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NBAW, number 33: 1990’s Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson.

15 Oct

 (I haven’t given up on these. I’ve been writing writing writing on my latest manuscript, really trying to be professional, stay the course, keep my thoughts cued into what I’ve been working on, and the result has been a slower output for the blog. And, I’ve been writing all these intercoursing poems. And, this particular entry was difficult to write.)

1.

In 1990, Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for his beguiling high seas adventure cum philosophical rumination on the effects of slavery, Middle Passage.

The story follows a young hustler named Rutherford Calhoun, making his roguish way through early 19th century New Orleans. He’s a bit of a cad and a bit of a rake, who hires on to a slaving ship to escape marrying Isadora, a schoolteacher who has manipulated Calhoun’s creditors into applying pressure on him.

Johnson captures the New Orleans flavor of Kate Chopin: polyglot, multicultural, multi-lingual, racially complex. Here he has young Rutherford as he first enters New Orleans:

“New Orleans, you should know, was a city tailored to my taste for the excessive, exotic fringes of life, a world port of such extravagance in 1829 when I arrived from southern Illinois—a newly freed bondman, my papers in an old portmanteau, a gift from my master in Makanda—that I dropped my bags in a shock of recognition shot up my spine to my throat, rolling off my tongue as I whispered, “Here, Rutherford is home.” So it seemed those first months to a country boy with cotton in his hair, a great whore of a city in her glory, a kind of glandular Golden Age. She was if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then at least to a steamy sexuality. To the newcomer she was an assault of smells: molasses commingled with mangoes in the sensually damp air, the stench of slop in a muddy street, and, from the labyrinthine warehouses on the docks, the odor of Brazilian coffee and Mexican oils. And also this: the most exquisitely beautiful women in the world, thoroughbreds of pleasure created two centuries before by the French for their enjoyment.”

 

And this passage, which unfolds right near the first page, shows how deeply satisfying—and fun—Johnson’s prose style is. He creates magic in these pages.

The ship, aptly named the Republic, is run by a tyrannical polymath named Falcon. He’s set his ship on a tribe called the Allmuseri. His interests are more in the artifacts of the enslaved people than the slaves themselves. He’s also a dark philosopher in the pessimistic vein. Much of the novel is a grand maritime adventure in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym[1]. And like Poe’s only novel, Middle Passage turns weird, nasty, and cannibalistic.

Calhoun is an octoroon, and at first has nothing but disdain for the pitiful cargo. But he slowly begins to see that his part in the larger slave system is terrible.

There are arguments, storms, a mutiny.

And the cruel, calculating Falcon has something mysterious onboard indeed; he claims to have captured the god of a small tribe of Africans.

The book is a marvelous recasting of the high seas adventure as a rigorous moral examination of strength, power, and moral culpability. Here’s another taste of Johnson’s very fine writing style, with Falcon giving one of his many speeches to the young Calhoun:

“Another thing about not being physical most of the time is that it can’t understand any of the sciences based on matter, like geometry. Heh heh. It can’t do geometry, you see, ’cause it’s a god.’

‘Are you saying even a god has limitations?’

‘That I am. And not only limitations, lad. I daresay it has downright contradictions. For example, a god can’t know it’s own nature. For itself, it can’t be an object of knowledge. Do you see the logic here? The Allmuseri god is everything, so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on—a separation between knower and known—never rises in its experience. You might say empirical knowledge is on man’s side, not God’s. It’s our glory and grief both, a function of the duality of the mind I mentioned a moment ago.’”

The novel is so much fun, in fact, that the terror and horror of the historical middle passage sneaks up on you.

 

2.

Slavery is so horrifying—hundreds of years of torture, murder, dismemberment and dehumanization—that novelists can’t convey the cosmic horror of it while also maintaining any sort of story. In fact, the hundreds of years of the slave trade is so unaccountably horrific it seems obscene to try and create fiction—with its cascading ambiguities—out of it. (Think the famous line of writing poetry after World War I.)

Johnson understands this, and so approaches things with a light touch[2]. But he’s up to grand subversion in this swashbuckler.

He mixes genres. He breaks rules. In the middle of the novel there’s (possible) magic. He’s philosophical. One of his major points is devastating, and sneaks up on you. Slavery wasn’t just about individual suffering; entire civilizations—their language, folklore, totems, food, culture and even gods, too—were hijacked, appropriated or destroyed.

Johnson’s clever narration tucks the horrors of slavery into Calhoun’s coming of age and (ever so slow) moral awakening. In a king of fictional sleight of hand, Johnson has all these little tragic splinters poking through Calhoun’s selfishness. We’re reading for the plot, something out of H. Ryder Haggard. But we remember the suffering.

Here’s a sample, of the Allmuseri first being led aboard the ship:

“Once the Allmuseri saw the great ship and the squalid pit that would haouse them sardined belly-to-buttocks in the orlop, with its dead air and razor-teethed bilge rats, each slave forced to lie spoon-fashion on his left side to relieve the pressure against his heart—after seeing this, the Africans panicked. Believe it or not, a barker told us they thought we were barbarians shipping them to America to be eaten. They saw us as savages. In their mythology Europeans had once been members of their tribe—rulers, even, for a time—but fell into what was for these people the blackest of sins. The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allmuseri vision of Hell. And that was where we lived: purgatory. That was where we were taking them—into the madness of multiplicity—and the thought of it drove them wild. A one-handed Allmuseri thief attacked Cringle with a belaying pin and was shot by the mate. . . . A woman pitched her baby overboard into the waters below us. At least two men tried to follow, straining against their chains, and this sudden flurry of resistance brought out the worst in Falcon, if you can imagine that. He beat them until blood came. . . .

It was then my hair started going white.”

Brilliant.

3.

W.E.B. DuBois is a towering figure in our country’s culture, a polymath thinker, essayist, novelist, and civil rights trail-blazer. His strand of black high intellectualism is alive in Johnson, who writes in the same philosophical tradition. Only, Johnson is a hell of a storyteller, too.

On one level, the novel is a lean high seas adventure. But there are layers, narrative, allegorical, linguistic.

One trick he’s done is to appropriate the white adventure narratives of H. Ryder Haggard. The hero is every bit as naughty and dishonest as Alan Quartermain, something out of Rudyard Kipling, a hustler, a liar, a speculator.

So the pulp fictions of Haggard, the linguistic awareness of Chopin, the philosophical high-mindedness of DuBois, as well as the grand nautical tradition of Melville and Conrad. In fact, Middle Passage is in a kind of dialogue with Conrad’s The Nigger on the Narcissus. (What a pairing these two novels would be for a college class!) There are echoes of Edgar Allen Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym[3], the traditional excitement blasted through with flashes of phosphene high weirdness.

We can add another strand, as Johnson is also grappling with Huckleberry Finn, both with the content of that exemplary novel and its form.

Johnson is sly. He’s similar to Percival Everett—a very fine novelist—in his deconstruction of genre tropes, while simultaneously fulfilling them.

And this great syncretic novel, through grand synthesis and appropriation, has taken back a stretch of cultural space. He’s subverted the colonialist narrative.

Rudyard, eat your heart out.

 

4.

There is a caveat to this marvelous little novel: the cover. Every cover I’ve seen is horrible and misleading, portraying a sort of young adult coming-of-age story. It’s horrid, cheesy, bespeaking of the culture wars of the 90s, only with book designers suffering from severe aphasia. I avoided it for years. And I know, that whole book/cover thing, but I don’t like reading ugly books.

There’s this one, which is so poorly designed it’s as if the publisher wanted the book to fail:

 

Such a bad cover for such a great book.

Such a bad cover for such a great book.

And this one, which isn’t much better:

 

This one isn't just bad, but horribly misleading.

This one isn’t just bad, but horribly misleading.

In fact, I owned a copy of this novel—a friend gave it to me and I kept it due to the writer’s reputation—but I didn’t read it for years. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Don’t repeat my mistake. It’s great.

5.

1990 was not a great year for American fiction. Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King (admittedly, it was one of his better novels, The Stand), Robert Ludlum, Elizabeth George, and Scott Turow all published novels, the era of the big-name, blockbuster pulp from dudes approaching middle age. Kurt Vonnegut released Hocus Pocus, one of his lesser works. Thomas Pynchon published Vineland, similarly seen as lightweight. Joe Landsdale and Elmore Leonard put out novels.

Around the world, Orhan Pamuk, Ian McEwan, Roddy Doyle, P.D. James, and Hanif Kureishi, all put out novels. (And yes, there aren’t many women on either of those lists.)

The year held some great novels, though. James Ellroy published his dense, labyrinthine L.A. Confidential. Tim O’Brien released his novel in stories, The Things They Carried. Both are fabulous novels.

But Middle Passage is something special. A diamond-hard gem. You just have to look past the cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] I love it. But, goddamn, it’s a freaky deaky disturbing novel.

[2] Fraser, in Flash for Freedom, delivers one of the most horrifying depictions of slavery, tucked inside a comic picaresque novel.

[3] It’s a fabulous, if deeply troubling, novel. See footnote 1.

2016: A year of disrupted reading.

3 Jan

(2016 was a terrible year for me and for our country. A series of professional setbacks jarred my writing, sapped my resolve and left me an inner stew of rancor and resentment. As above, so below. The sinister election cycle and the ghastly result haven’t helped any. I’ve neglected the blog, too, although I have a dozen or so posts in various states of decay. But I did maintain my reading log, and here it is, 2016, with notes and annotations. I also read The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and a smattering of monthly comic books. Around November I stopped keeping track of everything I was reading, and a few books slipped off the list. The most memorable novels I read were probably The People in the Trees and The Painted Bird. Anyway, here’s to a new year.)

 

Trying It Out In America: Literary and Other Performances—Richard Poirer’s essays on writers and writing, focusing on Whitman and Mailer and others, is funny, well-written and intriguing.

 

The Seven Madmen—Roberto Arlt’s astonishing novel of murder, madness and social instability. A down on his luck inventor decides to kidnap an insane friend to help fund an insane man, known as the Astrologer, who wants to destabilize the world to bring back an age of mystery and magic. Sounds funny, but reads as tragedy. Excellent and unforgettable.

 

Crow—Ted Hughes, y’all! His astonishing poems concerning the origin of good and evil, centering on a sometimes sinister creature named Crow, who is part Lucifer, part Pan, part Amerindian totem. Haunting stuff, and a great place to start for poetry neophytes. (A category I will probably remain in the rest of my life.)

 

The Armies of the Night—Norman Mailer inserts himself into this extended piece of new journalism, “history as novel,” as he calls it, and “the novel as history.” It’s a great companion to other books on the sixties, and Mailer’s abilities are on display. But it feels a bit dated. I keep coming back to Mailer (and Burroughs) even though he as often as not disappoints.

