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.)

 

1.

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.

 

2.

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.

 

3.

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.

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