (I’ve never read it but it has a sterling reputation). James Agee published A Death in the Family. Jack Keroauc released his manic, zeitgeist-defining On the Road. Vladimir Nabokov published his Pnin, one of his thinner, lesser works[6].

In the bad fiction category, Ayn Rand did her best to ruin the world with Atlas Shrugged (boo, hiss, please go away forever).

Over in jolly old England, the postwar flood of British novelists continued. John Wyndham, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick White (okay he’s Australian), Murial Spark (Scottish?), Nevil Shute, Daphne Du Maurier and Lawrence Durrell all published novels. Something fabulous was going on over there, in the first decade after the end of the war.

I’d like to stay with Cheever for longer, but it’s time to move on.

[1] Oh What a Paradise It Seems. I don’t even like typing the title. Of course, it’s probably good. Malamud’s God’s Grace sounds lame on paper, but is astonishing.

[2] Sacrilege to most, I know.

[3] After Cheever, I went through a Malamud binge, and fell in love all over again.

[4] Sort of.

[5] There’s something cutesy, for lack of a better word, about it. And it’s predictable.

[6] I’ve yet to make it all the way through it, but I’m not crazy about Pale Fire, either.

National Book Award winners, part 11: 1957’s The Field of Vision, by Wright Morris.

23 Sep

(A bout of pneumonia—who gets pneumonia anymore?—has knocked me into bed. I’m typing this instead of convalescing. Have spent the weekend reading, sleeping, reading, taking short walks, willing myself to recuperate. Did a little novel-writing last night, but mostly stayed away from the computer.)



Wright Morris won the 1957 National Book Award for his slim, novel of stories The Field of Vision. He would win again in 1981 with Plains Song. Morris is one of these American authors who published widely, won critical praise, sold well, and then disappeared. ’Tis a pity, for on first read he deserves a re-appraisal.

Field of Vision takes place during a bullfight in Mexico. An odd, extended family is in attendance. The novel alternates between the thoughts, perceptions, and memories of a handful of characters.

First, what it isn’t. Vision is not a novel of Mexico. It is not a novel about bull-fighting, not in the way of The Brave Bulls say. It isn’t really about ugly American tourists, although there’s a touch of that.

No, it’s a novel about Nebraska plains people, their stories, their hardships, their coping mechanisms, their courting rituals, and their suffering.

I didn’t like it at first. I couldn’t follow who was whom. The writing was odd, not bad but not quite strong enough. The characters aren’t delineated in a clear way. The descriptions weren’t particularly vivid.

But something happens midway through and the novel turns smoking hot, diabolical and weird, as each character becomes more and more possessed by their memories, and the images of bull-fighting slaughter before them fade away.

Despite a slow start, a surprisingly fine little novel.

Despite a slow start, a surprisingly fine little novel.

The main character is a clueless rube named McKee. He lives in the past, sees things superficially, doesn’t understand his wife or his children, and has a crazed devotion to a childhood friend named Boyd who doesn’t care for him at all. The bullfight for McKee reminds him of his one moment of violence towards animals, where as a child he kills a hog to please his uncle. The writing of the post-killing slaughter is evocative, stirring stuff:


They strung him to this tree, dipped him in the bathtub, shaved him down till he was pink and white all over, then cut off his head and propped it in a bucket with the snout sticking up. Over a fire they built in the yard they cooked down the soft parts, the pork shoulders, and stored the pieces in the fat that drained off into heavy lard pails. The light from the fire lit up the yard, the house with the windows boarded, and the swarm of hungry little Gudgers, every one of them shiny with fat. McKee had eaten no pork, his face was clean, but the smell of the fat was thick in his head, like the drone of flies made when they rose up, like hornets, from the pail of blood. He felt that he too was being cooked down, like parts of the hog. He was taking the cure when the wind blew the wood smoke over him. At his back, when he turned to look, the rimless plain lay under the moon, and the grass the color of a dead sea. The house was an ark, adrift upon it, and here and there, in the hollow of a wave, lights would sparkle as if a handful of stars had dropped. In front of him was the fire, the swarm of Gudgers, and strung up as if lynched was the body of the hog. But not all of him. There was some in the fat, and his head was in pail.


