Archive | December, 2013

National Book Award Winners, part 18: 1968’s The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder.

28 Dec

(Listening to the new National record, the wintry and beautiful Trouble Will Find Me, while the girls run around and bicker over their Christmas presents.)


In 1968, Thornton Wilder—one of America’s most famous playwrights—won the National Book Award for The Eighth Day. It is a grand, noble and excellent book.

Wilder is erudite, classically educated and his erudition appears on page after page with references to Greek and Roman thinkers, writers, poets. This book is filled with aphorisms, often spoken from one character to another:


“Get loving, you sons-of-bitches, or the world will turn cold.”

“He warned me to beware of husbands and wives who adored one another. Such persons haven’t grown up.”

He looked out over the fields. Beautiful is the earth.

It’s page after page of knockout writing, almost too much wisdom at times. The novel is now remembered as something of an oddity or misfire. This is an unfair assessment, and The Eighth Day seems ripe for rediscovery.

The Eighth Day follows two families—the Lansings and the Ashleys—from a small American town. The patriarch of one family, John Ashley, is accused of murdering the patriarch of the other, Breckenridge Lansing. And, in transport after a guilty verdict at trial, John Ashley is freed by six hooded figures. The central mysteries of the novel are whether Ashley killed Breckenridge and why; who liberated him; and what will happen to the children of both families?

In patient, learned and noble prose, Wilder will answer all of these questions and more. Wilder takes as his theme the big questions of human endeavor. Is there a pattern to a human life, a shape, a direction? Is there free will? Is there good and evil? How do we live a decent life? And what, if anything, matters when viewed through the cosmic arc of time?


I came to Wilder with little baggage. As a child, I thought he was famous for writing the screenplay to Boystown[1], and I knew as a young movie fan that he had something to do with Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. (I was wrong about this, too; it was Booth Tarkington who Welles adapted, not Thornton Wilder.)

Wilder had a huge hit in 1927 with his first novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It’s a very fine, very short, very taut little novel about a priest attempting to decipher God’s plan after a bridge collapses and five people are killed. The priest investigates the five victims, looking for some type of system or plan. Does God kill indiscriminately? Do human lives fit any type of pattern, is there free will, or are we locked into our deaths at birth?

A decade later Wilder had an enormous smash of a play with “Our Town,” his small-town reverie that manages to be simple, straight-forward, and deeply moving.

He wrote other novels, other plays. Then he retired to the southwest, living a hermit’s life in small Arizona towns. He was in his sixties. And, in semiretirement and alone in the dusty west, he began to compose The Eighth Day. The novel took him two years to write.

He categorized the first section as Little Women imagined by Dostoyevsky. This is a very fine and fitting description. There’s a classic feel to the first section, following John Ashley’s abandoned family as they open a boarding house, flee to parts unknown and ply their hands at a variety of jobs, cities. I wasn’t sure where the book was heading, but soon figured it out. The Ashleys aren’t quite human. They are closer to robots, at times brutal and uncaring. The novel is in a sense the long thawing out of their chilly nature, the humanizing regeneration of an entire family. (Think The Royal Tennenbaums filtered through a long, meditative gaze.)

A very fine, elegant and noble novel.

A very fine, elegant and noble novel.

The novel follows the various characters in various settings, including a section following the escaped Ashley down to Chile, where he works for coalmining operations and the like. It’s fantastic. Take a read:


Several nights a week, in grimy overalls, he explored the city. He renewed a lapsed curiosity about the lives of others. . . . With the coming on of night he set out on long walks. He became an impenitent eavesdropper. . . . He turned about the homes of the prosperous as though he were planning to rob them. . . . . Everywhere prostitutes patrolled their exclusive territory, as bees are said to do. . . . At dusk the world fed; there were sounds of laughter and contentment. . . . By ten-thirty, however, the mood changed. An ominous current invaded the city. By midnight sudden cries filled the air, blows, pursuits, overturned furniture, sobbing and whimpering. In Coaltown, the report that men—particularly the miners—beat their wives was a matter for laughter. Here Ashley saw them. In a narrow alley he came upon a man striking a woman, blow after blow; she sank gradually to her knees, taunting him as no father, as a clown of a father. Another man was beating a woman’s head monotonously against the wall of a staircase. He saw children covering under blows. . . . Ashley hurried away. A hunted man is in no position to defend the persecuted. He longed to be at sea, to be on a mountain peak, on the Andes.

He waited.

He descended.

Damn good writing, with enough horror and decency in a sentence to fuel half a dozen weaker novels.

The novel keeps circling back to the two families in Coaltown, their struggles, and near the end the narrative voice shifts out of time. The story begins to give account of how the various characters will die, including one of the major characters—I won’t tell which one—moving to Nagasaki in the 1930s and looking out at the green gardens and reading a poem from the emperor. The narrator doesn’t say so, but it’s clear she will be incinerated by the atom bomb at the end of the war.