 

Exiles Return—Malcolm Cowley’s revisiting of the Lost Generation—their values, their ambitions, their triumphs and failures—is a masterpiece of criticism, belief and biography. I’ve wanted to read this for years.

 

Mapuche—Argentinian crime novel about a detective obsessed with the disappeared. Pretty good, solid stuff, if maybe not quite as strong as it sounds. A transvestite is murdered.

 

The Thirsty Muse—A critical and literary history of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O’Neill through their alcoholism. Pretty damn good stuff.

 

The Hundred Days—Joseph Roth’s novel of Napoleon’s return from exile is interesting, if a major letdown compared to His masterful The Radetsky March.

 

Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s—A solid history of the Lost Generation and their adventures and travails in Paris. Really enjoyed this one.

 

The Movie Book—I can never read enough overviews, histories, anecdotes and biographies about the movies and the people who make them. Great photographs.

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—Junot Diaz’s polyglot novel traces a cursed family from the Dominican Republic, back and forth in time. This novel is many things, most of them enjoyable, some of them profound, but the pop cultural references and the occasional light touch barely conceal the anger.

 

Breaking and Entering—Joy Williams’s novel follows a married couple who break into vacation homes in Florida, as a way of adventure and relaxation. Stunning prose; she makes it all look so easy. (She’s kin, writer-wise, to Ellen Gilchrist.)

 

A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale of trauma and sadism with little moments of kindness is compelling to read, but the engines are mucked with narrative torture-porn. She can write and write well, but the punishing, relentless torment of her abused man-child is . . . hard to understand. Why write a 750-page novel about how grim and shitty life is? Thomas Bernhard does this in 100. Still, unforgettable.

 

Three Hainish Novels—On a recommendation, I tried these novels from Ursela Le Guin. I shouldn’t have. The ideas are fine but the writing isn’t for me. There’s a couple of hours I’ll never get back.

 

The Story of a New Name—Elena Ferrante’s second novel of a sour friendship in the violent, mafia-controlled poor sections of Naples. Lean and superb.

 

Captain America: Loose Nuke—Writer Remender finds his groove with this third arc of his Captain America run. (His first two involved Cap trapped on another earth, with Arnim Zola in control. A great idea, but poorly executed.) Remender uses Nuke, the great cipher of Marvel comics, a stand-in for American foreign malfeasance, weakness and strength, depending on the author.

 

Terrorist—Moving and compelling comic portrait of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed Franz Ferdinand and inadvertently started World War I. Great, haunting art and a firm presentation of the background conflicts in the Balkans. The best book on the subject since Hans Koning’s Death of a Schoolboy.

 

Best of Enemies—Comic history of the first order, about U.S. relations with the Middle East. Insightful and excellent.

 

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds—The cover lists Alan Moore as the writer but he isn’t. He’s more of a story consultant, and it shows. Old characters from his late-90s run of Wildstorm comics make their appearances here, but the pacing is off and the story isn’t clear. Would probably unread this if I could.

 

Bacchus: Immortality Isn’t Forever—Eddie Campbell, underground comic artist extraordinaire—kicks off his long-running series of Bacchus in the present-day with moody art and a light, narrative touch. Not for everyone, but intriguing.

 

The White Hotel—A strange companion, of sorts, to Nabakov’s Pale Fire, a novel with poems, surreal catastrophes, and a case file written by Sigmund Freud. Perhaps not as great as its underground reputation—and inferior to Pale Fire, but most novels are—but still a good read. Pretentious weirdness.

 

Love Me Back—Fierce and stunning debut novel, about a troubled waitress and her navigations through an often sinister and traumatic world.

 

A Brief History of Seven Killings—Marlon James won the Man-Booker for this explosive crime novel based on a real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley. James captures the rough and tumble terrors of Jamaica by utilizing the pidgin English of its people.

 

Solo—Wright Morris, a very fine writer now mostly forgotten, wrote a memoir of his time in Paris before World War II. He was young, hungry and alive, and this is one of the better books about the joys and risks of travel.

 

The Voyeurs—Graphic novel that is hilarious and self-lacerating, an American woman’s journey with her boyfriend to Paris. Similar to Peepshow.

 

An Imaginary Life—David Malouf’s novel of the ancient world follows Ovid and a feral child. Ovid has been banished to the edge of the empire by Augustus. There he tries to civilize a wild child. Short, lyrical, memorable.

 

Between the World and Me—Te-Nahesi Coates’s letter to his son outlines the dangers his son faces in America. It’s a very fine book, more of an extended essay really, that is touching and angry. The sections about his own experiences with police are jaw-dropping.

 

“The Great God Pan”—Arthur Machen’s short story I’ve been meaning to read for almost a decade. Atmospheric and intriguing, yes, but written in the Victorian style that I have less and less patience for as I get older.

 

“The Killers”—Gots to read it as often as you can, Hemingway’s perfect short story about two hitmen waiting to murder a boxer, while Nick Adams is held hostage with a black cook and the owner. So good.

 

The Oxherding Tale—Making my way through Charles Johnson’s oeuvre, and this is a funny—laugh out loud funny—novel about a mixed-race slave child who is educated by a free-thinking weirdo intellectual. Part renunciation of Candide, part picaresque romp.

 

Memorial—poet Alice Oswald invigorates the dead from the Iliad in a haunting and majestic 80-page poem. An absolute stunner.

 

Bacchus, volume one—A phone book, and a rich, strange, diverting, digressive comic book that follows the aging god of wine through essays, history, and gang-land violence. Eddie Campbell is fun, but not easy. For fans of literature and comics, here you go.

 

The Farmer’s Daughter—Jim Harrison’s latest novellas, and there quite good. My favorite is The Games of Night, a werewolf story in typical Harrison fashion, as a metaphor for sex and fishing and hunting and meat-eating.

 

The Long Home—the great William Gay’s first novel, and it’s a great and ghastly southern gothic, with loads of humor thrown in. Gay is a master of funny, deep south dialogue.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

The Painted Bird—Jersy Kosinski’s World War II novel follows a lost child wandering through the Polish countryside. Kosinski paints one horrifying atrocity after another. One of the hardest, meanest, vilest novels I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read 120 Days of Sodom, The Story of the Eye, The Story of O, and My Dark Places.)

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 1.—Hickman’s beginning of the end. He uses cosmic dangers to turn the super-intelligent characters—Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Hulk, Tony Stark, and a handful of others—from heroes into world-destroying monsters. It’s a grim and in its way terrifying feat, but Hickman pulls it off.

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 2—The second installment, and it pits an aged Captain America against the Illuminati, the cabal of elite Marvel heroes who are destroying other realities to save the earth. Hickman is my kind of nerd: he uses Starbrand.

 

Uncanny Avengers: Avenge the Earth—Remender is a solid writer, but Acuna is a great artist. The storyline follows Thor’s failure, the destruction of the earth by one of the Celestials. The X-men are shunted away to an alternate timeline, where the children of Kang rule. But Kang has a trick up his sleeve, a way to save the old earth, by erasing everything that’s happened on their new planet. Convoluted, grim, but rewarding. (Not for new fans.)

 

The Getaway—One of the few Jim Thompson novels I haven’t read. It’s a crime caper gone wrong, with a quick double cross after a bank job and a surreal, violent journey into Mexico. Sam Peckinpah made a movie version that was pretty damn good.

 

Joe Sacco: Journalism—A collection of Joe Sacco’s shorter pieces. He’s an excellent journalist, and his work is a great argument for more comics journalism.

 

The Monster Show—David J. Skal’s history of horror movies (and to a lesser extent, horror fiction) shows time and again how atrocities in the real world impacted the presentation of horror tropes. I’ve come across most of it all before, but still a damn good book.

 

Area 51—comic reportage on the government testing site that is shrouded in mystery and, apparently, the air force likes it that way.

 

Winter’s Bone—Woodrell’s very fine crime novel follows a young woman looking for her missing meth-cook of a father, across a wintry Arkansas haunted by violence blood feuds and bloodshed. Great stuff.

 

Robert Altman: Jumping off a Cliff—For research, but worth reading. A careful study of Altman, his methods, his friends and collaborators, his victories and failures.

 

Junkets on a Sad Planet—Tom Clark’s biographical poems about the life of John Keats. I wanted to like it more than I did.

 

Palefire—diverting graphic novel about a young woman’s night at a party and her crush on an angry dude. Not bad, but . . .

 

Watermelon Wine—research, but excellent. Frye Gaillard wrote this in the 1970s, about the country music scene in Nashville, and how big money invaded the angry, hillbilly and mountain music.

 

Winners Got Scars, Too—I’ve owned this book for 15 years, was never sure what it was about, and never read it. Until now. It’s the story of Johnny Cash, zipping back and forth in time. Pretty damn good, if a bit straight-forward.

 

The Patrick Melrose Novels: Bad News—I read the first of these a few years ago. It’s brilliant, funny, devastating, about young Patrick Melrose and his horrid, rich family. I was so upset by the first book I put it down. Now I’ve picked it back up. Acerbic doesn’t begin to describe the rancor and rage hiding beneath the cleverness and wit.

 

West of Everything—Brilliant examination of western films and novels by Jane Tompkins. Picked this up at random, and enjoyed every minute of it: personal, academic, historical, a spicy and pungent book.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

The Devil all the Time—Donald Ray Pollack’s first story collection, Knockemstiff, knocked me on my ass. This, his first novel, is similarly strong, grotesque, masculine. A very fine writer who shoves the reader into the gutter.

 

Patience—Daniel Clowes time travel fantasia is beautiful, cruel and fascinating. One of his better books, which is saying a lot. I can’t stop thinking about it.

 

The Trial—Mairowit’z graphic adaptation of Kafka’s best book. His notes are excellent, and informative.

 

Eat this document—Dana Spiotta’s subtle story of two ex-radicals living new lives after an act of terrorism twenty years prior. Spiotta is a strong writer, and does great work comparing the radicalism of the 1960s with the weird rebellion of the early 1990s.

 

Lovecraft Country—Matt Ruff riffs on America’s racism, pulp fiction from the 1930s, and the contemporary horror literature scene. Reminded me of Victor LaVelle’s Big Machine.

 

Animal Man, vols. 1-3—Grant Morrison’s self-reflective run on Animal Man remains not only one of his greatest comics, but also one of the best interrogations of morality, fate and responsibility in fiction. It’s getting better all the time.

 

Warning Shadows—Gary Giddins essays on film are chewy and delightful, intriguing and fun to read. I loved this book.

 

Where All Light Tends to Go—A southern noir, or Appalachian noir, that’s pretty good stuff. An eighteen year old man-boy works for his meth-kingpin father. Then it all goes to shit.

 

The Sellout—A dense, complex and funny as fuck novel about a black man in contemporary Los Angeles who ends up owning a slave. References galore, and a brisk pace that doesn’t hide the seething anger at all. Went on to win the Man-Booker.