Crackerjack writing. And the second half of the book is filled with this sort of poetry, darkened by the failures of adulthood.

McKee’s wife has her own chapters, dealing with her first kiss, when as children McKee’s unruly friend Boyd had stolen one, right in front of everyone. McKee thinks she hates Boyd, but she does not. Boyd has unmoored something inside her, and she can hardly control herself around him. She holds her husband in disdain, his small-mindedness, his childish wonder at the world.

Boyd’s chapters deal with his first successes as a playwright, and then his intentional failures.

There’s more, but I’m not here to ruin plot twists. The entire story takes place during the bullfight, an early formal experiment in the unity of time.

This little book is a haunting thing, quite an eerie little novel, an amalgamation of The Sheltering Sky, Appointment in Samarra, and My Antonia. It’s poetic, visceral, pleasurable to read, yet also challenging and ambiguous. This Morris can write. Must check out his other work.



1956 was a strange year for American literature. The bulk of the new novels came from the pulp tradition. Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Albert Bester, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, and Philip K. Dick all published novels and/or story collections.

In the (almost) mainstream world, James Baldwin released his very fine, evocative Parisian novel, Giovanni’s Room. Saul Bellow put out Seize the Day. Pearl Buck—one of our few Nobel Prize winners, which is just nuts—published Imperial Woman. Irwin Shaw (talk about forgotten; he’s a non-presence now, but was a blockbuster writer in his day) released Lucy Crown.

The rest of the year’s output was dominated by British authors. C.S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis, Mary Renault, Mervyn Peake, P.G Wodehouse, William Golding, Agatha Christie, and others all published novels[1].

Around the world, Naguib Mahfouz published his celebrated Cairo Trilogy; Albert Camus released The Fall; Joao Guimaraes Rosa put out The Devil To Pay in the Backlands; and Romain Gary, Pier Pasolini, Georgette Heyer all released major novels.

Excepting Baldwin, Morris probably deserved to win. Field of Vision is a very fine novel.



Eight years into the award’s history and no female writers have won. One African American author (and who could have denied Ralph Ellison’s ambition, scope and power?) won the top award. It would be seventeen years before a female writer would win the top prize. I’m making my way towards her.


[1] The post-war British novelists are an immense crowd of varied writers. Something to explore later.

interlude 3: Tentative first lines of my new manuscript.

20 Sep

Well, this little National Book Award reading plan I’ve set for myself has been a mixed blessing. I have an obsessive mind, and I struggle to control it. I’ve been digging into America’s literary history, with all these little side essays, as well as reading, reading, reading. Hard to find clarity on my own stuff.

I’ve taken a break to read Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader and it is amazing. Will review when I finish it.

Anyway, my own writing has been trudging along. I haven’t yet sent the novellas out yet (You can read the first lines here), but I’ve started a new manuscript. It doesn’t have a title. I won’t tell you what it’s about. But I will share the tentative first two lines.

“Twelve strangers sit at a long dinner table; they don’t know why they are there.”

I’m close to 10,000 words. I’ve been writing in an orange moleskin notebook—it was a gift—and on little scraps of paper at work. I carry these home in my pockets and then type away. The new manuscript will necessarily slow down my blogging about the National Book Award winners, but I’m hoping to maintain one entry (almost) every week.

Interlude 2: More snarky, sci fi stuff from my dad.

20 Sep

(You can see generational shifts any number of ways. My dad prefers the earlier science fiction writers, authors who were curious about what the world would be like in the future. I prefer the Gnostic weirdoes, the sixties and seventies writers who were more interested in the breakdown of reality itself, not so much in what things may come. He loves military science fiction, while I prefer more existentialist fare. One of my favorite novels is Solaris; he prefers Strangers in a Strange Land. Anyway, he’s been sending me emails a la our little exchange, and I thought as a second interlude I would share. This entire entry is in his words. I’ve resisted commenting. As to his tone, he’s [mostly] joking. I think. )

I note that you didn’t even try to defend you revisionist SF trash over my more carefully researched list. Probably because you have not read much less even heard the names of most of them. More likely you are simply stupefied over your ignorance. I also note that you didn’t attempt to address the uniqueness of each submission. Shame, shame.

