(Wherein Simone reviews her favorite movies)
“It’s good. I like when she wears the fancy dresses and she’s so funny and the guy keeps saying, ‘I want to go home I have a headache.’ Yeah.”
(Wherein Simone reviews her favorite movies)
“It’s good. I like when she wears the fancy dresses and she’s so funny and the guy keeps saying, ‘I want to go home I have a headache.’ Yeah.”
(Wherein I read all the former National Book Award winners, so you don’t have to.)
In 1975, Robert Stone won the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers, his fantastic, fatalistic novel of a heroin deal gone bad.
Dog Soldiers follows Converse, a weary and self-pitying journalist in Vietnam. Converse is intelligent. Converse is a leftist. Converse is damaged and bored. Here he is, meeting an aging missionary he wants to sleep with in Saigon, right at the beginning of the novel:
Converse looked into her mild eyes.
“You’re a missionary.”
“We don’t call ourselves that way. I suppose some people could.”
He nodded in sympathy. They never like the term. It suggested imperialism and being eaten.
Converse has chosen Vietnam, out of boredom, out of some unspoken dedication to bearing witness. He falls in with expatriates, drug addicts, bohemian travelers, and he realizes he’s made a mistake. Here he is, remembering his first time at a battle:
And, surely enough, the difficulties he had been experiencing with reality were obviated. One bright afternoon, near a place called Krek, Converse had watched with astonishment as the world of things transformed itself into a single overwhelming act of murder. In a manner of speaking, he had discovered himself. Himself was a soft shell-less quivering thing encased in a hundred and sixty pounds of pink sweating meat. It was real enough. It tried to burrow into the earth. It wept.
Converse, out of the horror of his experiences, gives in to the temptation of easy money. He arranges to smuggle a giant shipment of heroin into the U.S. His vehicle is an old acquaintance, Hicks, a disturbed and psychopathic former marine. Hicks is going to carry the heroin to Converse’s wife, Marge, in San Francisco. One of the many wrinkles in his plan is their little daughter, Janey.
Things fall apart. And man, in Stone’s novel, they really fall apart. There’s a ripoff. Hicks and Marge take off on a desperate escape, cooking up every chance they get, pursued by murderous government operatives. Hicks and Marge retreat to a mountainous bunker of a Timothy Leary type named Dieter.
Dieter is Colonel Kurtz, reformed; before the novel begins, he was the head of a LSD cult and thought he was a god. He has turned his back on the violence and seediness and power politics of the world, instead focusing inward with psylocilbin. Converse falls in with the pursuers, and they all end up in a standoff around Dieter’s compound. Heavy ordinance, consciousness enhancing hallucinogens, and a very surreal landscape set the final climactic scenes.
The characters all seem magnified versions of real world types, punched through with a skewered, otherworldly sheen. The characters radiate. They creep around at the edges of the story. You can seem them lurking in other books. What makes them crackle is the dialogue. The characters all speak with a druggy patois of the street-level criminal, augmented by a stoner philosophy and little snippets of eastern mysticism. Most of them are full of shit. They’re armed, money-hungry urchins looking for a bigger bite of the pie.
Stone pulls off a deft trick; the book is somehow a pulp thriller of the lowest order and a work of uncompromising high art. The key is the language, electric, eccentric, yet also elegant and spare. The whole book is quotable, filled with the tautological aphorisms of the junky culture. The logic of the novel is inescapable and merciless. Only the insane can emerge unscathed.
Here’s Stone describing Marge as she waits for the heroin to arrive:
And the dreams, one after another, were bad stuff indeed. Janey teetering on the ledge with a storm-gray New York cityscape behind her, water towers, sooty brick. Something about a mad friar and fruit with blood on it. Something terrible among trees. Each dream incorporated her headache.
Afoot, she was edgy, cramped, accident prone. Coffee burned. A saucer broke. There were two caps of dilaudid left to her but she took some Percodan instead.