 

Country: The Crazy roots of Rock n Roll—Nick Tosches being Nick Tosches. A rumination on and rooting around in early rockabilly and country music stars, stitched together with first-class research and Tosches demon-dog sensibility.

 

The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs—I’ve been on a kick lately, reading books on music and musicians. I enjoy Greil Marcus’s writing as much as anyone’s, even if I don’t always agree or even quite understand. He has a strange lyricism, a chewy way with words, that grips me. Here he roots around in the lesser known songs that often resulted in big hits.

 

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh—An astonishing biography of Tennessee Williams, one of the best I’ve ever read, sexy, erotic, heart-breaking. A must-read for everyone interested in theatre, fiction or wild lives on the periphery.
Killing Yourself To Live—wunderkind Chuck Klosterman’s personal journey visiting the sites where rock stars died, only it’s really an odyssey through his fuckups, relationships, tastes.

 

Beatlebone—Kevin Barry’s follow-up to his acclaimed City of Bohane follows John Lennon over a four-day crack up, as he tries to visit his own personal island. An astonishing marvel of a novel.

 

The People in the Trees—Hanya Yanihagarah’s first novel is a compelling, sinister experience. A Nobel-prize-winning anthropologist is accused of sexually molesting his adopted children. His defense—and the novel­—is his life story, layered with intimations of psychopathic impulses and a bizarre disaffection for fellow human beings. Excellent stuff.

 

The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend—the story behind the story, with the captive narratives of the 1830s and 1840s, on up to John Ford’s drunken misbehavior on the set. A good, solid book.

 

The Fifth Beatle—graphic biography on Brian Epstein, with beautiful art, if a bit sloppy storytelling.

 

In a Lonely Place—Dorothy Hughes’s absolutely smashing crime novel from the 1940s—and a damn good film from Nicholas Ray ten or so years later—follows Dixon Steele, a psychopath and murderer, as he meanders through Los Angeles in the post-war years. What makes it so good, besides the spare and clean writing, is Hughes places the reader’s sympathy with Steele, showing is repulsive, but identifiable, self-rationalization and self-pity.

 

A Manuel for Cleaning Women—Lucia Berlin’s autobiographical stories are straight-forward, brilliantly written, heart-breaking and wonderful.

 

Paper Girls—Brian Vaughan’s newest science fiction comic, and it’s a fun ride. Papergirls, who delivery newspapers, run afoul of a war between time traveling factions in the suburbs of the 1980s. Great fun.

 

Showman—Had this book for a long time. Film critic and historian David Thomson covers the life and films of David Selznick, the brilliant, contradictory, self-sabotaging movie producer who made Rebecca and Gone with the Wind, among other films.

 

The Expendable Man—Dorothy Hughes’s mid-century crime masterpiece, a tour into the dark corridors of American justice, where a black man is accused of murdering a white woman.

 

Father of Lies—A very disturbing novel by Brian Evenson, his first, about a pastor in a church who is hurting his parishioners, but he doesn’t see it that way. Reminiscent of Jim Thomson, in a good way.

 

The Bad and the Beautiful—An interesting overview of 1950s movie culture, with the gossip rags as the narrative through-point for the book. Douglous Sirk, Charles Loughton, Burt Lancaster, Kim Novak—an intriguing book, if perhaps not quite the overview of the decade’s movies that it seems.

 

I Lost it at the Movies—Pauline Kael’s best book? Probably. A collection film reviews and essays, including her devastating, and hilarious, take-down of La Notte, La Dolce Vita, and Last Year at Marienbad.

 

The Dick Gibson Show—Stanley Elkin’s superb, and very strange, story of a man’s love affair with radio, and the pitch and timbre of people’s voices, including his own. Similar to Pynchon, although with more syntactic control.

 

The Great Movies III—Roger Ebert’s astonishing last collection of film essays, every bit as good as part II, and a very fine piece of writing. I loved it.

 

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies—Hard to describe, as it hasn’t dated well, but a precursor to most of the great American movie critics.

 

Post Office—Charles Bukowski’s first novel, a very funny, bitter exploration of a working man’s life, and how he hates his job. A great place to start with Bukowski.

 

Women—Bukowski’s pornographic novel about his relationships with different women, when he is in his fifties and beginning to build a reputation as a poet.

 

The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking—Olivia Laing’s excellent history cum travelogue of the hard drinking of a handful of great writers, including Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Unforgettable; Laing is a masterful storyteller in her own right.

 

The Paper Menagerie—Fantastical short stories from Ken Liu. Read most of them, and like a lot of fantasy writers nowadays, he is a controlled and talented stylist.
The Reivers—Faulkner’s last novel, a picaresque journey involving a stolen car and horse racing. Pretty good, pretty funny, a meandering little thing.

 

Intruders in the Dust—Two-thirds a good novel, one-third a didactic piece of butt. A black man is arrested for the murder of a white man, and a white teenager—who loathes the African American man because he once did the white boy a favor—who tries to prove his innocence.

 

Sanctuary—Faulkner’s gothic potboiler, one that he was embarrassed of and tried to rewrite. The result is odd; it feels trashy, but it’s written in an often dense and opaque style. Not sure what to make of it, really.

 

The Looming Tower—Should have read this years ago. Lawrence Wright’s epic reporting on the formation of terrorist groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and how these often educated men became involved in a foreign war in Afghanistan, and how their hatred of the Soviet Union turned toward the U.S.

 

The Hero’s Journey—Transcriptions of interviews with Joseph Campbell. His erudition, and his eccentric interpretations, are legendary, and rightly so.

 

“The Swimmer”—One of John Cheever’s most haunting short stories, which is saying a lot. A middle-aged man decides to swim home through the backyard pools of his neighbors. It sounds silly or droll or dumb, but it is none of these. It’s magnificent.

 

Storm of Steel—Picked it back up in October—it’s amazing. Junger’s memoir of being a German soldier in World War I might be the best book about that war I’ve read.

 

Barbarian Days—William Finnegan’s astonishing memoir of a life consumed by surfing. The writing is jaw dropping.

 

Mississippi, 1964—Dispatches on the civil rights movement from here and there. An interesting and diverting piece of writing, with some great anecdotes.

 

Innocents and Others—Dana Spiotta’s fractured novel about artists, filmmaking, success and purity is a very fine, very thoughtful piece of work. She’s always good.

 

The Flamethrowers—Rachel Kushner’s novel about art, artists, motorcycles, business and Italy is intriguing and worth reading.

 

<Trump won the electoral college around here; my reading life, along with every thing else, was disrupted; I read four or five books here but can’t quite remember what they were. I think I read two other Brian Evenson novels, but that might have been last year>

 

It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, not a good novel at all, but chilling, about an American dictatorial takeover by a tough-talking non-politician.

 

The Plot Against America—Philip Roth’s very fine counter-factual novel, where Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt on an anti-war, anti-Jewish platform. A very fine, very disturbing novel about how quickly American politics can go wrong.

 

The Death of Jim Loney—James Welch’s near-perfect slim novel about an American Indian’s last days. He is deranged by the past, and alienated by the present, meandering towards a bitter end. Excellent.

 

Dead Man’s Float—Jim Harrison’s last collection of poetry is beautiful and soothing, like swimming in a cool creek on a hot summer day. His same obsessions—horses, fishing, sex and food—are infused with an end of life acceptance of death and suffering.

Books I read in 2014.

5 Jan

So, I wrote a play. My second. Or third. Or fourth, depending on how you count it. (I wrote a miserable screenplay, plus a play with another writer. I’ve also written some short plays, and I helped a friend write a play, uncredited of course.) I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I’m rewriting and editing now.

You can tell how much work I’m doing on fiction by the lack of entries here. Hence the lack of entries for most of December.

Anyway, here’s my reading list for last year. With a few caveats and asides.

The problem is, I never record what I’m reading in the first half of the year. So I have to reconstruct the books I read. And I always forget things. And I don’t read bad books, so if a book slips on me, I drop it. I’ve tried to record the dropped books at the end. But the nature of the books I gave up on is, well, they’re forgettable.

So this is most of the books I read this year. I discovered six great new writers (for me): Anne Carson, Richard Brautigan, Richard Flanagan, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bruce Duffy and Ted Hughes.

I read tons of comics, too—I collect five or six monthly comics titles—and tried to list the graphic novels when applicable. I also re-read Grant Morrison’s run on X-men (better than I remember), as well as Roger Stern’s run on The Avengers (pure delight). I read the NYTimes Book Review and Arts section every week, plus all the movie and book reviews in The New Yorker. Plus a few random articles here and there, although as I get older this gets less and less common.

The books I read in 2014 (mostly in order):

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History—Really a series of lectures, intriguing in their outlook but vague, lacking in the zesty anecdotes I look for a book like this. MacMillan’s thesis is that history is misused, either on purpose or through poor scholarship, to a variety of ends.

Marathon—Graphic novel about the runner, the battle, the Persians and the Greeks. I didn’t love it.

The Sour Lemon Score—A Richard Stark Parker novel following a double cross and Parker, once again, stalking his quarry for revenge.

Behind the Scenes of Otto Preminger—This was for research, and I love Preminger, and the book has interesting anecdotes, but I felt like the man remained a bit cloudy.

At the Mountains of Madness—The Lovecraft novella I re-read every few years, and this comic book version is very fine.

The Underwater Welder—A bizarre little comic from Jeff Lemire. He’s a very fine writer, when he isn’t prostituting his talents for bloviating DC comics. (His superhero stuff—and I’m not snob, I love superheroes—is horrible.) The same issues of time, sadness, regret, mistakes, and cosmic re-alignment all play out here.

A film education unto itself.

A film education unto itself.

Truffaut/Hitchcock—A film education unto itself, and a must-read film book for all movie fans. Truffaut interviews Hitchcock, and his answers are enlightening and intriguing. Great full-page photos, too. Hitchcock’s mind is so visual, and film-oriented, reading his analysis of his own movies makes for a fascinating exercise.

The Time of Illusion—Schnell’s thesis—that Nixon was the first president obsessed with the projection of his image out in the world, more concerned with his image than with reality—and his book is very good.

Enemies, a Love StoryIsaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about the Holocaust and a philandering Jew in Brooklyn, as he finds himself stuck between three women. Funny and acerbic.

The Crown of Feathers—Singer’s short stories are better than his novels, though. He remains one of the masters, and he can evoke a time and place and complex feelings in a few lines. My favorite is “One Day in Coney Island,” about a Jewish man in the late 1930s about to be deported back to Nazi-occupied Poland. He knows he will be killed, but cannot seem to bring himself to try and save himself. Funny and harrowing.

The Fixer—Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite writers, fires on all cylinders in this novel about a Ukrainian Jew who is wrongfully accused of murder, and his long incarceration and torture at the hands of the Czar’s operatives in prison. This is the second time I’ve read this, and it retains all the surprise and jolt and power.