As to your list, I shall shout ‘”Tripe!” whenever tripe is served.

By the by—Dick is over-rated and there are infinitively more than four major strands of science fiction: dystopian, utopian, first contact, and for lack of a better term, technological.   I tend to view them more prosaically than you but to name a few:

1. Mythology/fantasy such as most pointedly stated by Tolkein in his Lord of the Rings series, the more prosaic Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Game of Thrones series Or T.H White’s The Once and Future King.

2. Magic fantasy such as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.

3. Science fantasy such as The Princess of Mars or The Lost World.

4. Time-based science fiction, such as Timeline or Fortchen’s The Lost Regiment Series. Or even Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. “If historical events were changed” stories such as Guns of the South which supposes the South wins or Social science fiction such as 1984 (this is what Heinlein excelled in—predicting major societal changes in Farnham’s Freehold,  Stranger in a Strange Land, and his short story future history series).

5. Science science fiction such as Crichton’s Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park.

6. Military science fiction—David Drake (Belisarius Series or Cross the Stars) are good examples.

7. Blends—such as the Childe Cycle—which are both societal based but also mystical/science.

8. Pure adventure—Andre Norton’s works are the best examples—where scifi is simply her vehicle to explore adventure/relationship.

9. Re-drafted real events put to the tune of Sci fi.  Examples are Drake’s Northworld series Simmons Hyperion Series.

10. End of the world sci fi. There are many substrata of this species. Examples should include Drake’s General series or S.M Sterling or Stephen King’s The Stand as well as The Road.  One also has to include William’s Fortchen’s book One Second After.

11. Horror sci fi—Frankenstein is the obvious example although there are others, such as World War Z and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

Interlude: my dad’s counter-best-of science fiction list. (It’s not as good.)

18 Sep

My dad loves science fiction, and I challenged him to come up with a better list than mine. This is his response. (He began his list with, “Oh, you poor, illiterate, misguided person . . .”) My comments to follow.

1.      1984—George Orwell

2.      Dune—Frank Herbert

3.      The Mote in God’s eye—Pournelle and Niven

4.      Lucifer’s Hammer—Pournelle and Niven

5.      If this goes on—Robert Heinlien

6.      Stranger in a strange land—Robert Heinlein

7.      Ender’s game—the short story, not the novel—Orson Scott Card

8.      The Foundation Trilogy—Issac Asimov

9.      The Moon is a Harsh Mistress—Robert Heinlein

10.   A princess of Mars—Edgar Rice Birroughs

11.   A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—Mark Twain

12.   The Childe Cycle (Dorsai series)—Gordon Dickson

13.   Slan—A.E. Van Vogt

14.   Guns of the South—Harry Turtledove

15.   Flowers for Algernon—Daniel Keyes

16.   All You Zombies—Robert Heinlein

17.   Star Guard—Andre Norton

18.   War of the Worlds—H.G. wells

19.   The Martian Chronicles—Ray Bradbury

20.   A Hymn Before Battle—John Ringo

21.   Prince of Mercenaries—Jerry Pournelle

22.   Alien Art—Jerry Pournelle

23.   Worm Ouroborus—Eric R. Eddison

24.   Glory Road—Robert Heinlein

As I could have predicted, he’s heavy on Robert Heinlein, his favorite author. I was surprised by so much Jerry Pournelle. I am scandalized by no Philip K. Dick. I am intrigued by no Stanislaw Lem. I should have included 1984 in my list, but I’ve always looked at it askance; there’s something un-science fiction about it, somehow.

Anyone with a different list, bring it on.

National Book Award winners, part 10: 1979’s Jem, by Frederick Pohl (and my favorite science fiction novels of all time, just for kicks).

14 Sep


In 1979, Frederick Pohl’s Jem won the national book award, alongside seven other novelists.

The organization clearly wanted to spread accolades and attention to the lesser genres. A western, a pop novel, science fiction novel, a spy novel, two literary novels (one in paperback, the other hardcover), a crime novel and a fantasy were all given prizes. (I reviewed The Green Ripper here.)

Pohl is the only science fiction writer to win the top award.

Science fiction is the wildest of genres. Every other genre of writing—mystery, romance, melodrama, fantasy, horror, western and adventure—are products of the 19th century. Science fiction is a product of the 20th.