Hanging over it all is a speech given by a rationalist doctor on the first day of the 20th century. He’s in a bar, surrounded by drunks, and he speaks of the shape and nature of man:


The New Man is emerging. Nature never sleeps. Hitherto the sporadic great man, the lone genius, has carried the children of fear and inertia on his coattails. Henceforth, the whole mass will emerge from the cave-dwelling condition where most men cower still—terrified of encroachment, hugging their possessions, in bondage to fears of the Thunder God, fears of the vengeful dead, fears of the untamable beast in themselves. . . . Mind and Spirit will be the next climate of the human. The race is undergoing its education. What is education? . . . It is the bridge man crosses from the self-enclosed, self-favoring life into a consciousness of the entire community of mankind.

This is a grand vision, and it breathes through most of the life stories in this book. But its echoes of transcendentalism are undercut by an abiding melancholy, a persistent ache of the transience of mankind. The narrator again and again references the premature deaths of the characters, often in the middle of the drama.

Wilder uses this same schemata in “Our Town,” where the narrator shifts back and forth through time, commenting on the deaths of the characters who are enacting the drama. It isn’t disorienting. It isn’t confusing. It’s sobering, a stamp of mortality on fictional characters who can, in a sense, live forever.

It’s a cruel narrative trick, to throw the deaths of the characters we are following, rooting for and against and suffering with, in our faces—outside of linear time and expected decency—but it serves as a counterpoint to all the talk of spiritual progression and grand human evolution. What matters, in the end, isn’t clear, and the heroes and the villains die in equal measure, all pointlessly. The novel is an immense thing, important and holy in its way, but also cynical and self-destructive. It ends, for instance, with a sentence fragment of one word. Reading it you get the sense that Wilder was writing as if possessed, with his story running out of his fingertips and out of control.


And in this way, The Eighth Day fits with the larger fictional trends of the late 1960s. Riots; assassinations; an unpopular distant war; an unruly, alien youth movement; homegrown terrorists; airline hijackings and so on—the chaos of the times percolated through the fiction of the 1960s and flowered into the violent (The Dog Soldiers), self-aware (JR), post-modern (Gravity’s Rainbow) 1970s. The old forms of the novel were exhausted, and the novel was undergoing another metamorphosis. The Eighth Day reflects some of this uncertainty through the flattening lens of history, but there’s a fractured narrative method at its core. The writing zips back and forth, there are little asides, and there’s the menace and threat of violence, even amidst the slow dawn of individual redemption. It’s a haunting read.

Wilder won the top award over Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, William Styron, Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan[2] and Chaim Potok. He was the right choice.

Around the world, Marquez published his mammoth, hugely influential One Hundred Years of Solitude; Milan Kundera released The Joke[3]; William Golding published his intriguing, strangely flat The Pyramid; and J.G. Ballard continued his golden period with three novels.

Outside of Marquez, I think Wilder’s novel is probably the best I’ve read from the year. It’s a hell of a novel, elegant but wild, too. I would recommend it to anyone.


[1] I also thought Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and George C. Scott were the same person. What an actor that would be!

[2] A real oddity in American letters.

[3] I remember reading this but cannot remember what it’s about; The Unbearable Lightness of Being is great.

interlude: Simone spreads some Christmas cheer.

24 Dec

(Simone is shifting away from butt jokes to philosophical ruminations on death. Here’s a sampling, in honor of the season.)


Simone: When you die, you can’t see anything. You’re just in the dark forever.


Simone (in the car, on the interstate, out to her grandparents tonight): I’m turning vomit into pee back here.

Me: Are you an alchemist?

Simone: Yep.


Simone (after reading a very grim version of “Little Red Riding Hood”): I don’t think anyone is going to kill me. I’m just gonna die.


Simone (about Jesus): Jesus. When he died? Maybe he ate something poisoned?

Beth: No, someone killed him.

Simone (later, about her grandfather who passed away some time ago): Did he eat something poisoned, or did someone kill him, too?

National Book Award winners, part 17: 1964’s The Centaur, by John Updike.

19 Dec

(In seventeen beautiful bullet points . . . and five fabulous footnotes.)

• In 1964, John Updike won the National Book Award for The Centaur. He beat out Thomas Pynchon, Bernard Malamud (I reviewed him here), Mary McCarthy and Harvey Swados[1].

• John Updike is a prodigiously, otherworldly talented writer. He is electricity. He is gasoline. He is a primal force in American letters, for good and for ill. He wrote great books, good books and bad ones.

The Centaur isn’t a great book. The Centaur isn’t a good book. The Centaur is exactly, precisely, a very, very bad book.