Poems of the NightJorge Luis Borges’s collection of poetry, and unsurprisingly, it’s good. He’s succinct and deft and thick with classical allusions. He’s melancholic and witty. My favorite line: “Know that in some sense you are already dead.”

Film in the Third Reich—A major study of the movie industry under Goebbels in the 1930s, is an anecdote-rich story of the Nazi propaganda machine. I was doing research, but found this book to be a good starting point for the subject.

Men of Tomorrow—An academic-ish study of the first comic book creators. A lesser book than The Ten-Cent Plague, and inferior to Supergods, too. Still, worth reading for fans of the funny pages.

The Ministry of Special Cases—Nathan Englander’s novel about the disappeared in Argentina. Heralded to the heavens, but I can’t see it. I did not love this novel.

AmericanaDon DeLillo’s first novel, and it’s as if his talent emerged fully formed. If you like him, then this novel will make you happy. If you don’t, then all the shortcomings of his other novels are present here.

Disaster Was My God—I was so excited to read this after falling in love with The World As I Found It. And I love Rimbaud. So this “non-fiction novel” arrived with high expectations. But the author is too close to Rimbaud, somehow, to really make his sections come alive. Somehow, he knows too much about Rimbaud and cannot invent anything insightful about him. Good, interesting, even memorable, yes, but a major step down from his other novel.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

The World as I Found It—Probably the best novel I’ve read in ten years. It follows Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittengenstein and G.E. Moore through four decades of life, as they collide with each other across multiple countries. A non-fiction novel, I suppose, and thrilling, heart-breaking, terrifying, moving, and perplexing. I cannot recommend it enough.

Friday at Enrico’s—Don Carpenter—Hard Rain Falling is one of my all-time favorite novels—wrote this novel about writers passing through their lives and it remained unpublished at his death. Jonathan Lethem helped bring it to publication, and he should win some award for it. Enrico’s is touching, sad, harsh, gentle, insightful and thrilling, while remaining realistic, natural. His was a rare talent.

Sailing to Alluvium—John Pritchard’s third Junior Ray book and it’s probably the funniest. Profane anecdotes, x-rated recipes, japery and tomfoolery. The second half of the book follows Leland Shaw, from the first novel, in his undulating poetic journals, obsessing over the askew in nature and time. Somehow encompasses the entire Southern literary canon in its pages.

Galveston—After True Detective, I rushed out to read Pizzolotto’s novel. I needn’t have bothered; the things that made Detective fantastic—the darkness, the narrative trickery, the high weirdness and occultic ambiguity—are all missing from this crime novel that is pretty run of the mill.

Hawthorn & Child—Stunning. A crime novel that has no crime and no detection, instead a series of finely etched scenarios where two detectives, Hawthorn and Child, perambulate in and out of this snaking narratives. I loved it.

Annihilation—Oh boy, a misfire. The first in a trilogy about nature run amok, a group of scientists push into the zone, to discover what happens to their predecessors.

Swamplandia!—Hmmm, a tough one. Russell writes good sentences—she captures the wild fecundity of swampy Florida with perfection—but her storytelling is off. The characters do odd things, the story flits from different points of view, all to the detriment of the novel. I wanted to read more female novelists this year. This was not a great place to begin.

Chess StoryGrand Budapest Hotel brought Stefan Zweig back into my life. This, his last manuscript he mailed to the publisher before committing suicide, details a chess match between two chess players, one an idiot savant, the other a refugee who mastered the game by playing games in his mind, while incarcerated.

Erasmus—One of Zweig’s many biographies, a hollering cheer for one of the most learned men in the Middle Ages, and filled with accolades. A fascinating book.

The Good Lord Bird—James McBride won the National Book Award for this fine and funny picaresque following a cross-dressing freeman who joins up with John Brown. Modeled after/inspired by Little Big Man.

Young God—A short story or novella stretched to novel length through white space. Still, a pretty good book. She details the rise of a young white trash hooligan in her father’s drug and prostitute trade. Fun to read in a brutish, nasty sort of way.

A Good Man Is Hard To FindFlannery O’Connor’s best collection of stories, and one of the greatest collections of the Twentieth Century. She’s artful, horrifying, and haunted by a dark Catholicism and a half-hidden racism.

Wittengenstein’s Mistress—David Marksen’s last woman on earth story, filled with mystery and word play and rumination on two thousand years of western civilization. A challenging but rewarding wonder.

Going After Cacciato—Tim O’Brien’s first Vietnam novel. An evocative, witty, and heart-breaking novel of American magical realism, and a very fine compendium to The Things They Carried.

Collected Short Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—It’s sacrilege to some, but these stories just aren’t as good as they should be. Wordy, a bit deflated, pales in comparison to his good novels.

Sailor & Lula—I’m not a big fan of Barry Gifford, and the Sailor and Lula stories—the basis for the great David Lynch movie, Wild At Heart—served as another confirmation of this. When reading Gifford, I always think, “There’s something missing.

Tres—Roberto Bolaño’s best book of poetry.

Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman—Ernest J. Gaines’s very fine novel of a long-lived woman, who as a child is freed from slavery and lives to see much of the 20th century. Gaines is a somber, dedicated craftsman, and an underrated writer.

Southern Cross The Dog—Not a good book. A pastiche of half a dozen Deep South tropes—the sinful preacher, the bluesman who sold his soul, etc.—held together by over the top writing. How this got a front page review on the NYTimes is a mystery.

The Collected Stories of John Cheever—What can I say? A must-own, must-read book by an American master.

Kubrick—Michael Herr’s insightful, conversational study of Kubrick through the years. Lucid and enjoyable.

Augustus—I reread this John Williams’s novel every other year. He tells the story of Julius Caesar’s death and the rise of his appointed heir through letters between various parties. It’s at once learned, thrilling, elegant and dignified. I cannot praise it highly enough.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet—A misfire from Saul Bellow, but a fascinating one. Sammler is a Holocaust survivor wandering around New York, seemingly pursued by a buff African American criminal. There’s other stuff going on, and Bellow’s prose is sometimes a bit overheated, but he never, ever bores you.

Conspiracy Against the Human Race—A summary of the pessimistic philosophers—including Schopenhauer—who argue for an anti-natalist position: the human race should stop having progeny, collectively, and die out. A bizarre book, mainly because it was kind of boring.

Them—A group of characters in a dysfunctional information system, writ against the backdrop of social unrest in Detroit. Joyce Carol Oates has written bucketloads of novels of varying quality, but this is a very fine piece of fiction.

Dog Soldiers—Robert Stone’s novel of drug dealing and Vietnam follows a handful of hippies who have stumbled into a drug deal gone sour. One of my favorite novels.

Steps—Jerzy Kosinski’s bizarre, cryptic, but marvelous short story collection is a study of perverse sexuality, aggressive machismo, and innate evil.

Blind Date—A wild, violent, rapey novel by Kosinski that is well-written, intriguing, and it feels artful, but it’s mostly filth. Perhaps the most evil novel I’ve read this year.

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter—One of the more heralded short story writers, and she has plenty to say. The form has rocketed along, however, and Porter’s stories feel quaint and dated.

He Slew the Dreamer—William Bradford Huie paid James Earle Ray to tell him everything he did in the years leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Huie then checked out each claim, finding some to be true and others false. But what he discovers is that Ray did indeed kill King, and kill him alone. (He might have been helped by one other man.)

Clark Gifford’s Body—Bizarro cult writer Kenneth Fearing (of Big Clock fame; and despite appearances, he’s American) wrote this pastiche novel about a pirate radio station being taken over by militants. Not as good as it sounds.

The Galton Case—Heir to the Raymond Chandler tough guy patois (and very fine writing), Ross McDonald’s most famous novel, partly the basis for the Paul Newman movie, Harper.

The Great Gatsby—I decided to re-read Fitzgerald’s slim masterpiece after suffering through twenty minutes of the Baz Lurhmann doggerel. I found the novel spare and moving, and also misunderstood; the characters aren’t facile, they’re damaged. They’ve found a way through their suffering and indignity is a derangement of the senses.

An Empire of Their Own—Jewish moguls brought Eastern European shtetl values to a new, mythic vision of America; this is Neal Gabler’s thesis anyway, in this very fine history of the first movie producers and the empire they built. Gabler makes a very convincing case that each studio reflected the values of the men who ran it.

Seriously Funny—An episodic tour of the outlaw comics of the 1950s and 60s, including Mort Sahl, Bob NewHart, Sid Caesar, and Woody Allen. Good but not great.

A Ghost on the Throne—The history of the civil wars that followed in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death. Perhaps the best book on ancient history I’ve read, with detailed accounts of all the major players, lucidly written, with an eye on novelistic pacing. I couldn’t get enough.

The Time of the Assassins—Henry Miller’s astonishing manifesto on Rimbaud, which reads as equal parts autobiography, exegesis, and defense of poetry. Perhaps Miller’s best book (a claim which will strike many as sacrilege).

Slayground—Darwyn Cooke continues his superior adaptations of the Richard Stark novels on Parker. This is the weakest of the series so far, but still filled with fantastic drawings and design.

Five Ghosts, Volume 1—Intriguing graphic novel of a man who is possessed by the ghosts of literary characters. Great art, great conceit, we’ll see if the writer grows into his creation.

Ship FeverAndrea Barrett’s erudite short stories detail scientists struggling at their profession in an age of superstition and distrust. A very fine collection.

The Jugger—Another Parker novel, and as good as the rest of them, as Parker grapples with small town hoods and an unscrupulous doctor.

Travels with Herodotus—Krupskinski tells of his early travel writing days, juxtaposing his adventures with those of the great Herodotus. Charming, insightful and very, very good. A masterclass in autobiographical writing.

Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in America—Dave Itzkoff tells the backstory of Network—one of my all-time favorite movies—and although this book is diverting, it seems to sidestep something vital about the movie. Not as good as it sounds.

Going Clear—Oh my God, the book gave me nightmares. Lawrence Wright unearths the genesis, evolution and (alleged[1]) abuses of the church of Scientology through some of the most harrowing reportage I’ve read in years.

The End of Vandalism—Tom Bissell’s small-town novel of manners, following half a dozen characters through quotidian crises that resonate with a warm comic glow. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, only Bissell is a major talent all his own. One of the best novels I read this year.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Gabrielle D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War—One of my favorite books of the year, a sprawling, epic study of the Italian writer who decided to set himself up as dictator of a tiny island after World War I. Excellent, excellent, excellent.

The Poison Belt—Droll, arch, possibly it’s the end of the world science fiction comedy from Arthur Conan Doyle, who accomplishes a lot in the course of this little novella. My favorite line was from a butler to his employer, hearing the world is going to end that very night: “Very good, sir. Can I have the rest of the evening off?”