Sci fi is less a genre than an approach. It encompasses the dystopian prophecies of Brave New World and the late Gnostic rantings of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Science fiction has its poets (Delaney, Disch) its thinkers (Wells, Dick) and its madmen (um, almost all of them). It’s unpredictable, amorphous and a docking station for brilliant, but often unhinged, minds. It has a reputation for favoring ideas over character and prediction over plot. As it originated in a throw-away pulp tradition, it has a tendency to cultivate sloppy writing.

Cover of an early science fiction magazine. Looks amazing.

Cover of an early science fiction magazine. Looks amazing. I’m pretty sure that loin-clothed dude is lobbing a grenade at the naked woman hovering in electrical bliss.

But, as a genre, sci fi has proven sinuous and adaptable. In the 60s, much of science fiction became about drug-use, alien cultures, planets predicated on the ideals of the sex, drugs and rock and roll generation. Even Robert Heinlein, one of the genre’s more conservative dudes, jumped on the bandwagon when he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. When the personal computer became widely available in the early 1980s, sci fi writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling cultivated a sub-genre, cyberpunk.


There are four major strands of science fiction: dystopian, utopian, first contact, and for lack of a better term, technological. The through-line is a foundation in some sort of science of in some instances science-y approach.

Dystopian novels deal with civilization’s end, usually through environmental or military apocalypse (Try The Road, if you are interested in this sub-genre at its most heart-wrenching, and hopeless, form. Or The Purple Cloud, a compelling, crazy forgotten novel about the last man on earth and his demented quest to destroy every single human city.)

Utopian novels often deal with humankind’s attempts to perfect and/or transcend the human condition, and almost always detail the unraveling of the perfect society. (Check out We.)

First contact novels deal with the miscommunication, and often violent repercussions, between mankind’s interaction with an alien species. (Try Starship Troopers, Fiasco, The Mote in God’s Eye, Our Friends From Frolix Eight.)

Technological novels involve the extension of an existing technology, usually at humankind’s expense. (Cyberpunk—the cascading virtual worlds and their impact on the real one—would fall under this last category in my absurdly simplified system of classification. Try Snow Crash or Neuromancer. Steampunk is the futuristic technology existing in the past. Try The Difference Engine. Alternate history is just that, history with a crucial moment going the other way. Read The Man in the High Castle.)


I was a science fiction junky through my teens. Sci fi and horror. Planet of the Apes, Star Trek II, and Star Wars were two of my favorite movies. My dad’s bookshelves were stuffed with mass market paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s[1]. I read The Puppet Masters when I was 12. I read Battlefield Earth when I was 13. At 18, I was ensconced in nerd culture, especially with my love of comics[2].

The switch came swiftly. I studied literature in college, and read Babbitt, Gravity’s Rainbow, All the Pretty Horses, Airships and Love Medicine. I couldn’t go back.

But, some authors have made the cut. I didn’t, for instance, start reading Philip K. Dick until I was 22, and he’s one of my favorite authors.

I know the genre well. So, just for the hell of it, here’s a brief list of my picks for the best science fiction novels of all time:

The Genocides by Thomas Disch—the last people of the world being exterminated like vermin by a superior race. Science as this is how the world ends.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem—three lonely scientists study a living planet that warps their perceptions and toys with their minds. Science as disorienting loneliness and existential despair.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick—a world rundown and awash with androids, the only test is how well a human can care for an animal. Only, there might not be any animals left. Science as miserable stand-in for religion.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick—reality itself is a social construct easily dismantled through widespread drug use. Science as reality-warping control construct.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester—a vicious murderer in the far future is given the technology to destroy the entirety of existence. Science as oppression and liberation.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman—faster than light travel leaves a marine fighting in a two thousand year war, which for him lasts only a few years. Every time he leaves hyperspace he finds his civilization vastly changed. Science as military bludgeon.

Eden by Stanislaw Lem—the great first contact novel about a group of stranded scientists befuddled then disgusted by an alien civilization that appears genocidal and evil. Science as a clash of civilizations.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells—the one that started it all, the lean, scary, bizarre vision of the industrial era amplified through thousands of years of evolution. Science as mouthpiece of depressing prophecy.