• I have a love/hate thing with Updike. I consider Rabbit, Run to be a foundational novel of the 20th century. It’s a terrifying character study of a privileged man living without consequences. And through all the damage he causes, he feels immense self-pity and persecution. Rabbit remains a template for the bulk of our pop culture antiheroes. Who is Don Draper, really, other than a poor Rabbit Angstrom still in possession of his secrets?

The worst novel of Updike's I've read.

Of Updike’s work I’ve read, this is the worst. And it won the National Book Award. Go figure. 

• Updike is skilled, powerful, eloquent, passionate, ambitious and driven. This Updike is unsentimental and a great chronicler of the conflicted interior lives of his characters. But Updike is also arrogant, imperious, privileged, predictable, pedantic and sex-obsessed.

• Updike sees sex as the prime mover of human experience, the great motivator in people, and thus writes a handful of stories over and over. Cheating spouse seeks redemption. Unfulfilled lust turns sour. Middle-aged affair allows for late-in-life renaissance. Man allows pursuit of sex to ruin his life. He loves describing genitals, especially of middle-aged women; he famously described one woman’s vagina as an “ancient cave,” and here he describes another woman’s vagina this way: “its walls were snug, its odor was green, there was a sweetness in the chapel.” He saw the ache that accompanied the loss of widespread religious belief, and the various ways people create their own ways of punishment and penitence for their sins. Sex takes the form of penitence for some, salvation for others (hence the word choice of “chapel”). To Updike, Sex can be religion and religious expression. He says it over and over: you can achieve transcendence in the bedroom. It just exacts a price.

• Updike, more than any other great writer I can think of, should have published less. Thirty novels, fifteen collections(!) of short stories. Plus nine volumes of poetry (he’s a very fine poet), a lifetime of criticism and some very fine essays collected in some thirteen volumes. Taken as a whole he published a few yards of writing, the output of three or four authors. He is correctly held in the highest critical regard as one of the most important 20th century novelists.

• A distinguished life of letters and a formidable intellect, yes, but here his talents are mostly squandered.

• Updike the critic set out some very fine rules to reviewing. The one that stings is rule number five: “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”

• I’ll try and follow his advice. The failure of The Centaur is in the conceit. Contemporary writers should stay away from Greek mythology. Or, more accurately, contemporary writers should avoid updating Greek myths for their own purposes[2]. Updike takes the story of Chiron and Prometheus and overlays it on top of the story of a school teacher and his awkward son. All the characters have mythological cognates, and the novel shifts into feverish passages of the Greek myths. It’s an ambitious, challenging idea, but it doesn’t work. The two narratives rest uneasily next to each other. Updike is trying to imbue everyday life with a mythic permanence. He wants to show how our decisions resonate with cosmic significance. But the Greek myths in his novel distract from the significance of his characters’ daily lives.

• Put another way, Updike accomplishes the exact opposite result of what he set out to do. He diminishes his real characters by juxtaposing them with the gods and heroes and saints.  This failure is not mine, it is Updike’s alone.

• Updike should have won for Rabbit, Run, but he lost that year to The Waters of Cronos (just shocking; I reviewed Cronos here). Updike was a hotshot at a young age. He incubated his talent first at the Harvard Lampoon and then later at the New Yorker. He was eventually a judge for the National Book Award. He was a pedigreed insider with writing and editing chops. I believe he was given the award for his entire career to date, and not for this.

• Why? Because he didn’t deserve to win. 1963 was an intriguing year for fiction, with cult works appearing next to mainstream novels by big-name writers. Jim Thompson[3] published The Grifters. Charles Webb released The Graduate. John Rechy published his epic, gay road novel, City of Night. Kurt Vonnegut published his very fine Cat’s Cradle. Sylvia Plath published her fantastic, autobiographical novel of existential despair, The Bell Jar. Walter Tevis—a great writer who hasn’t yet been rediscovered—released his literary science fiction novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Susan Sontag published her novel, The Benefactor. John Hawkes[4] released Second Skin. Pearl Buck and Taylor Caldwell released novels. So did Thomas Pynchon.

• What I love about the period of the mid-sixties into the mid-seventies in fiction—and film—was the traditional and classical novels rested side by side next to grand, experimental works. A new type of novelist appeared, returning to the linguistic playfulness of the modernists, but infusing it with paranoia and self-awareness. Thomas Pynchon is one of the key figures to this new school, along with Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, John Barth and Edward Abbey. These authors were the leading lights of a generation, inventive, challenging, baroque, and wordy. Pynchon’s V., perhaps his finest novel, is dense, linguistically playful, ambitious, byzantine, labyrinthine, druggy, difficult and weird. Yet, if you give in to the novel’s cadences, it’s a blast.