Grove Book of Hollywood–Vignettes and letters from the producers, writers, and stars that haunted Hollywood for the past forty years. A very fine book, with a thousand anecdotes. Research, but worth reading.

The Dinner—Herman Koch’s over-praised and just, well, not very good novel about manners and lurking criminality and I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either. I would re-read another novel on this list before returning to it.

“The Man Who Would Be King”—I hate to say it, but I think the movie might be better. Kipling’s tale of two soldier-adventurers who journey into Afghanistan to set themselves up as kings in the tribal areas. It all goes so very, very wrong.

After Earth—I wrote this title down, and I must have read it, but I can’t remember it and I can’t find it online. Which is puzzling. The mind is a strange thing. Either the book was bad, or I have the title wrong, or I’m crazy.

The Education of Little Tree—Asa Carter—the author of George C. Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech—writes a touching, funny and wonderful autobiographical novel about being raised by his American Indian grandparents in Depression-Era America. So much better than it sounds.

Educating Esme—Written about the very school where I work! Esme keeps a diary of her first year teaching, filled with witty little asides and her observations about her students. It’s a fun, if thin and self-congratulatory little book.

The Talented Mr. Ripley—A book I should have read a long time ago. Ripley is a beguiling, sexually ambiguous schemer who is paranoid and cruel. Here he navigates murders and intrigue through a miasma of self-pity. Patricia Highsmith rules.

The Noir Years—A nonfiction account of the 40s, and I cannot remember a single word of it. (Which, for people who know me, is very, very rare.)

Shosha—Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about a Jewish writer in Poland juggling his personal and professional failings as the Nazis inch closer and closer. Philosophical, funny, bitter, heart-breaking.

Dissident Gardens—Lethem’s wordy novel about leftist radicals in Brooklyn, I wanted to love it but I didn’t, every character has a dozen qualifiers, every sentence is too dense by half, everything is working too fucking hard, I didn’t finish. Another Lethem disappointment.

Have You Seen . . . ?—David Thomson’s book of 1,000 mini-essays on movies he loves, and I love it, too. I dip into it every few weeks, read one or two, and put it back on the shelf.

Moments that Made the Movies—The first David Thomson dud, a closer look at two dozen scenes from famous films that Thomson argues created cinematic language. Great photos, though.

Warlock—Jim Starlin’s fabulous—and stunningly strange—odyssey of a cloned man who sacrifices himself to save a fake world, is resurrected, worshiped as a god, and must defeat the worst evil the universe has ever seen: a future version of himself. Wonderful, silly, chatty nonsense from one of the great comic artists in his prime.

A Sentimental Novel—Alan Robbe-Grillet’s last novel, and it’s a doozy. Increasingly violent descriptions of pornographic violence towards adolescent girls, rendered in not that interesting prose. The French condemned it as the perverse ramblings of a semi-demented man. Having read most of it, I can’t disagree. One to avoid.

To Urania—I didn’t read all of Brodsky’s sad, trembling poems, but enough. He’s dense, erudite, serious and melancholic.

Beautiful Ruins—Wow, what a disappointing novel. The first fifteen pages are excellent, then Jess Walter lets his narrative slide into sludgy drivel. I won’t tell you the plot; it’s not half the novel it’s blurbs pretend it to be.

Collected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks—Brooks is a fine poet, and her cycle of poems about Bronzeville, much of it included here, is very fine indeed.

Assumption—Percivel Everett remains an overlooked writer of immense talent and ambition. Here he tells what seems to be a straight-forward tale of a shaggy dog police officer in a small town, but there’s darkness and plenty of it afoot in his sleight of hand trickery.

Girl lit only by fireflies—Jim Harrison’s three novellas, and the first one, Brown Dog, is fantastic. Brown Dog is a summation of many of Harrison’s heroes: grumpy, aging, epicurean, philosophical, ribald. He gets stuck with a corpse and—just go and read it.

Complete poems of Raymond Carver—Excellent, terse poetry from a hard-drinker, and every bit as good as his stories (if you are a fan; better, if you are not). The book that got me back into poetry.

The Great Leader—Jim Harrison—one of my favorite novelists, for he is so very, very wild—returns to the detective story, of sorts, as a retired police detective hunts for a cult leader, while taking time to get drunk, peep at his young neighbor, genuflect at the alter of the derriere, and walk through the upper peninsula of Michigan. A great novel.

Crow—Ted Hughes’s bizarre poems about a character here at the dawn of existence. Simply great.

Wodwo—Another Ted Hughes bizarro book of half-poetry, half-prose. One of the weirder poetry collections out there, written by a master.

Shirley—I was excited about this half-homage, half-creepy character study of Shirley Jackson. But the best thing I can say about it is that it sent me back to her stories. Not very good, and perplexingly so.

“Seven Types of Ambiguity”—Shirley Jackson’s simple, short, ultra-disturbing tale of a small act of viciousness.

A marvelous conundrum of a book, simple and complex, funny but sad.

A marvelous conundrum of a book, simple and complex, funny but sad.

Trout Fishing in America—Richard Brautigan’s superb book, that appears to be nonsense, but is a profound statement on living in a country that makes less and less sense. Still relevant, and still superior, and yet also a time capsule of the various counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. I loved, loved, loved it.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster—Brautigan’s whip-smart collection of poems; the best follow Baudelaire through various American cities and events. Maybe my favorite poetry collection this year, although there is some truth that Brautigan is, like Maugham’s self-deprecating analysis of his own work, the king of the second-tier writers.

In Watermelon Sugar—A very fine, if thin, novel from Brautigan, nestled somewhere between The Journals of Albion Moonlight and Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope.

“Charles”—Shirley Jackson’s chilling story of kindergarten malfeasance and parental apathy. Great.

James T. Farrell Literary Essays—Pretty good little pieces on a variety of 1920s and 1930s American writers. His piece on Dos Passos—one of my favorite authors, and the writer of the last book I read this year—is probably the best of the bunch. Still, I wouldn’t run down to the bookstore looking to buy it.

Selected Non-fictions by Jorge Luis Borges—Borges’s essays fit perfectly with his short stories, which fit perfectly with his poems; all of it is a superior, magical, oblique mind at work, that loves paradoxes, labyrinths, antiquities. Borges seems to have understood his body of work as a body of work.

Best American Comics, 2013—Meh.

Flex Mentallo—Perhaps the key comic to all lf Grant Morrison’s varied obsessions, themes, motifs, and multi-linear narrative brio, the comic to unlock the Morrisonian conundrum at the center of his vast oeuvre. A junkie is dying in the rain. The last superhero in the world is looking for one of his former colleagues. A little boy sees the future in comic books. Circular, self-perpetuating, comics as mimetic virus—brilliant. And who will choose to save the world?

Confederate General at Big Sur—A step down for Mr. Brautigan, from Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar, this novel feels the most like a Beat novel. In some ways, it’s a comic equivalent to Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Still worth reading.

Captain America: Winter Soldier—I re-read most of Ed Brubakers run on Captain America, and it’s a historic run. He heightens the various side characters, including Sharon Carter and Sam Wilson and Arnim Zola, but he also brings in the Winter Soldier, one of the best resurrects Marvel has pulled off. Michael Lark and Jackson Guice and Steve Epting are three of the finest pencilers in the business, so the art is great, too.

Downstream from Trout Fishing in America—A writer and friend of Richard Brautigan, Keith Abbott, writes a very insightful, and heart-breaking, account of his friendship with Brautigan. A very good book.

The DreamerCharles Johnson’s novel of Martin Luther King and the vexing swirl of philosophy, Christianity, and non-violent ethics that surrounded him. Being Johnson, he creates a doppelganger—a rough and tumble rogue who happens to be a dead ringer for MLK—as the entry point to this very fine novel of ideas. Johnson is underrated.

Fibonacci Batman—Poems by Maureen Seaton, and pretty good ones at that.

Agostino—A short novel about a young boy and his burgeoning sexuality, as filtered through his falling in with a band of young hooligans. And yet, all of Italy’s racial and political problems seem to be contained in the boy’s peregrinations. One of the best short novels I’ve ever read.

Dreaming of Babylon—Richard Brautigan’s wry, oddball take on the detective story is amusing, but thin. Not his best book.

A novel in verse you won't soon forget.

A novel in verse you won’t soon forget.

Autobiography of Red—Anne Carson’s brilliant, astonishing, hard to describe novel in verse is one of the best books I read this year. It follows Geryon and Herakles, both the myths and as two teenage boys.

The 47 Ronin—Comic book version of the classic Japanese tale. The story explains a lot about the extreme nature of Japanese honor and the Bushido Code.

The Henry Miller Reader—Dense, intricate, full of verve and brio, with highs and lows, a very fine book. Miller remains one of the great outlaws of American letters.

The Lifetime Reading Plan–Clifton Fadiman’s outline of the western canon—it’s all the reading you’ll need for a lifetime, as he suggests—is a very fine overview of the great writers of the past. This is the third time I’ve read it. The only caveat: books like this can supplant the reading of the books they’re about. Put another way: it’s a very simple trap, to read summaries, introductions and overviews, as opposed to the real thing.

Nixonland—One of the best books I read this year, 800 pages following the rise, fall and rise of Nixon, while also encapsulating the student movements, the Vietnam War, the Black Power movements, the urban riots, the various commissions and the despicable black bag tactics of the increasingly paranoid Nixon. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Seventies—Historian Bruce ‘s survey of the American cultural and political landscape in during the 1970s. I read this for background research, but it’s very good.

Plainwater—Essays and poems from Anne Carson, one of the best writers I “discovered” in 2014. Her pieces on the Camino de Santiago are superb.

The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story—The author’s father was the lead detective on the Green River Killer case for two decades, and this graphic novel follows the ups and downs of the case. A white-knuckle comic and a touching monument to a father.

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews—Interesting bit of ephemera that is more hagiography and self-love than anything else. Still, Bradbury was a warm, generous person and it shows. There are some worthwhile little nuggets in here, too.

The Penultimate Truth—One of Philip K. Dick’s lesser novels, following the bulk of humanity working underground, believing the surface is unlivable; on the surface, wealthy ad men keep the subterranean slaves working, through false news feeds and a fake leader. Dick being Dick, he focuses on mid-level office workers being bounced back and forth between near-omnipotent powers. (And there’s a time traveling American Indian.)

A Girl and a Gun—An overview of the best crime films from the 40s and 50s. A reference book I return to every few years.

Drown—I finally made it around to Junot Diaz, and he is a very fine short story writer.

Lila—Masterful return to Marlynne Robinson’s Gilead, delving further into the complicated theology of Calvinism, sin and redemption.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

The Laughing Monsters—Denis Johnson’s slender novel of international intrigue follows an American agent in a convoluted triple cross. The novel starts poorly but the last fifty pages are dynamite: bizarre, thrilling, and unsettling.

Tales of Ovid—Ted Hughes translates Ovid in a very fine and oddly disturbing version of the Greek shape-shifting opus.