Dune by Frank Herbert—the cynical, epic, strange tale of court intrigue over a desert planet some ten thousand years in the future. Science as magic.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons—the Canterbury Tales in the far future, centered around a semi-mythical creature called the Shrike[3]. Science as folklore and fantasy.

Slaughterhouse Five—a man becomes unstuck in time, phasing in and out of his life from a World War II grunt to a human specimen in an alien zoo. Science as absurdist coping mechanism.


Pohl was an early science fiction writers, one of John W. Campbell’s pupils, a futurist who early on wrote novels that celebrated human achievement. This was before the atom bomb and the specter of total annihilation suffused the genre with darkness, despair and death. Two world wars and the atom bomb changed everything. Science wasn’t going to save us; it was going to destroy not only us but every living thing. Science isn’t inherently good, it’s directionless, rudderless, and only as decent as the people who wield it. Progress is a lie. Extrapolating humanity’s future from the dismal present looked more and more futile, like Orwell’s famous quote: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.”

A man floats around with hydrogen creatures. Cheesy, but not as cheesy as it sounds.

A man floats around with hydrogen creatures. Cheesy, but not as cheesy as it sounds.

Jem is an odd book. It has a number of plots shuffling around inside of it. There’s a love story, a geopolitical thriller, a first contact story, a survival story. The various plotlines get jumbled up from time to time. It feels both too long and too short, overcooked in places and undercooked in others. I didn’t love it.

Here’s the basic story:

Humanity is fractured into different blocs—the food bloc; the people bloc; and the fuel bloc. Each bloc is an amalgamation of countries, competing internally for resources, money, and influence.

A life-sustaining planet is found, and each bloc sends emissaries. The planet is strange. It has one half perpetually illuminated by a dreary red star. The other side is eternal darkness. Three potentially sentient species live there—an underground burrowing creature, a pseudo-pod plant-type creature, and balloon beings that are skin, hydrogen and song.

Each bloc forms an alliance with one of the species and soon the same problems from earth are replaying themselves out again.

Pohl is not a great writer, but he’s clear, better writer than I expected. Here he has a character thinking on the power dynamic of earth:

But really, she reflected, the basic rules were unchanged. The equation of power was utterly clear. No nation could afford to fight any other nation in the whole world anymore. Food, Fuel, and People each owned enough muscle to smash both the others flat, and all of them knew it. Worse than that. Even the tiniest nation had a minute sliver of muscle of its own, gift of the breeder reactors and the waste reclaimers. Not enough to matter in a global sense, no. But Peru could enforce its decisions if driven to. Ecuador could kill Washington or Miami, Denmark could destroy Glasgow, Indonesia could obliterate Melbourne. Fire-bombings and riots—well, what did they matter? There was a permanent simmer of border incidents and small-scale violence. Each year, a few thousand injured, a few scores of hundred dead. But the lid never blew off, because everybody knew what would happen.

Direct, with enough easy chatter to feel like someone’s thoughts, a few interesting flourishes here and there. He’s capable and fun to read. But his ideas are thin. He falters when he writes from the point of view of each of the native races. The writing becomes oblique, trying to be comic and profound at the same time. Here’s a taste:

Suppose you are standing outside of time and space somehow, like an H.G. Wells god looking down from a cloud. You poke your finger into the infinitesimal. You touch Sharn-igon’s planet, and you uncover him. You look him over.

What do you see?

One might try to describe him to you by saying that Sharn-igon was politically conservative, deeply moral, and fundamentally honest.

Ugh and double ugh. These chapters following the sensations and experiences of the alien races ruin the book. It demystifies them, without providing intrigue or thrills. And the writerly voice he assumes when describing them is smug and distasteful. A weird choice that also moves the reader away from the intrigue between the various groups that forms the bulk of the book.


1980 was a very fine year for literature.

In the realm of popular fiction, Stephen King published one of his better early novels, The Dead Zone. Peter Straub put out the very fine horror novel, Ghost Story. John Le Carre published Smiley’s People, a deeper exploration of his melancholic master-spy. Milan Kundera released The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a good novel, if a lightweight precursor to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Philip Roth put out The Ghost Writer.