Lean, taut, angry writing, that. Right out of the American crime tradition.
James Cain had life in his novels, corrupted and often obscene, true, but life nonetheless. Chandler and Hammett—both great writers—veer closer to a tough guy parody. Everyone’s a killer. Everyone talks fast, in a string of double entendres. Crime fiction has built into it a parodic edge; it’s so easy to veer into cliché. You have the philosopher-killer on one extreme, and the stumblebum sex addict on the other. Most crime fiction falls somewhere in-between.
Stone fits somewhere at the far edge of the crime fiction spectrum. He belongs to that rarest of subgenres, the literary crime writer. And Dog Soldiers is one of the best of its kind, a magnificent novel that stands alongside John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig; Don DeLillo’s Running Dog; Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men; and Denis Johnson’s Angels and Tree of Smoke among others. These novels carry a special inner gravity. The narratives often collapse, implode, reform like newborn stars after the big bang.
Hawkes is collapsing post-modernism; DeLillo is paranoia run amok; McCarthy is violent stoicism as rugged individuality; And Johnson is zen drugginess and people corrupted by decadent decay.
Stone is of a piece with Johnson. They have similar themes, a similar style. They write extreme fictions, straddling the line between pulp and art. They both are intrigued by religion, eastern philosophy, unemotional violence. They have a genre all their own, something akin to Ginsberg and Burroughs shooting at each other in a samurai movie. After they’ve both overdosed on LSD.
This strand of American fiction contains everything from Fat City to the films of Quentin Tarantino and onward down to True Detective. Fantastical noir. There’s a ringing nightmare at the edges of it. Something dark is slouching towards the reader. The metaphorical overlay isn’t clear. If film noir is French existentialism plus American gangsters plus German expressionism, then Dog Soldiers is all of this plus the Beats, the yippies, the hippies and the Grateful Dead, plus Charles Manson and Richard Nixon waving pistols in each other’s faces. And both of them are naked.
There is a caveat. Stone’s fatalistic stoicism will bore some readers, strike others as wearying. Every character seems to accept his/her fate with a cynical acceptance; it doesn’t always ring true. And there isn’t much life in some of the characters. They operate as ciphers for a lost age.
Stone remains an interesting writer, although he never quite replicated the charging power of this, his best and most remarkable novel. I read most of his work—including his pretty good autobiography—after reading Dog Soldiers some twelve years ago.
Of course Stone is after bigger game. He’s addressing the spiritual void in our decadent, morally bankrupt and a-religious age. Altered states, casual violence—these are rational responses to an insane world. His crime story isn’t just about Converse and Hicks and Marge; it’s also about the plight of Americans in the age of American domination.
Which brings us to Vietnam. Stone grapples with U.S. involvement on multiple levels, alluding to massacres, lost innocence. Somehow, the book’s final firefight—somewhere near the Mexican border of California—captures the horrors of Vietnam better than most novels set there.
Novels about Vietnam are multitudinous. The best of these are probably The Forever War, Meditations in Green, The Quiet American, Tree of Smoke, Dispatches (not a novel but reads like one) or anything by Tim O’Brien. Dog Soldiers captures the rot of it, the moral lassitude of American involvement, the spiritual cost.
Converse is intelligent, but exhausted, apathetic, and lazy. Hicks is inexhaustible, irrepressible and crafty, but also vengeful, murderous and psychopathic. They operate at a metaphorical level: these two men are America.
1974 was a good year for American fiction.
Philip K. Dick published his melancholic paean to police-state paranoia, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Joseph Heller released Something Happened. Stephen King published Carrie, his first, and arguably only experimental novel. Ishmael Reed released The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Robert Pirsig published his hugely influential Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Toni Morrison released Sula. Philip Roth published My Life as a Man.
Dog Soldiers is the best of the lot, an American classic of the highest order, not only one of the best novels from the 1970s, but also perhaps the best novel about the 1970s, replete with drugs, Vietnam, disillusionment, urban decay, even a porn theatre. Dog Soldiers is the Age of Aquarius turned sour. This narco-noir classic belongs on any best-of American fiction list.