The Company—Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s main confidantes, wrote a couple of mediocre novels in the early 1980s. This is one of them. I read it because I stumbled across this doing some research. It follows a story similar to Nixon’s, and it isn’t very good at all.

The Book of Strange New Things—Michel Faber’s science fiction first contact novel, and it’s a heartbreak. A Christian minister travels to a distant planet to witness to an alien race that is excited—perhaps too excited—about the Bible. Meanwhile, his wife faces crisis after crisis here on earth. A very good novel, but saturated with melancholy and loss and sadness.

The Ladies’ Man—A lesser known Richard Price novel, following a confused protagonist through a week of hard-living in New York. Funny, harrowing, sexy.

Gaudette—Still working my way through this novel in verse, by the inimitable Ted Hughes, and it’s a doozy. A pastor slips into the underworld and is replaced by a manqué, who tries to live as the pastor does. Disaster follows.

The Sportswriter—Always wanted to read this, and now I have. Frank Bascombe was once a promising fiction writer but he’s turned his back on all of it to write about sports. He’s a dreamy, disassociated fellow, and the novel follows a chunk of his life. The writing is clean. The characters are interesting. And the novel is significant. But it’s also infuriating, with a poisonous undercurrent of malaise and ennui. (It isn’t clear how much of this is actually Ford’s point of view.)

Andre The Giant—Box Brown’s comic autobiography of one of the greatest wrestlers of all time is touching, taut and thrilling

The Dead Circus—Bouncy crime novel of Hollywood in the 1960s and the 1980s, as imagined by a screenwriter, the author Kaye, who is interested in neatly constructed scenes and ultimate redemption. He’s picked the Manson family as part of his saga, and looking for redemption there is a futile endeavor. Kaye isn’t a bad writer, but he isn’t a great one, either.

The Words—Jean Paul Sartre’s autobiography focuses on his childhood in the French countryside. His evocation of the falling-in-love feeling of learning how to read is a superbly moving experience. I forget, and so does much of the culture, that Sartre was a writer of fiction, first.

“No Exit”—Sartre’s one-act play about three characters in hell. His argument—and he grinds the reader’s face into it—is that it’s other people, with their petty desires and jealousies, that make us miserable and insane.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North—A novel of Australian POWs in World War II, being worked to death by their Japanese overlords, who are simultaneously starving them. Elegant, sophisticated, grim, violent, funny, jarring, sexy, ingeniously plotted and told out of sequence, this intricate novel follows a handful of characters, and their wives, through fifty years of their lives. Winner of this past year’s Man Booker Award, and I loved every page of it. A story that stays with you.

Books—Larry McMurtry’s comforting and solid book about his love of reading and his related passion for antiquarian bookselling, as well as the eccentric lessons he’s learned from being a book-dealer for the last 50 years. Feels like chatting with a well-read friend, while sitting in a comfortable chair.

The Corpse Exhibition—Short stories, a la Bolaño, from the first major Iraqi writer to emerge from the war-battered country. The stories deal with horror, terror, murder, alienation, confusion, but what should we expect from a title like this? I liked these stories, but I didn’t love them.

Sixty Stories—Barthelme is an important writer, a serious writer, a comic writer, and an acquired taste. His stories follow no set pattern; they belong to no genre; they veer from the sarcastic to the ironic to the violent to the silly to the slaptstick; they offer no resolution; and yet, they stand as a major achievement. A love it or hate it kind of book. I like it just fine.

Number One—John Dos Passos is one of my favorite writers, and I try to read one of his novels a year. Number One is the story of a political consultant falling to pieces as his candidate rises in stature. A propulsive and shattering experience, leaner and less verbally pyrotechnic than his great U.S.A. trilogy, but still one of the better political novels I’ve read.

Books I failed to read much of:

The Enormous Room—I’ve wanted to read e.e. cummings’s World War I autobiographical novel for almost 15 years. I got the chance and . . . I hated it. Cummings emerges as a pompous, bloviating, self-loving ass.

The Annals of Chile—More poetry, only this collection, which is pretty good, didn’t blow my hair back.

Leapfrog—Just . . . nonsense.

Hard to be a God—the best argument for good writing being a priority. This very fine idea—future humans have found an earth-planet with humans on it, going through a period of the middle ages, and one of them decides to descend from his perch and declare himself a god—is ruined by really bad writing. A friend of mine says he thinks it’s a bad translation; I think he’s being generous.

Redeployment—I made it through three of Phil Klay’s stories before the library asked for the book back. He can write. He deserves praise. I will make it back to his collection in the new year. I hope.

Renoir, My Father—Lovingly rendered, textured and highly readable account of Renoir, the painter, and his life and times, by his son, the filmmaker. I will read the rest of it, but I wanted to savor its evocation of a lost time in small allotments.

A Death in Belmont—Well, I was reading this in a pinch, as I had read all the books I brought with me on vacation and this was only a quarter. It’s by Sebastian Junger, and follows a man wrongly accused of a murder done by the Boston Strangler. Not bad—I have a guilty pleasure kind of relationship to lurid true crime books—but once I returned home I cast it aside.

The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie—God, I tried to make it through Muriel Spark’s novel of a teacher and her students, where the teacher oversteps her mission and begins to manipulate her students. I tried and failed.

There were others, but I cannot recall them. And that’s it. Here’s to the books of 2015.

[1] Must be careful.

Interlude 3: the books I read last year.

26 Jan

Inspired by Hal—a friend, not the human-hating computer—I decided to try and remember all the books I read in 2013. I read about two books a week, excepting massive tomes that take a bit longer. (Gravity’s Rainbow, when I read it years ago, took me two months.) I’m always half-underwater with the NY Times, the New Yorker (books and movies first and always), the Chicago Reader, weekly comics (I still collect), graphic novels, and little bits of books here and there. The pattern for this past year was mostly American (visitors already know I’m making my way through all the former National Book Award winners) and mostly fiction (this is where and how I live). So here’s my annotated list. Enjoy.

The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren—Superb story of America’s losers, and boy are they losers, drug addicts, homeless, hustlers, gamblers, convicts, derelicts, drunks all at the end of America’s tether. Poetic and crushing and beautiful.

Collected Stories of William Faulkner—Never my favorite, but Faulkner’s stories shine.

From Here To Eternity, James Jones—Vicious, poorly written tale of soldiers in Hawaii pre-World War II. A heaping pile of excrement.

The Adventures of Auggie March, Saul Bellow—Meandering anti-novel of a person’s life; well written but goes nowhere.

A Fable, William Faulkner—A very bad Faulkner novel; his late period is nothing to write home about.

Ten North Frederick, O’Hara—Entertaining but misanthropic and in poor taste. O’Hara tracks the petty lives of a small town through the death of one of its “upstanding” citizens.

Field of Vision, Morris—An excellent story of tourists in Mexico. Starts out normal and turns surreal and strange.

The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever—I wish I had devoted a month to re-reading it instead of just skimming it for a second time. Cheever’s saga of a not so rich New England family through their sexual misadventures. A desert-island novel.

A great story collection by a master.

A great story collection by a master.

The Magic Barrel, Bernard Malamud—All men are Jews in Malamud’s stunning collection of stories that veer from horrifying to heartbreaking. One of the great American writers.

Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth—Roth’s first, and one of his finest, books. A young man and a young woman sabotage their first love, each in a different way for different reasons.

The Waters of Chronos, Conrad Ricther—Thin conceit about a man traveling through time to see his grandparents and parents in a small mill town in the northeast. A thin parable that feels like part of a series, and a novel swiftly moving to total oblivion. In twenty years Richter will be out of print and forgotten.

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy—Ennui in New Orleans. A passive narrator ruminates on things and goes to very few movies. Not a bad novel by any means but no great shakes either. Not sure what all the hooplah is about. Goodbye, Mr. Percy.

Morte d’Urban, J.F. Powers—Droll, at times very funny, story of a priest who has aspirations to greatness. Sent to a hamlet parish beneath a provincial headmaster he struggles to maintain his urbane identity. A very good novel for 150 pages, then it all sort of falls apart and amounts to nothing.

The Eighth Day, Thornton Wilder—Superb, wonderful novel about a family in ruins over a murder their father did not commit. Described as Little Women as conceived by Dostoyevsky. Big-hearted yet cruel; I loved it.

The Green Ripper, John McDonald—McDonald takes his detective and turns him dark and moody with murder, betrayal in south Florida. Very good genre writing.

Jem, Frederick Pohl—A very strange science fiction tale of different trans-national interests bringing their geopolitical madness to a new planet, infecting the different races their with our thanatos syndrome. Strangely written, good at times, terrible at others.

Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike—Updike’s third novel about Rabbit Angstrom, as he thrives in the late 70s American economy as a car salesman; his sexual appetites have diminished, and he’s attained something akin to wisdom. Feels like Updike wants to rehabilitate Updike’s terrifying egocentricity, and he almost succeeds.

Licks of Love, John Updike—A very fine collection of short stories. Updike wrote too much but he was a rare talent. The final novella is very fine indeed, managing to transfer much of Rabbit’s Angstrom’s problems to his insecure and troubled close-to-middle-age son.

The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines—Big-hearted, honest, earnest, funny, touching, devastating. Gaines’s fake autobiography of a child freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War follows her through almost the entire 20th century. Ambitious and great.

Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon—Perhaps my favorite novel from last year, elegant and creepy, a literary thriller about identity written with supreme style.

Stay Awake: Stories, Dan Chaon—Uneven, but the good stories pack a wallop.

Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño—I re-read this on a whim, was pulled back into one of the great works of contemporary literature. Poetry plus crime plus Mexico plus drugs plus sex plus more poetry equals Bolaño. One of my heroes. 

Nazi Literature in Americas, Roberto Bolaño—One of the great re-reading experiences, richer, more intriguing, more beguiling the second time around. Led me back to Distant Star, which is the last chapter of this novel expanded into its own book.

Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño—Pitch perfect novella about Chile before and after Pinochet, with a murderous poet who writes poems in the sky. Unbelievably good and deeply unsettling.

The Insufferable Gaucho, Roberto Bolaño—A very fine collection of short stories, with the title story somewhere in my all-time favorites. I re-read this after Detectives.

Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolaño—So fucking good. I dip into this every year.

The Great Leader, Jim Harrison—A very fine, lusty, bawdy, earthy novel from one or our great wild men of letters. A middle-aged ex-cop hunts for a cult leader by way of booze, long walks, ruminations on history, and plenty of butts. I absolutely loved it.

A Woman Lit Only by Fireflies, Jim Harrison—Three novellas by Harrison, and each is quite fine, but Brown Dog is wonderful.

The Good Lord Bird, James McBride—Cross-dressing pre-Civil War picaresque involving a freed slave who accidentally joins up with John Brown. A homage to Little Big Man.