• Around the world, a new batch of authors began to appear. Julio Cortazar published his influential, experimental Hopscotch. John Le Carre released his spy epic in miniature, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Future Noble Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa published The Time of the Hero. Keith Waterhouse released his great comic novel, Billy Liar[5]. Pierre Bouille published his Planet of the Apes. Future Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass released Dog Years. John Fowles published his creepy The Collector.

• What’s clear from the above lists is that American fiction, and world fiction, was hitting a turning point, a flowering if you will, into a more bizarre, experimental phase. The madness of the Cold War was everywhere, drug culture was entering the mainstream, and the civil rights movement, the youth movement, and the feminist movement were all in full bloom, with the gay rights movement just around the corner. The form of the novel was responding, fracturing, evolving.

• The awkwardness of Updike’s Centaur is, perhaps, part of this evolution. And like The Centaur, he stands uneasily between two worlds. He is a modernist and a classicist, a realist and a fantasist. He’s a contradiction, sexy, sexist, and mean-spirited, yes, but also loving, big-hearted, and empathetic. Don’t mistake my criticism. He is a fantastic writer, a presence I plan to grow old with, reading his work as the years pass by.

[1] Whoever this is.

[2] Amongst hundreds of novel ideas, I recently scribbled down a retelling of Hephaestus, thrown down from Mount Olympus, making his way back to his home, limping, poor and alone, meeting oddball characters along the way. The kicker is that he’s forgotten who he is. I know, I know, I should heed my own advice.

[3] Thompson, with his best works, exists as a crude, American Dostoevsky; he wrote intense, first-person pulp that elevated the genre.

[4] I’ve always considered him British, even though I know he’s not; The Lime Twig is a superb novel, a crime story stripped of any finery and refracted through some insane person’s perceptions.

[5] Adapted into one of my all-time favorite movies.

Interlude 1: Simone responds to a new cousin.

19 Dec


Simone has a new baby cousin. Here’s what she said when I informed her of her cousin’s birth:

Simone (smiling): I’m really glad she didn’t die one second after she was born.

Me: Me, too. That’s morbid, though.

Simone (with an even bigger smile): Yeah, right? I know.


And with Beth, she had this to say.

Simone (looking at a picture of her just-born cousin): What’s that thing?

Beth: That’s the umbilical cord clamp.

Simone: Is she a girl? Why does she have short hair? Why is she naked? She looks like Jesus.

National Book Award winners, part 16: 2013’s The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.

15 Dec

(Skipped to the present-day with this one. Am wondering if it wouldn’t be more interesting to write these backwards.)


In 2013—this year—The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award. It is a good but not great novel from a solid writer.

The author James McBride beat Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethowers (a very fine novel); Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (haven’t read it and probably won’t, not for many years); Jumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (ditto); and George Saunders’s goddamn perfect short story collection, The Tenth of December. (He’s one of the great writers of our time, and “Semplica Girl Diaries” alone should have netted him the award.)

The story follows a young freed slave, nicknamed Onion, who falls in with John Brown and spends the rest of the novel working towards, and trying to escape from, Brown’s hideous destiny. Due to some confusion when Brown first meets him, Onion must act and dress like a little girl. The tone veers from light to grim, often within a few pages. Onion is an irascible little troublemaker, yet strangely reliable. Brown begins to count Onion as his good luck charm.

I have two major issues with the novel (as the top fiction award winner).

The first is simple, obvious and well, in the world of fiction, business as usual. McBride has borrowed his basic setup from a number of other, similar novels. The most obvious predecessor is Thomas Berger’s fabulous Little Big Man. (The covers are almost identical.) Berger uses his protagonist—who bounces back and forth between the white and American Indian civilizations—as a way of interrogating our assumptions about history, culture and sin. Berger doesn’t white wash the American Indian savagery, but rather reveals how petty and small it is compared to the cosmic, colonizing designs of the white race. Along the way Berger gets to satirize all manner of American heroes and delivers an American epic at once heartbreaking and hilarious. In juxtaposition, McBride comes off fine, but the novel isn’t groundbreaking or daring.

A very fine historical novel, but the best of the year?

A very fine historical novel, but the best of the year?

McBride also cribs from George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, and who can blame him? Fraser stole a bully from a Victorian-era school novel Tom Brown’s School Days and let him run amok through all the defeats, scandals, reversals and mistakes of the 19th century British Empire. He uses Flashman—a bully, coward, cheat, liar, and womanizer—to burrow into the crevices of England’s colonialist psyche. They’re brilliant parodies of the adventure stories of Kipling and his ilk, and at the same time pitch-perfect yarns. They’re a blast[1].