Me: Simone, you can be anything you want to be.
Simone: You’re right. Because dad? Grown-ups and children can be anything they want to be for Halloween. Because Halloween’s not important.
(Took a long time with this one, as I explored Kosinski’s larger oeuvre; Kosinski is under my skin, and if you read him, he’ll burrow under yours, too.)
In 1969, Polish émigré turned American celebrity Jerzy Kosinski won the National Book Award for his diabolical novella of short stories, Steps.
Steps is nestled somewhere between a novel, a collection of short stories, and a prose poem. But this isn’t quite right. It feels almost like a novel, or perhaps like a collection of short stories, or just maybe a prose poem. It’s such a singular reading experience I’ve never been able to get over it, and here I am reading it again.
The spirit of Baudelaire—not really his work—stalks these pages. Steps has no plot, few characters. It’s a series of beguiling impressions, knitted together with jagged violence and a detached—and supremely disquieting—narrative voice. Here’s a taste:
Work was scarce during the war; I was too thin to work in the fields, and the peasants preferred to use their own children or relatives on the farms. As a vagrant, I was everybody’s victim. To amuse himself the farmer with whom I was finally boarded would take hold of me by my collar, drag me up close and then strike me. Sometimes he would call his brother or his friends to share in a game in which I had to stand still—staring ahead with open eyes—while they stood a few paces in front of me and spit at my face, betting on how often they could hit me in the eye.
This spitting game became very popular in the village.
The flowers of evil indeed.
This passage reveals a lot—about the narrator’s passivity in the face of suffering and humiliation—and yet very little. Where is this taking place? How old is the vagrant? And so on.
Kosinski haunts American letters with his controversies, his books both good and bad, and ultimately his absence. He was a major writer for years. He appeared on television talk shows and in films. His books won awards. He was a judge on the P.E.N. committee.
And now he is a disturbed presence on the fringe, facing the long plunge into the abyss of forgotten literature.
There are reasons. Kosinski is accused of plagiarizing books written outside the U.S., and stealing work from writers he hired to help him. Neither charge has been fully substantiated, although there’s evidence in the works themselves for both. He’s also accused of lying about his wartime suffering, exaggerating his experiences. Worst of all, he’s been accused of capitalizing on the wave of Jewish survival novels in the shadow of Dachau, Auschwitz to make a name for himself.
There are rumors. Of a bizarre sex life. Of an immense yearning for fame. Of a blank emptiness at his core.
His books are uneven. Being There is a lightweight Candide, a satirical parable of a simpleton gardener who manages, through his vague aphoristic speech, to convince others he’s a genius. Blind Dates is a dastardly novel of corporate raiding—plus incest and rape and terrorism—amidst bizarre sexual encounters; it’s intriguing trash written in polished, chilly prose.
Intriguing trash could be a good descriptor of much of Kosinski’s work. He operates in a sleazy, leering mode. And yet, there’s something wild and dashing about his books, even the bad ones, that make for fun reading. He has some of that magic many of the popular authors have. Reading his books creates and fulfills a craving, like eating popcorn. Or twizzlers. Or smoking crack.
Kosinski is the type of beguiling writer tht brought me to literature in the first place: frustrating, titillating, dark dark dark.
But Kosinski is a dark presence for other reasons, too. He committed suicide in a ghastly manner, ingesting lethal doses of booze and pills and then suffocating himself with a plastic bag. His suicide note could be a postscript to Steps: “I am going to put myself to sleep now a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity.”
How long did he think on those words before writing them down?
Back to the work at hand. Steps flows from a haunted, landless twilight world, following disembodied voices in a surreal, disturbed land.
The prose is crystalline, taut. Here’s a sample, of a narrator discovering a naked woman kept chained in a barn:
A naked woman sat behind the grating, babbling meaningless words, staring at me with wide watery eyes.