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth—The Radetsky March is one of the great novels of the 20th century; this is Roth’s final statement on the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it follows a group of aging dandies as they drink, woo, talk, all in the decadent twilight of the dying empire. Moody, small and unforgettable.

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham—Giant man-eating plants stalk remaining Londoners through a post-apocalyptic England after most of humanity’s gone blind. A bit better than it sounds.

Prose beautiful and sharp like cut glass.

Prose beautiful and sharp like cut glass.

Nightmare Town, Dashiell Hammett—One of the kings of American crime writing, Hammett here delivers hard-boiled stories in his inimitable staccato fashion.

Southern Cross the Dog, Bill Chang—Big build up, big disappointment. Various southern types—huckster preachers, hard-living bluesmen—collide in this pastiche southern gothic that somehow made the cover of the New York Times. Not bad but terribly overrated.

The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak—Snipers in World War I somewhere on the eastern front; not bad at all but hardly memorable.

You Can Call Me Al, Ring Lardner—Lardner’s epistolary novella about an under-educated palooka who hits the big leagues but can’t quite keep it together. A light but ripping good read.

Little Big Man, Thomas Berger—Epic, fantastic revisionist western following a white boy who ping pongs back and forth between white and Amerindian civilizations, finding violence and horror in both. An American classic.

The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant—The semi-true story of Bonderant’s family of moonshiners during prohibition, and their squabbles with the law and other criminals. Not half as good as it sounds, and strangely formless.

City of Bohane, Kevin Barry—Highly stylized science fiction bowery boy cum western following rival gangs and lost loves amidst an ultra-violent Ireland. A good novel that focuses just a touch too much on slang and not enough on the story.

Wonderful revisionist western.

Wonderful revisionist western.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt—Simply fantastic. Two gunslinging brothers are hired to assassinate a gold prospector who has invented a new way to dig for gold. Wonderful, spare, funny, thrilling, and profoundly moving western written with discipline and aplomb. There’s more than a touch of True Grit here, which is high praise indeed.

Satantango, Lazlo Krasznahorkal—Societal breakdown amidst rain and ruins in an isolated Hungarian town; I wanted so badly to love this, but I did not.

Middle Passage, Charles Johnson—Superior maritime adventure about a New Orleans black hustler who is tricked onto sailing aboard a slaveship. Elements of fantasy and science fiction and nautical adventure handled with wit and style. I loved this.

An Empire of Their Own, Neal Gabler—Gabler’s history of the first studio heads. His thesis is simple: their Jewishness defined the movie studios, and we still live with the values and points of view of those original moviemakers. A fantastic history of the early movies.

Scenes for a Revolution, Mark Harris—The 1967 Oscar race, in Harris’s hands, becomes the proving ground between the old Hollywood (Dr. Doolittle) and the new (Bonnie and Clyde); Excellent film history. l I loved this book, save for Harris’s dismissal of In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke.

The Great Movies I and II, Roger Ebert—Ebert’s major contribution to the world of film is his Great Movies books; they are fabulous, fun to read and filled with wisdom; he wrote best about movies he loved.

My Life, Roger Ebert—Ebert’s brisk, funny, pithy, warm and wise autobiography details the newsrooms of the sixties and his run-ins with writers, directors and stars.

The Scenes that Mattered, Daivd Thomsen—Thomsen’s first dud, a movie book with great photographs but thin writing which Thomsen was never guilty of, until now.

The Big Screen, David Thomsen—Thomsen’s excellent history of movies, which begins as a discursive study of screens but devolves into Thomsen ruminating on the movies he loves and knows so well. A great book.

Cassada, James Salter—Salter is a careful, patient writer and a superb craftsman. Cassasda follows a young pilot as he makes his way through pilot school. Not as good as The Hunters, but still worth reading.

All That Is, James Salter—An entire life passes through these pages, the sex and love and drinks and food and books and fighting and children and heartbreak and old age decline. Salter’s most ambitious book and a hell of a read.

Masterful.

Masterful.

Pastoralia, George Saunders—Saunders is the great short story writer of our new century, wise, sardonic, brutal, funny, big-hearted and unsentimental; he gets us, how and where we live, what our internal lives are like in this era of corporate-speak and digital self-replication. The title story is my favorite of all of Saunders’s work.

Tenth of December, George Saunders—Saunders had a big year with me, and this collection is stunning; “Semplica Girl Diaries” is perhaps his greatest story, and with a talent as impressive as Saunders, that’s saying a lot. Just a fabulous book.

The Twenty-Year Death, Ariel Winter—Winter’s first novel is an astonishing narrative trick, three sections each aping the voice of a different crime writer. The first section mimics Georges Simenon, the second channels Raymond Chandler, and the third copies Jim Thompson. The chapters aren’t gimmicky or thin, and each captures the distinctive voice of a great writer; I loved it.

The Psycopath Test, Jon Ronson—Ronson is one of my favorite journalists, and Them is one of my favorite non-fiction books. Here he explores the fringe of the medical world, exploring the notion and reality of psychopaths, and if there’s a way to identify and perhaps help them. A very fine book.

Augustus, John Williams—Williams is one of my favorite lesser known writers and I reread his epistolary novel of ancient Rome on a lark. I adore it; Williams manages to imbue small things with a thrilling gravity, and he captures the otherworldly dignity, and cruelty, of Augustus.

The Ides of March, Thornton Wilder—After The Eighth Day, I read two other Wilder novels and “Our Town.” Ides is his epistolary novel of ancient Rome; it is a very fine piece of writing and historicity, but it disappears from your mind as you are reading it.

The Bridge at San Luis Ray, Thornton Wilder—Wilder’s taut, lean novella of a monk investigating the lives of five people who died on a collapsing bridge; the monk is looking for evidence of God’s purpose, what he finds is . . . I won’t give it away.

Provinces of Night, William Gay —The best novel by a fantastic writer who appeared on the scene as an old man and then pushed out a few more books before dying. Night—I might have read it last year, the books at the beginning of the year sort of jumble together—is the story of a dissolute, violent family of southerners. Their story is dour, gothic, disturbing and borderline grotesque. But Gay accomplishes a great coup in this novel, adding into it a bad luck klutz with a decent heart who drives much of the plot and provides all the levity. A superb, absolutely wonderful novel.

Artfully pornographic literature from Brazil.

Artfully pornographic literature from Brazil.

House of the fortunate Buddhas, Joao Riberio—Brazilian novelist Riberio takes a crack at the perverse of the seven deadly sins in this diabolical little novel about lust, told in a pornographic monologue by an aging libertine near the end of her sexual adventures.

Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs—Had to try it. The prose is overcooked, the characters thin, the whole endeavor is unsubtle and blunt. Having said that, there’s something remarkable about the story of a little boy raised by apes.

The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson—Astonishing. The story of a alcoholic writer on a five-day bender, and the horrifying degradation—both internal and external—his binging brings. A nearly forgotten classic, and a breathtaking thriller of the deranged mind.

The Gallery, John Hope Burns—A panoramic view of Naples at the end of World War II, this is a fascinating, well-written novel bursting with misanthropy and (self) disgust. Burns was such a vapid and disagreeable man he burned every bridge in his personal and professional lives. A bitter pill.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline—A blast of nostalgic nerdiness that had me rooting around online for the old arcade classics. The creator of the program everyone plays online, instead of living their lives in the burned out, corporate-controlled world of the present, dies. He leaves clues to his inheritance, and control of the game, in eighties’ movies, games and music. A near-perfect genre read.

Secret Lives of Great Filmmakers, Robert Schnakenberg—A trifle, but lots of fun to read. Schnakenberg details the shortcomings, neuroses, and infidelities of the great filmmakers. A gossipy tell-all series of anecdotes.

Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, Scott Korb—A very fine history of Palestine when Jesus was supposedly born. Korb is a good writer; he has a way of unpacking complex ideas with gentle humor.

Like being drunk and hungover at the same time.

Like being drunk and hungover at the same time.

Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock—A two-fisted, cracked out riff on Winesberg, Ohio, and boy is it a great read. Pollock is a major talent, bent towards the gothic and the grotesque. He writes like a man possessed, and his big shortcoming is his lack of subtlety. Taken as a whole, the book is a grim tour of a depraved world.

Fatale, Jean-Patrick Machette—A tidy little murder novel where the fatale sweeps all the characters into the trashbin; Machette uses the noir devices to drive home his points about the perils of unchecked capitalism. Interesting, but nothing to revisit.

Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe—An Irish outsider narrates this tale all out of order, and he might be a murderer, or just a criminal, or perhaps something worse. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t.

The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy—Holy shit, I loved it. The story of a drunken rake in Ireland who abandons his child, beats up his girlfriend, and steals from his friends. Written in astonishing prose, and funny as hell. Squalid, tormented, yet also full of love. One of the great novels of the 20th century (I know I say this a lot).

Song of the Viking: Snorri and the Making of the Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown—Brown investigates the life of Snorri, the Icelandic poet who recorded—and perhaps created—almost everything we know of the Norse myths. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already interested in the people and the region.

Far Side of the Dollar, Ross McDonald—If Chandler inherited the crown from Hammett, McDonald is the successor of Chandler. He writes in Chandler’s vein, funny, descriptive, punchy. He plots in a similar way too; the twists come loose and fast.

The Duel, Anton Chekhov—Amazing and unforgettable. Chekhov is a lucid, lean, elegant writer and here he details a growing feud between a hedonist and a leftist on the outskirts of the Russian Empire. Insults boil over into a duel.

The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer—Over a thousand pages following a murderer before, during and after his crimes. The first 200 pages are unparalleled in their intensity and skill; near the end I wanted to tear my hair out. But I’m glad I read it. It’s a monumental piece of literature.

Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Reader, Charles Portis—Delightful. Portis is one of my favorite authors, and this is a real treat; a collection of his short stories, travel pieces and a play. The stories are good; the play is funny; but the travel essays are superb. If you haven’t read Portis, go out and read Norwood or Masters of Atlantis immediately.

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan Koerner—A fascinating history of hijacking in the late 1960s, focusing on an unlikely biracial couple who steal a plane and end up holed up in Algeria with Eldridge Cleaver and other Black Panthers.

The Unwinding, George Packer—Inspired by the U.S.A. Trilogy—one of the great novels of the 20th century—Packer follows three real people through the ups and downs of three decades in American life. The portraits form a tapestry of a great unwinding, of how downsizing, political corruption and gridlock, and a loss of a national narrative are unraveling the fabric of the U.S. Sobering, yes, but also thrilling in a way.

 

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.)

1.

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.”

3.

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.

3.

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.

My reading year, 2015.