McBride has a similar scheme, similar goals. He uses the format to accomplish two things. First, he shows the psychological damage slavery has inflicted on an entire race of people, and how insidious and, and harder to rectify this is than the horrid, physical abuses. Here the narrator explains his strategy when walking with John Brown in the north east:

There ain’t nothing gets a Yankee madder than a smart colored person, of which I reckon they figured there was only one in the world, Mr. Douglass. So I played dumb and tragic . . .

And, much later, on the condition of being born a slave in the U.S.:

I was but a coward, living a lie. When you thunk on it, it weren’t a bad lie. Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure.

I don’t question McBride’s point of view, or the conclusions his narrator draws, or the veracity of a former slave in pre-Civil War days coming to this very notion. But isn’t this exactly the starting point of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? And one of the major starting plot points of Richard Wright’s Native Son? And, going way back, doesn’t James Weldon Johnson come to this exact conclusion in his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man? (I’ll come back to this point in a moment.)

Two, he wants to mock and satirize canonized historical figures. John Brown is target number one, and McBride mines Brown’s piety, inexhaustible appetite for prayer and bloodletting, and his single-mindedness to destroy slavery that borders on Aspergers. The prayer stuff in particular is often funny. But McBride, understandably, has great admiration for Brown and it comes through. His satire towards Brown is simple and mild. More significantly, John Brown already holds a strange place in our country’s past; even many of his admirers see him as an ahistorical scourge and unhinged avenger with a deathwish. Admiring him, while pointing out his flaws, is what everybody does. So what does McBride’s take on John Brown really bring to the table?

McBride’s much more savage in his treatment of Frederick Douglass. After trying to seduce the young narrator, and not realizing Onion is a young boy in a little girl’s clothes, there’s this scene, with Onion drinking the aging Douglass under the table:

The more bleary-eyed he got, the more he talked like a right regular down-home, pig-knuckle-eatin’ Negro. “I had a mule once,” he bawled, “and she wouldn’t pull the hat off your head. But I loved that damn mule. She was a stinkin’ good mule! When she died, I rolled her in the creek. I would’a buried her, but she was too heavy. A fat thousand-pounder. By God, that mule could single-trot, double-trot . . . .” I rather fancied him then, not in the nature-wanting sort of way, but knowing that he was a good soul, too muddled to be of much use. But after a while I seen my out, for he was off the edge, wasted and looped beyond redemption, and couldn’t hurt me now. I got up. . . . I made for the door. He took one final dive for me as I made for it, but fell on his face.

He looked up at me, grinning sheepishly as I opened the door, then said, “It’s hot in here. Open da winder.”


McBride is black, and only an African American author could write something like this[2].

Ignore an author’s race and, I’m paraphrasing half a dozen black artists here, you steal his/her identity. Focus too much on an author’s race, and you marginalize, minimalize, set apart, essentialize and even dismiss[3]. Betray history, or pigeonhole an individual. It’s a conundrum for critics.

The whole line of thought exposes a number of difficult—and damning, depending on where you’re sitting—questions. Do black authors have a responsibility to write about the black experience? Do white authors lack the authenticity to write about the black experience? Or even more universal questions: Does fiction need to serve some higher purpose? Is there a universal good to moral fiction?

Or put yet another way: does black fiction have to be thought of as its own category? Do novels by African American authors need to be judged/critiqued by different standards? Does art need context to be understood? Do we need to know the authors to appreciate the work?

Troubling questions indeed, and answerless. “Ponderous,” my dad would say, one of his biggest putdowns for a writer (He always says this when describing Russian fiction.) “Ponderous stuff.”

I’m grappling with how to handle these sensitive issues. Just five of the past 79 winners have been black: Ralph Ellison, Charles Johnson, Alice Walker, Jesmyn Ward and now James McBride. That’s no Ernest Gaines (who’s spectacular), Edward P. Jones (one of my wife’s favorites), Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed (hilarious), Percivel Everett (who rules!), Langston Hughes, James Baldwin (who in all fairness was nominated for Go Tell It On the Mountain), Walter Moseley, ZZ Packer, Gil Scott-Heron (why not, his work is amazing), Colson Whitehead, Victor LaValle (I love him), a Chester Himes Omnibus of some sort (packaged together his Harlem crime novels are some type of mid-century noir masterpiece) and Albert Murray among others have all been passed over by the top fiction prize. This is wrong.

I’m a self-directed amateur scholar on the Civil Rights Movement (I co-wrote a book on it!), I love soul music more than just about anything, and I feel a great affinity for African American causes of economic justice and equality. Still, I’m a white dude from the Deep South who lives in the most segregated city in the U.S. And I’ve wandered into a minefield of race, money, metaphor, history and fiction.

I must tread lightly.

But I’m trying to grapple with this novel, and through this series on my blog the landscape of American fiction for the last sixty-five years. So, let’s push on.