I approached her. The woman moved, but she did not seem frightened. She stared at me, then began crawling toward me, rubbing her body, scratching and spreading her legs. I noticed her pock-marked face, her gnawed fingernails, her emaciated thighs stippled with bluish bruises. It occurred to me that we were alone in the barn and that she was totally defenseless.
Sex, violation, temptation, violence, apathy—it’s all there in this passage, and throughout the book.
It might be a work of genius. It might be a work of putrid exploitation. (I think it’s a little bit of both.) Steps is undeniably fascinating and strange, exhilarating to read and deeply unsettling. I can’t find an analogue. The films of Claude Chabrol but filmed by Bela Tar? Perhaps the movies of Gasper Noe, if they were just a touch more subtle?
I can’t figure out if Kosinski is using a disturbed narrative voice to unsettle the reader, or if he is himself unhinged, and this is the book where Kosinski’s derangement is exposed. Steps is, at its core, a potent dark work animated by sexual violence and moral passivity. The narrators—except for one lone example—don’t give a shit about the horrors around them, and often take part in the mayhem.
There’s a story about a giant fat woman servicing faceless men. A retarded village woman kept in a cage. An office worker who uses his friend to screw a woman without her consent. An old man killed for no reason. Sections of it are absolutely horrifying. There’s a monstrous ego-centricism and a skewered eroticism.
The vignettes are set off by little bits of dialogue between a man and a woman. It’s never clear if the dialogue is all part of one ongoing conversation or bits of many.
How much of this is Kosinski and how much of it is fiction gives the book it’s humming energy. Here’s a passage, near the end, that might serve as a summary of his life’s work:
I envied those who lived here and seemed so free, having nothing to regret and nothing to look forward to. In the world of birth certificates, medical examinations, punch cards and computers, in the world of telephone books, passports, bank accounts, insurance plans, wills, credit cards, pensions, mortgages, and loans they lived unattached, each of them aware only of himself.
If I could magically speak their language and change the shade of my skin, the shape of my skull, the texture of my hair, I would transform myself into one of them. This way I would drive away from me the image of what I once had been and what I might become; would drive away the fear of the law which I had learned, the idea of what failure meant, the yardstick of success; would banish the dream of possession, of things to be owned, used, and consumed, and the symbols of ownership—credentials, diplomas, deeds. This change would give me no other choice but to remain alive.
Thus the world would begin and die with me.
Steps is the predecessor to Denis Johnson’s superb short story collection, Jesus’s Son, but its presence can be felt in other writers, from Roberto Bolaño’s odd, jarring violence and creepy pornography to the extreme fiction of Dennis Cooper, Michel Houellbecq (imagine being stuck in a conversation with these two at a party), even a faint trace of him in Patricia Highsmith and Joyce Carol Oates.
Welcome Kosinski into your life, and he won’t easily leave.
Steps beat out some very fine works of fiction from 1968.
Richard Brautigan continued his countercultural nonsense with In Watermelon Sugar. Gore Vidal published his soon-to-be-camp-classic Myra Breckinridge. John Updike released his spicy, erotic mini-masterpiece, Couples. Norman Mailer published his “non-fiction” novel, Armies of the Night. Frederick Exley’s fake memoir, A Fan’s Notes was released. Joyce Carol Oates, John Barth, Frederick Rogers all published novels.
And Philip K. Dick, at the time still rutting around in the world of pulp paperbacks, released his fantastic, one of the all time great novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Sheep is a better novel than Steps—equally crazed, just in a religious as opposed to sexual sense—but Steps feels right for the times. A sense of disembodied violence. A portent of impending doom. An unraveling of any moral consensus, these Kosinski delivers. And in the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. What can literature offer, Kosinski seems to be asking, besides titillation and despair?