Angela Carter (British, but she must be mentioned) published The Bloody Chamber. Douglass Adams (ditto) published the first volume of his hilarious, absurdist, and strangely moving science fiction opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. William Golding (um . . . ) released his odd misfire Darkness Visible. Norman Mailer published his epic non-fiction tome, The Executioner’s Song, while Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff, his epic, non-fiction account of the first Apollo spaceflight. V. S. Naipaul published A Bend in the River.

Pohl won the top award over Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card, Alan Dean Foster (not too difficult there), L. Sprague de Camp, Ursula Le Guin, Jerry Pournelle, and Jack Vance. He belongs with this group of interesting, if ultimately forgettable, science fiction writers. Old pros, all.


But as Pohl’s the only science fiction writer to win the top writing award, his recognition becomes appallingly strange, and a sham. America has produced an enormous crop of science fiction, and it’s one of our great contributions to literature[4]. In a hundred years, the 20th century will probably be known in literary circles as the science fiction era. Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Herbert, Alfred Bester, J. G. Ballard (British but so good), William Gibson, John Crowley (a Canadian, but we’ll claim him), Joe Haldeman, Bruce Sterling, and James Blish, just to name a few, all wrote superb novels, dealing with the social issues of the time.

Plus lesser writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Sheckley, John Brunner, Ray Bradbury (not counting The Martian Chronicles, which is superb, and The Illustrated Man, which is entertaining as hell), Norman Spinrad, Richard Matheson, James E. Gunn, Roger Zelanzy (sacrilege in some circles but this is where I put him), Harlen Ellison (ditto), Kim Stanley Robinson, Philip Jose Farmer, Lester Del Ray, Gene Wolfe (one of Neil Gaiman’s favorite authors) and Larry Niven. Pohl belongs somewhere in here: readable, interesting, but forgettable. Don’t be fooled by Kingsley Amis’s blurb on the front of Jem.

And the old warhorses Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Gordon Dickson (the Dorsai series is really quite good), A.E. Van Vogt, Clifford Simak (soft spot for him, can’t remember why), Lin Carter, and Fritz Lieber.

Am impressive list, if mostly male and white[5].


So Pohl won, time passed, most of his books are out of print. Delaney has cultivated an enormous cult following, Philip K. Dick has modern library editions of his work, and Alfred Bester is rediscovered, then forgotten again.

I won’t read another Frederick Pohl book, not without a sterling recommendation.

Time to move on.

[1] My mom’s were packed with Christian self-help books and Southern Baptist exegetical readings of the Bible.

[2] Most of Marvel’s superheroes are in fact science heroes. Most of DC’s are based in magic. Guess which universe I liked better.

[3] The one book on this list I haven’t read since. Don’t judge me too harshly if it’s mediocre.

[4] This assertion will drive some people nuts.

[5] An issue for a future blog post. There is a black tradition in science fiction, known as Afro-futurism, but I haven’t read enough of it to comment.

Interlude: Things my wife has compared herself to.

10 Sep

My wife loves to run herself down in a comedic fashion. (None of it’s true.) Here’s a by no means exhaustive sampling:


“I look like some fat, sad teenager.”

“I look like some deranged forest creature.”

“I look like some crazed Elvin thing.”

“I look like some toiling, fat Russian peasant woman just back from the fields.”

“I look like a re-animated corpse.”

Interlude: Pearl and creepy nursery rhymes

10 Sep


Pearl vociferously shakes her head and yells, “No! No!” when either Beth or I sing her any of the nursery rhymes that brush up against death, harm, disease, etcetera. She gets angry at “Rockabye Baby.” She wags her finger at “Ring Around the Rosies.” She slaps the page at “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring.” (The old man in the song has bludgeoned himself to death; and, I’m pretty certain, the reason he hits his head on the bed is because he’s blotto on cheap tokay.) It’s as if she can sense the historical malevolence in the songs. The first time she did it, I kept trying different songs that touch on similar material. And she always got angry at the songs that were about death, but she let me sing the silly nonsensical songs without interruption. I experimented for a while. It felt like The Shining; she interrupted every song that had some scary antecedent.