Some of the novel has a didactic feel. Often McBride seems to be speaking to white readers, trying to explain the psychological damage—carried down to the present day—that slavery has wrought. I don’t know if he is giving us anything new or insightful that other writers haven’t combed over in other works. Why does Onion have to explain the shortcomings of the other black characters? What does this running commentary in the novel really accomplish?

I kept thinking of author Charles Johnson—I’ll review his Middle Passage in the next month or so—another black writer of superior skill who spoke to this very trend in black popular culture (but he might as well be speaking to black fiction):

“During the age of slavery, then the era of Jim Crow segregation, when whites separated themselves from blacks, they needed a black individual to tell them what black people thought, desired, needed. . . . Often that person was the black community’s minister; later writers served that purpose, from Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin. I personally think in the post-Civil Rights period a black person is wasting his (or her) time, the preciously few years of their lives, by devoting their enegery—as a “spokesman”—to explaining so-called “black” things to white people. Whites can—and should—do their own homework. Read from the vast library of books on black American history and culture. Take a course, for God’s sage, on some aspect of black history. Then black individuals can be free to pursue the whole, vast universe that awaits their discovery . . .”

Any writer can write whatever the hell he/she wants. I just kept wondering if this novel wouldn’t have been stronger, leaner, and better if McBride didn’t feel the pressure to explain the effects of slavery on the black characters.

Finally, McBride uses Onion’s cross-dressing as an extended metaphor for the mindset of the enslaved African American. I’m not sure it works. Onion isn’t confused. His sexuality isn’t hampered. He lies out of necessity. He knows who he is. Yet time and again other characters discover his lie and comment on how slavery has made fools of everyone. It’s tedious, obvious, and somehow too tidy.


Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. McBride is a good storyteller, and Bird is a wild romp of a book. The sentences are crisp. The pacing is quick and light. He’s pulling from a great tradition, the picaresque novel, where a character wanders through a landscape peopled by weirdoes. Think Candide with street smarts. Only, to be fair, not quite as good as that sounds. Some of the episodes drag. There’s too much repetition. Some of the characters you like disappear too quickly, and some of the characters you don’t like stick around too long.

He gets great mileage from the cross-dressing jokes. He has a deft handle on John Brown’s oddball energy. (He isn’t alone. Bruce Olds, in his magnificent Raising Holy Hell, captures the same essence, only with short, surreal chapters and a deadly serious approach. And Russell Banks, in Cloudsplitter, covers some of the same ground[4].)

He has some very fine comic scenes, using the cagy distrust of the slaves to great effect. Here’s a scene I just loved:

At the front gate, just outside it, a slim colored woman was out gardening and raking leaves. I approached her.

“Morning,” I said.

She stopped her raking and stared at me a long time. Finally she blurted out, “Morning.”

It occurred to me then that she knowed I was a boy. Some colored women just had my number. . . . I was spying for the Old Man and I was looking out for my own self, too.

“I don’t know where I am,” I said.

“You are where you is,” she said.

“I’m just looking to get the lay of the land. 

“It lay before you,” she said.

We wasn’t getting nowhere, so I said, “I’m wondering if you knowed anybody who wants to know their letters.”

The novel is full of these little comic asides, and every one of them is dynamite.

Still, the book is shaggy at times, uneven, and McBride’s skill as a storyteller doesn’t alter the immense debt he owes Berger. It feels like the judges were exhausted with the physical and linguistic heft of the other nominees and wanted to enjoy themselves instead. (This has happened before.)

I’m not putting McBride down, not really. But I think in juxtaposition[5] with other novels like this one, he has written a good novel with plenty of flaws. The novel opens with a note from an editor who discovered the manuscript we’re reading. But the novel doesn’t return to the editor, or to Onion’s life after John Brown is killed. The result is a weird imbalance. I suppose McBride is saying that after Brown died, Onion just sort of floating along, losing some essential part of himself to history. But that doesn’t feel right.

The last act is superb, however, brutal and taut and devastating. The first two-thirds of the book recede, and the final shoot-out at the armory is stark and pitch-perfect. He lets loose with a barrage of damn good writing.

I’ll end with this. McBride is a talent, and I’m glad I read the book. He’s clearly decent, likable, intelligent. But his decency gently warms the pages when the novel really needs more fire and heat. His novel isn’t as wild as it thinks, his narrator is much more conventional than I expected, and he tells the reader what the reader wants to hear. It’s the old black and white thing again, the racial utopia that so many pop cultural artifacts build on, the friendship that bridges the historical divide and helps ease a million sins.

[1] For example, the charge of the light brigade was partially begun by Flashman and a severe bout of flatulence.

[2] I’m not saying this is a bad thing; in fact, I think this is just the ways things should be. For instance, I think Spike Lee made a good point about Tarantino and Django Unchained. He just should have watched the motherfucker first.