In 1965, Saul Bellow won the National Book Award for Herzog, his novel about an depressed intellectual in a mid-life crisis. All my misgivings around Bellow are gone; he is one of our country’s greatest writers, on the strength of this novel alone. It is a stunning, masterly work, supremely magnificent.
The novel follows its namesake, a weak-willed failure who is lonely, easily tempted. He has three failed marriages. He has two children, both of whom live with their mothers. He is losing more each day to his third wife, who also might be taking his sanity. He’s a professor who’s unraveling, and he knows it. His thoughts drift. He shifts out of present time into memories, impressions. He writes letters, many of them in his head. He writes to his friends and colleagues. He writes to presidents and scientists, to philosophers long dead.
He understands himself enough to be frustrated by his shortcomings. “I fail to understand!” he thinks to himself throughout the novel. He is weary. He wants to change, but can’t quite break out of his self-destructive patterns. He sees his failures approaching, but can’t quite avert them. He is exhausted with himself, and the novel begins with his vacillating over a new girlfriend. The novel follows his disassembly, and then the slow, torturous (and often hilarious) reassembly as a happier person.
The characters are amazing. Each feels distinct and alive. Each is drawn in quick, masterly comic strokes.
Bellow’s considerable descriptive talents and vast erudition are anchored by a lean, taut narrative. Unlike March, that sort of meanders on and on, Herzog is a controlled, precise work, bursting with life, yes, but also propelled by a not so slow burn. There’s real madness and menace lurking in these pages, too, if you look for it.
The story is simple, following a week in Herzog’s life. The structure and technique are complex, alternating from third to first person, interweaving the letters—many of them incomplete—in and out of the narrative. The results are dazzling. Here’s a taste:
Unemployed consciousness, he wrote in the pantry. I grew up in a time of widespread unemployment, and never believed there might be work for me. Finally, jobs appeared, but somehow my consciousness remained unemployed. And after all, he continued beside the fire, the human intellect is one of the great forces in the universe. It can’t safely remain unused. . . . The soul requires intensity. At the same time virtue bores mankind. Read Confucious again. With vast populations, the world must prepare to turn Chinese.
Through Herzog, Bellow grapples with the major failings of the end of civilization prognosticators. He tackles Freud, Hegel, Marx, plus a whole lot of dudes I don’t know. He accepts their strengths and critiques their shortcomings. His intellect—both Herzog’s and Bellow’s—is ravishing, probing.
Lust, free will, nature versus nurture. The atrocities of the 20th century. The failure of our political systems to bring us happiness. The specter of thermo-nuclear war. The impermanence of a life. The suffering of animals. The burden of ethics. The need for rituals in our post-religious age.
Herzog refuses to be eaten by history. He is a hero. He maintains bravery in spite of species annihilation. Philosophy is in use, in defense of something: the dignity of a single life. If the life in question is selfish, arrogant, diffident, self-rationalizing, vulnerable and unhinged, that same life is also brace, self-sacrificing, searching, generous and wonderful. Bellow does nothing less than redeem humanity.
That’s enough hyperbole. Let’s get to the prose.
Alongside Bellow’s impressive erudition is his storytelling. His immense talents are, in a sense, squandered in his lesser novels.
Page after page of superior prose, crackling, funny, poetic, leaps off the page. Here he is traveling by train, slipping back in time:
The train crossed at the St. Lawrence. Moses pressed the pedal and through the strained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing. Then he stood at the window. The water shone and curved on great slabs of rock, spinning into foam at the Lachine Rapids, where it sucked and rumbled. On the other shore was Caughnawaga, where the Indians lived in shacks raised on stilts. Then came the burnt summer fields. The windows were open. The echo of the train came back from the straw like a voice through a beard. The engine sowed cinders and soot over the fiery flowers and the hairy knobs of weed.
But that was forty years behind him. Now the train was ribbed for speed, a segmented tube of brilliant steel.