I love when my children do creepy things. I know this makes me weird. Simone used to wake up each morning and say that a strange man had been in her room. One time, she must have been only 16 months old, she hid behind a chopping block in our kitchen. I couldn’t find her anywhere and was getting anxious. She would giggle when I started to leave the room, then stop when I returned. And, she still roams the house at night. On more times than I can count, I’ve been scared by the silhouette of a wild-haired little crazy thing standing in the dark shadows.



Interlude: Three new lines from Simone.

10 Sep


Simone (chasing a seagull with a feather she found): Mr. Seagull? Do you want this feather?



(At a Rash Hashanah party last week, in front of a number of Beth’s family members)

Beth: Where does daddy go during the day?

Simone: To work.

Beth: Where does daddy work?

Simone: He goes to the gym to work out.

Beth: But where does he go during the day?

Simone: To work.

Beth: And where does he work?

Simone (pauses, then smiles): The circus!



Simone (at 7 in the morning, as I’m about to leave for work, with an enormous, cheshire grin on her face): Daddy . . . do you have Halloween treats and candies in your lunch bag?

National Book Award Winners, part 9: 1956’s Ten North Frederick, by John O’Hara.

4 Sep


In 1956, John O’Hara won the National Book Award for his multi-generational novel Ten North Frederick. He was an enormous literary figure in his day, a critical[1] darling, a best-selling popular novelist, and rich, with magazine work and Hollywood money flooding in. He was considered a major talent, insightful, honest, and artful.

A scant fifty years later, he’s universally panned, reviled, and dismissed. Few people read him, fewer still study him. He’s been relegated to the dustbin, with the possible exception of his first novel, Appointment in Samarra. All of his other books are out of print.

Samarra made him famous; he was 30 when it was published. It’s a sex-crazed crackerjack of a book, the story of a man’s dissolution in a small town. Samarra is a boozy, depraved little book. Almost every scene involves characters talking about sex, without using any of the red flag words. It’s fun to read, in a dirty book sort of way. Contemporary critics considered him an updated, more modern version of Sinclair Lewis, a writer who could delineate the often invisible social ills that cause so much misery.

And he is a vicious satirist. His primary targets are small-city American citizens. His characters are envious, malicious, spiteful, oversexed (or tragically undersexed—a thin, reductionist Freud haunts O’Hara’s work), driven to madness by the pursuit of sex and its withdrawal. His characters are small-minded, misanthropic. His characters wear two faces, one to the public, and an even nastier face when alone. His deconstruction of the small-town, upper middle class mind is a sight to behold. He wrings out the privilege of his white collar characters and leaves them heaving with lust, vindictiveness and often suicidal despair.


Or, perhaps, he’s just vicious.

O’Hara the man was a rapacious social climber with hedonistic tendencies, an ego the size of Manhattan, and a penchant for bad living. He was insecure, oafish, mean-spirited and humorless in relation to his own work. (He said he wanted his tombstone to begin, “He wrote better than anyone.”)

He drank. He philandered. He corrupted. By all accounts he was rude, crude and difficult, whiny, self-important and self-indulgent.

Even his supporters recognize a vile intelligence behind his books. He’s seething with contempt for his own creations. He seems to enjoy the psychic squirming of his characters. Little flourishes of decency seem like audience-pleasing affectation.

Which makes his personal life all the more relevant to his fictions. He isn’t insightful, he’s punishing. He’s similar, in an oblique way, to that great southern blowhard, Erskine Caldwell. They both are remembered for early novels. (Most people know Caldwell by Tobacco Road; a few might know God’s Little Acre.) Both write cartoonish women, trashy harpies driven mad by desire, or frigid schoolmarms who need a real man to loosen them up. Both were seen as artists while alive, hacks after they passed. Both are, to 21st century eyes, cringingly offensive, sexist, yet banal.

O’Hara probably belongs somewhere near the middle of the not-terrible novelists. He can write with clarity. He often writes crisp, lean sentences. His characters speak with authenticity. He’s fun to read. He’s lurid, creepy, and perverted, yet dressed up in the fineries of a literary novelist. But there are dozens of lurid, creepy novelists who have written much better books[2].