[3] Librarians are faced with the ramifications of these questions all the time. Should black (usually placed in an “urban fiction” section which offends me), gay, American Indian, Asian and so on fiction be set apart in their own little sections (and therefore departmentalized and set apart as an “other?”) Or should fiction be delineated even further, into genres? Or should it all be one massive category that scares away new readers and seems incomprehensible to patrons? (A writer like Chester Himes pokes enormous holes in each of these approaches. Or, put another way, no one in their right mind would separate Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud or Saul Bellow into “Jewish fiction.” He/She’d be run out of town on a mule. Yet there’s often a gay/bi/transgender section, and the aforementioned urban fiction section was for a while there very common.

[4] Full disclosure: I haven’t read any Russell Banks. One of the many holes in my reading.

[5] I’m reading The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman right now and it’s amazing, big-hearted, empathetic, funny, ribald, and devastating.

National Book Award Winners, part 15: 1962’s Morte d’Urban, by J.F. Powers

4 Dec

(Wherein I read all the former National Book Award winners, so you don’t have to) 


In 1963, J.F. Powers won the national book award for his wry, droll novel of manners, Morte d’Urban. It’s a fascinating, quite funny novel that manages to tell a very small story with precision and wit. It’s also an odd winner of the top award, out of sync with the early sixties. Safe, calm, and decent, Morte d’Urban has an abiding patience with society, social norms and conventions.

Powers beat out Thomas Berger for Reinhardt in Love; Vladimir Nabakov for Pale Fire; Katherine Anne Porter for Ship of Fools; Kurt Vonnegut for his uncharacteristic but very fine Mother Night; and James Baldwin for Another Country. Fine novels[1] all, but taking a peak at the underbelly of American fiction reveals fissures in the poetic realism that defined many of the novels of the 1950s.

Massive changes—many of them roiling about in the sub-basement of the American subconscious for a long time—exploded into American culture in the 1960s.

Drug culture entered fiction and our novels fractured. Mind-altering drugs were seeping into mainstream culture. The Beat writers had probed drug culture in the 1950s—the best of these is probably Burrough’s lean, taut Junky—but heroine and marijuana were replaced with LSD and speed. The objective concept of reality was loosened. Synapses popped. Time sped up.

The atom bomb and the resulting arms race left our artists with the undeniable fact that we had the capacity for the firs time in recorded history to destroy the world. Mankind was conscious of its own end. The Dadaists were right; existence was such a cruel joke absurdity was the only rational response. The heroics of WWII were erased by the nightmarish surreality of Korea and Vietnam.

Youth culture appeared overnight. Teenagers became major consumers of culture. Music and movies and yes, books too began to bend toward their economic gravity.

And new technology, primitive by today’s standards, was progressing at an astonishing rate. Reality was perhaps one of many cascading virtual worlds. Philip K. Dick and the early cyberpunk authors were just around the corner.

These four distinct strands of American popular culture—the end of history, the possibility of altered consciousness, the ascendancy of youth culture and the advent of thinking machines—changed our society into something weirder, more histrionic, more subjective. The 1960s became the decade capable of producing Hello, Dolly!, 2001 and Dr. Strangelove all within a few years of each other. The decade began with white-washed ennui and ended with cosmic discontent. The decade began with the bored malaise of The Moviegoer and ended with the super-charged ire of Slaughterhouse Five.

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, his stream of consciousness sex romp through Paris, was published in 1961 and promptly declared obscene. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict. The boundaries of “good taste” were eroding. Miller’s wonderfully obscene novel broke open the floodgates.

So the novels published in 1962 that weren’t nominated for any awards?

William Burroughs published another weirdo mindfuck The Ticket that Exploded. Richard Stark released his no-frills tough as shit criminal revenge story, The Hunter. Anthony Burgess, from across the pond, jacked into the future with his sordid, ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange. J.G. Ballard, also from England, published another of his end of the world novels, The Drowned World. Shirley Jackson published her eerie, unsettling little novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And 1962 is also the year Philip K. Dick released The Man in the High Castle, his fascinating and brilliant alternative history that is as touching as it is insane. Fiction was getting wilder, meaner, stranger.


Back to J.F. Powers, an author writing not just from a different decade but with the values of a different century.

Powers was a very fine Irish-American short story writer. He wrote small, polished gems, in a similar vein as Alice Munro and William Trevor, although not as strong as either. (Munro can break your heart in a sentence, Trevor in a page; Powers has their writerly craft but is a step down from their storytelling ability.) He belonged to a quieter, calmer generation of writers. He seemed unruffled by the unraveling society around him.

He was all but forgotten and then NYRB released both this novel and his collected short stories. I’m not sure which is better.

Morte d’Urban follows the rise and fall and rise again of a mid-level priest named Father Urban at an old monastic order.