And again, here, where Herzog is speaking with the aunt of the ex-wife, Madeleine, who just cuckolded him:
“Yes, I was stupid—a blockhead. But that was one of the problems I was working on, you see, that people can be free now but the freedom doesn’t have any content. It’s like a howling emptiness. Madeleine shared my interests, I thought—she’s a studious person.”
“She says you were a dictator, a regular tyrant. You bullied her.”
I do seem to be a broken-down monarch of some kind, he was thinking, like my old man, the princely immigrant and ineffectual bootlegger.
And here, too, as he readies himself for a night with his new girlfriend, who scares him:
. . . Perhaps he had given the impression that he was a little stingy. Or else he had awakened a feeling of protectiveness in her, an effect he often produced. He wondered at times whether he didn’t belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities in life. Herzog’s mouth formed a soft but twisted smile as he considered whether he really had inwardly decided years ago to set up a deal—a psychic offer—meekness in exchange for preferential treatment. Such a bargain was feminine, or, extended to trees, animals, childlike. None of these self-judgments had any terror for him; no percentage now in quarreling with what one was. There was the thing—the composite, the mystical achievement of natural forces and his own spirit. He opened the paisley Hong Kong robe and looked at his naked body. He was no child. And the house in Ludeyville, a disaster in every other way, had kept him fit. Wrestling with that old ruin in an effort to recover his legacy made his arms muscular. Extended the lease of narcissism for a little while. Gave him strength to carry a heavy-buttocked woman to bed.
I love it.
The writing is dense but thrilling. Writing about Herzog at all feels futile, as with any great work of art it teaches you how to read it as you are reading it, shows you how to enjoy it as you’re enjoying it.
It’s an immaculate, big-hearted novel, and it belongs alongside The Wapshot Chronicle in its poetic intensity, its luminous erudition, its desperate lows and its wondrous joy.
The writing is somehow maximalist, poetic and large, and also spare, elegant and taut.
I wish I could read it again for the first time.
1964 was a great year for American fiction.
Bellow beat out Louis Auchinsloss, John Hawkes, Richard Kim, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabakov for the top prize. Bellow deserved to win, but there were other, very fine novels released.
Thomas Berger published his fabulous Little Big Man. Richard Brautigan released another oddball novel, A Confederate General at Big Sur. H.P. Lovecraft, long dead, released the excellent At the Mountains of Madness and Other Stories. Hubert Selby, Jr. published his challenging but influential novel, Last Exit To Brooklyn. Gore Vidal released his excellent (thinly) fictionalized epistolary novel of ancient Rome, Julian. And, Shel Silverstein published The Giving Tree, a near-perfect picture book.
Leaving the book behind, for the last few days, I’ve felt sad. As if a friend has passed.
It’s an astonishing work, one of the finest novels I’ve read in years. I keep thinking, how many more novels are going to catch me in the head and the heart so fully as this one?
It’s also something of a dead-end, the apotheosis of the realistic novel of ideas. There’s nowhere else for the form to go.
The late 1950s had already brought new voices. The 1960s amplified these trends, of irony, inventive wordplay, nihilistic exhaustion. I heard someone say just yesterday that Bellow managed to keep the realistic, literary novel alive, single-handedly. I believe this is true. And I believe with Herzog, this sub-genre found its peak.
And after Herzog, the deluge.
John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, Joan Didion, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut—some of these had been kicking around for a while, others were fast approaching—were a new wave of American writing, a blurring between genres, between fact and fiction, high and low brow, art and artifice. A sense of cool detachment, or of blasé genius; a love of puzzling wordplay, or a labyrinthine grammatical sense; a mashup of the modernism of Joyce and Faulkner with the destructive creativity and migraine nonsense of Jarry and Beckett—these new wolves romped through American letters.
Meta-textual games, paranoia, distrust in humanity and the arts, a fatal disbelief in the power of stories, an ironic knife blade slicing through anything sincere or heartfelt, deconstruction, postmodernism, an unwinding, madness—after Bellow (or because of him) the novels implodes, resets. The form is exhausted.
New minds auger.