So, no surprise, Ten North Frederick is not a great book. It has lengthy descriptions of minor characters, hazy geographical details about the fictional town. Parts of it feel like a screenplay. How the characters all fit together is elusive. His goal in writing it is clear; he wants to destroy small-town pieties with a battering ram. He mostly succeeds. But the story meanders. It ambles. He spends too much time on silly background and not enough in the moment. When the various storylines start to pop into place, the major issues are sex, infidelity, sex, and more sex. It’s a less substantial, oddly written version of The Wapshot Chronicle[3].

Not horrible, just not good.

Not horrible, just not good.

The main characters are a married couple named Edith and Joe. The novel begins with Joe’s death, a big town funeral, and then follows the various attendees, including Edith and their two children, as they leave the funeral. The narrative bounces backwards and forwards in time. There are some intriguing passages. There are dalliances, betrayals, reversals, scandals.

But not much seems to happen.

Edith and Joe, as O’Hara tracks them back and forth across time, emerge as complex people. Edith in particular has her refined, decent air stripped away to reveal a toxic, repugnant center.

O’Hara is a fine writer of dialogue. But, there’s little warmth, understanding or insight. Frederick is haunted by a pretty silly Freudian subtext, with uptight women and sexually frustrated men.

Here’s a sample:


Under the unwritten rules of the time, Ben [no relation] could have beaten and raped his wife with impunity; the screams of violently abused women were heard not only in the poorer districts of the town, where, to be sure, they were heard more frequently. . . . A gentleman did not force his attentions on a lady; the lady protected the gentleman’s pride by pleading a splitting headache or by telling him it was her time of the month.

I don’t need to do a close reading to parse out the problematic issues here.

The book does end on a high note. The last forty pages or so has an unnamed biographer examine the last years of Joe’s life. The tone is elegiac, melancholic and far superior to the other 300-plus pages. The writing is stronger. The characters are more defined. O’Hara clearly wrote it at a different time than the rest of the novel.

But it isn’t enough. John O’Hara’s principle virtue is his raunchy tastelessness. He could have made a great American pervert. But he sought accolades and acceptance instead.


1955, unlike the three previous years, was a dynamite year for fiction. William Gaddis published The Recognitions; Nikos Kazantikas released The Last Temptation of Christ; Patricia Highsmith put out The Talented Mr. Ripley; Paul Bowles published The Spider’s House; Eudora Welty put out The Bride of the Innisfallen; and Robert Penn Warren released Band of Angels. The Brits were still marching: John Wyndham, Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, and Graham Greene all published major novels[4].

All of which would make Frederick seem quaint and forgettable, a flash in the pan misfire that won the top award through moxie or luck. But, this same year, Flannery O’Connor released her short story collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find. It’s her best collection, stories that possess a wild manic energy, and yet are somehow economical, elegant and controlled. Just about any single story from this collection is better, and more important, than O’Hara’s entire oeuvre.

It gets worse. J.P. Donleavy published The Ginger Man, one of the greatest comic novels in the English language, a tragic, hilarious, heart-breaking romp through the squalor and foppery and depravity of a narcissistic American slumming in Ireland. The Ginger Man is one of the direct inheritors of Ulysses, only it’s more streamlined, tauter, and way more fun to read. A fantastic, vibrant novel that embraces its joyous perversion. Donleavy could write circles around O’Hara.

But the biggest scandal of them all: in 1955, Vladimir Nabakov published Lolita. Lolita is rightly considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century fiction. You could scour the entire planet and not find a single person who believes O’Hara should have been awarded the top writer’s award over Nabakov, Donleavy, and O’Connor.


Glad to leave O’Hara behind. Onward and hopefully upward.

[1] Even though plenty of his contemporaries saw through his bullshit.

[2] Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch, Paul Bowles, Horace McCoy, Cormac McCarthy, John Hawkes, Nick Cave, Anais Nin, Celine, Genet, George Bataille, any of a thousand French authors . . .

[3] Cheever was a drunkard, cruel to his wife, an unabashed philanderer who blamed his dalliances with younger men on his wife being overweight. But Cheever could write like a mad genius and had enormous empathy for his characters.

[4] Golding published The Inheritors, his biggest misfire, although an interesting failure; it follows a clan of the last Neanderthals as the Cro-Magnons are inheriting the earth. Better than it sounds.