Powers's droll, wry novel of priestly impatience and exasperation.

Powers’s droll, wry novel of priestly impatience and exasperation.

Father Urban is a priest from Chicago who, through a series of unseen faux pas, has been exiled to a rural parish in Minnesota. He’s ambitious, arrogant and a great speaker, but he’s confused his ambitions with sophistication and thus rubs his fellow priests the wrong way. He’s aware of his gifts but unaware of his faults, and the disconnect between how he sees himself and how others see him is a great source of the novel’s charm, and an engine for much of the comedy.

Urban scrambles around Minnesota for much of the novel. There are problems, episodes, little asides. He tries to help the son of a rich benefactress start a publishing company. He builds a golf course. He tries to get a church built. He paints walls, fixes chairs, scowls, feels sorry for himself. There are two climactic scenes of a sort, both of them quite good, one involving a golf game with a bishop and the other a fishing expedition with a cruel financial backer to Urban’s priestly order.

The book is populated mostly with priests. Strangely, the episodes don’t deal with challenges to Urban’s faith—everyone’s Catholicism is presented as a given—and only one offers up a temptation of the flesh. Most of the novel deals with Urban’s increasing dissatisfaction with the simple-minded pettiness of his fellow men of the cloth.

The first 100 pages are great, humming with an exasperated, comic glow. Here’s an example of Urban struggling with his superior, a priest named Wilf, over the handiwork being done at the rectory. Wilf has been assigning various chores to the other priests and Urban feels that the work is often redundant, ill-conceived and beneath him. This scene reads like it came straight out of a Charles Portis novel, high praise indeed:


“We can do one of two things,” Wilf said. “We can apply the mahogany varnish you see in those cans over there—it’s the quick-drying type, three or four hours at the outside. That was my original plan, but I’ve since been thinking. . . .”

Everybody stood by, waiting to hear the alternative.

“Why not sand the floor? And then, after we finish off this wall, we can apply a light stain, and a dressing of some kind—perhaps beeswax. I like that idea, and I think Father Boniface would.”

At this, Brother Harold nodded.

“If we do that, we’ll have a floor we can really be proud of.”

“Let me understand you,” said Father Urban.

“Yes?”  said Wilf, with a laugh—as if he didn’t see what was so difficult to understand. “Oh, I can return the varnish for credit, it that’s what’s bothering you, Father. Or we can keep it and use it elsewhere—where it won’t be so noticeable.”

“That isn’t what bothers me,” Father Urban said. “Don’t you need a machine of some kind for sanding a floor?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Do it by hand, you mean?”

“Why not? It isn’t as if there were only one or two of us.”

Father Urban had nothing to say to this, and the other two, of course, had nothing to say at all.

“You can rent machines,” Wilf said. “But there’s more to it than that. This paint may look dry, but it really isn’t. It takes paint months to dry—to really dry. You bring in a sander, and kick up a lot of dust, and the walls and ceiling would pick it all up—and then where would we be?”

“God, I don’t know,” said Father Urban. “But I’m for varnishing the floor.”

“You don’t see so much varnish nowadays. You take the floors in your nice new home, they’re not varnished. You just have the natural beauty of the wood.”

“Yes, but are you sure we’ve got the wood for it?”

Wilf stared down at the old floor, as did the others.

“What is this stuff anyway?” said Father Urban. It looked like the kind of wood he’d seen on back porches.

“It’s fir.”

“Is that what they’re using in these new homes?”

“Mostly they’re using oak and maple.”

“Not fir?”


“Well, they you are.”

“I was just thinking it would look better some other way.”

 And so on, like a scene from the best Wes Anderson movie never made. I was delighted by the novel, giggling at Urban’s exasperation and the tiny little problems he navigates. But the light, comic tone doesn’t last; the novel turns into something else, not tragedy exactly, but a kind of loose, unromantic melodrama. Too many characters crowd into the storylines, and there’s no main narrative (or symbolic, for that matter) thrust for the reader to stick with. Powers’s subtlety becomes too subtle; there’s little danger, menace, or worry. The humor runs dry. (And the metaphorical layers don’t quite work, beginning with all the references to Mallory’s Arthur.)

Urban gets sick a bit near the end, he has headaches and it’s clear Powers is implying that he’s deteriorating from some brain condition, but the novel isn’t a tragedy, and the last hundred pages aren’t particularly funny either. It ends up as a slight drama, I suppose, never fulfilling the comedic promise of those first 100 pages. I would recommend it to hardcore readers of literature, and to fans of light comedy, but to others I would say, move along.

Good but not great.



[1] Pale Fire is a wild card amongst wild cards, a fake exploration of a fake poem with fake autobiographical asides amidst the fake exegesis. Fans love it; I’m on the fence.