1 Jan

(I had another good reading year, but don’t be overwhelmed by this list. There’s a lot of graphic novels. I was drawn to literary biographies this year, and read a number of books for research purposes. The best books of the year, for me, were probably The Orphanmaster’s Son, My Brilliant Friend, My Friend Dahmer and Station Eleven. This is almost a complete record of my reading year; I also read a handful of monthly comics; movie reviews and the book sections in The New Yorker and the New York Times; The Chicago Reader every week; and an ever-dwindling set of blogs and websites. Of all of these, the best thing I read this year was Jill Lepore’s epilogue to Joe Gould’s Secret, where she attempts to track down the oral history of Joe Gould—the great Joseph Mitchell’s last biographical subject—and instead falls into a series of interlocking, and sinister, mysteries, missteps, and mis-directions. Astonishing.)

 

Fante—Dan Fante’s memoir of his father, the great writer (whose self-loathing failure is essential to his novels) John Fante, is really a memoir about Dan’s alcoholism, recklessness and years of hard living. A good book, but offers way too little about the elder Fante.

The United States of Paranoia—Jesse Walter’s overview of American paranoiac conspiracies attempts to classify and categorize the major strands of conspiratorial belief. He makes his arguments well; when you finish, you’ll believe that the notion of conspiracies is not unique to the lunatic fringe, but rather marbled into the very center of our body politic. Lots of good anecdotes, too.

The Good Soldiers—David Finkel’s story of the Surge—of the soldiers deployed in Iraq, who fought, killed, and died for a war that none of them really understood (who does?)—is an astonishing feat of reporting, writing and empathy. Heart-breaking, thrilling, harrowing.

Beware of Pity—Stefan Zweig’s only novel, a psychological study of moral weakness and how it is pity, the attempt at decency, at generosity, at charity, that causes much of the pain and hardship in human lives.

Stones for Ibarra—Harriet Doer’s first novel, published when she was in her seventies, about two Americans attempting to run a mine in Mexico. Elegant and subtle, well-crafted.

Dreams from R’Lyeh—Lin Carter’s cycle of sonnets, based on a character in the Lovecraftian mythos. Slight and short, but a bit better than it sounds. Fun? Yes, fun.

Westerns—Richard Dankleff’s collection of poems all fit in the theme of revisionist westerns. I thought his was going to be great, but it wasn’t. And it began my shift away from browsing the poetry section of the library.

The Grand Design—John Dos Passos’s third Washington novel, and perhaps the one that gets him most in trouble. He has dozens of characters in the backdrop of the waning New Deal and the beginning of militarization before the U.S. entry into World War II, and his handling of leftists is troubling. Still, there are some dynamite scenes.

The Republic of the Imagination—A personal history of Nafisi, a very fine reader, and her journey to America. She reads America through three books, Babbitt, Huckleberry Finn, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with Go Tell It On the Mountain as an epigraph. Elegant and excellent, literary criticism as memoir as cultural critique.

Plainsong—Morris Wright’s lyrical study of Nebraska farm women and the hard lives they lead. A very fine novel, if a bit undramatic, considering the subject matter. And what are feel-good stories for? The effects don’t last. The euphoria is false. Only drudgery remains. Hard-bitten stories give us reasons to value our own, often shitty, lives.

Mad as Hell—My second Paddy Chayevsky biography in two years, and a very fine piece of inside the media reportage. Chayevsky was such a powerful, talented, self-sabotaging writer, it’s a blast to read about him.

The True History of the End of the World—Short essays about different belief systems and their view of the apocalypse. Diverting but only just.

Hellblazer—Garth Ennis’s run on the quintessential British comic was excellent, focusing on his shiftless drinking and haunted enduring, despite a myriad of magical foes after him.

Invisibles, vols. 1 and 2—Best comic book series of the 90s. I try to re-read it every few years. It holds up.

The Alienist—Nope, couldn’t do it. I made it about forty pages into this well-reviewed historical thriller, but it left me cold.

Armageddon in Retrospect—A collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s shorter pieces, as well as a speech, a letter, all revolving around his anti-war beliefs, and the experiences that shaped them. Dynamite.

Songs of Unreason—Jim Harrison’s astonishing book of poetry, detailing in ravishing language the same obsessions that drive his fiction: sex, booze, good food, horses, rivers, aging.

The Whites—Richard Price delivers a crime novel stripped of the larger social and cultural malaise that characterizes so much of Lush Life and Samaritan, instead giving us a straight-up piece of all-pistons genre writing. He’s better than this, but it’s still riveting stuff, following a group of cops, each of whom has a “white,” a murderer that got away, and an unseen presence that seems to be stalking them.

Where the Dead Voices Gather—Nick Tosches pursues a minstrel singer born in 1873, ruminating in his inimitable style on race, music, culture, sex, and, well, black-face minstrelsy. I liked it but didn’t love it. The Tosches’ train passed me by.

Cast a Cold Eye—Mary McCarthy’s urbane stories of men and women and the spaces in-between. She’s a fine writer.

Thousands of Broadways—Robert Pinsky’s poetic rumination on small towns across various media, and a seriously undercooked piece of writing in book-length form.

White Girls—Hilton Als’s critique of tortured souls vacillating on the razor’s edge of American culture—Richard Pryor, Eminem, Michael Jackson, Flannery O’Connor—is a very fine piece of writing and criticism, if a bit messy near the end. Got a ton of press, this book.

The Hannah Arendt Reader—Research, but a very fine book. Her Eichmann in Jerusalem remains an astonishing and powerful (and acerbic, good God) piece of writing.

I, Noah—Aronofksy’s screenplay turned into a comic and the artwork is beautiful. The story sounds cheesy, but somehow works, re-casting Noah as an oddball mage in a world gone mad. And there’s three-armed giants.

Marx—Corinne Maier’s witty biography of Marx filters through superb line dawings from Anne Simone; I loved this book.

The Gnostics—A work of scholarship that turns weird and prosletyzing, but it has some very fine middle sections about the early Christian church and the heretical strands of Gnostic thought.

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology—Joseph Campbell’s idiosyncratic tour of various primitive mythological isomorphs, written in his intriguing style.

A Short History of Myth—A must-read, Karen Armstrong’s overview of the first belief systems. Wonderful reading.

World’s Fair—E.L. Doctorow’s coming of age novel is professional, well written, but a bit safe.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces—The book that made Joseph Campbell, and a great primer in the hidden architecture of stories. Campbell is an idiosyncratic writer, bouncing from one culture to another.

The River Swimmer—Two novellas from Jim Harrison, a middle-aged artist returns to Michigan to watch his ailing mother, and a teenager addicted to swimming in rivers finds water babies. Not Harrison’s best, but still rich, lush, funny, insightful.

The Golden Ass—Apuleius was an ancient Roman writer and this book, a kind of proto-novel, is the only book to survive in its entirety. Funny and a bit strange, with diffident pacing.

Sugar Skulls—The final installment to Charles Burns’s superb, and supremely creepy, story of a fucked up loser wandering in a nightmarish dreamscape of blood and other human effluvia. Ties up loose ends and will blister your eyeballs. Unexpectedly, it’s also a touching story.

Brother Lono—The creative team behind the overrated 100 Bullets returns to tell the story of the single Minuteman who escapes. And it is ghastly indeed. Feuding Mexican overlords, Catholicism, extreme violence. Azarello and Risso are not great writers or storytellers, but with their heads in the gutter they know how to keep the reader’s attention.

Victory over Japan—Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories, and they are absolute dynamite. Her characters feel both lived in and real, as well as wild and absurd. Her storytelling abilities are immense.

Counter-narratives—John Keen’s short stories come wrapped in blurbs galore, but they left me flat. They felt calculated, almost cutesy with their conceits. And

Invisibles, vol. 3—The end of the Invisibles, the wildest and most moving of the series.

A Fan’s Notes—Exley’s smashing autobiographical novel about a hard-drinking loser obsessed with football. One of the best of its kind.

The Timeless Myths—Not a book at all, but more a series of clever, well-written essays, mostly on artists and how they relate to the mythosphere.

Myths To Live By—Joseph Campbell’s lectures, wise, knowing, intriguing, and perhaps the best place to enter the eccentric world of Campbell’s comparative religion.

Great Book of Horrible Things—A very fine overview of historical atrocities by a statistician.

Coronado—Short stories from crime writer Dennis Lehane. They’re fine, but they two-act play at the end of the book is terrific. (I picked this up after watching The Drop, a very fine crime film he scripted.)

A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell—An epic, detailed biography of Joseph Campbell, well-researched but even-handed and a bit worshipful.

Soil—Killer southern novel a la William Gay, about a cracked up farmer attempting to turn a discovered dead body into soil. Why would he do this? Go and read it.

Signs Preceding the End of the World—Yuri Herrera, called Mexico’s greatest young novelist, writes a lean, idiosyncratic border crossing novel. Good but not great.

My Friend, Dahmer—A marvelous, unnerving gem of a comic, equal parts sad and chilling, of a man remembering his odd friendship with a bizarre loner at his school. One of my favorite books I read this year.

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities—John Ellis provides a sharp, incisive critique of the New Criticism, while embracing the grand tradition of Renaissance secular humanism. Hard-nosed criticism.

Hip Hop Family Tree, vol. 2—Ed Piskor continues his comic book history of early hip hop, and it is a wild ride. His thesis is simple: hip hop started in the Bronx, loosely affiliated with street gangs, and then grew out of these initial relationships in an observable manner. Great fun, with great art.

The Ivory Grin—Ross McDonald, baby. Solid, witty, fast and lean, another Lew Archer mystery with murder and molls.

Silver Screen Fiend—Patton Oswalt’s very fine, and inspiring, memoir of a brief period in his life when he was addicted to movies. I wish he had given more of his insights into the movies themselves; he’s a witty and refined critic.

Heidegger’s Children—Research, but a pretty intriguing exploration of the ideas of Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Lowith, and Herbert Marcuse.

Invisible Man—I’ve been trying, and failing, to read Ralph Ellison’s epic novel for twenty years. Finally made it. Excellent and prescient.

On the Craft of Poetry—An elegant distillation of so many of Borges’s major themes, this lecture in print form is marvelous. It’s a very fine primer for Borges’s stories.

“The Open Boat”—Stephen Crane’s bleak short story about shipwreck survivors facing indifferent nature and the limitations of their own survival machinery.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew—Thomas Bernhard’s slim, half-memoir novel is intriguing, if a minor effort. Two men in a hospital renew their friendship, but the form of the novel is a wide-ranging riff on Wittgenstein’s family.

Roth Unbound—Claudia Pierpont gives Roth’s biography with a focus on his novels as a way of reading his life. An intriguing book, if a bit laudatory.

The Landbreakers—John Ehle’s re-discovered novel of the frontier is a beautiful piece of writing, following three families in a valley right at the beginning of the United States.

The Big Seven—Jim Harrison’s sequel to The Great Leader has his retired detective run afoul a nasty family of rifle-toting neighbors. Plus lots of sex and fishing and butt reverie.

In Search of Small Gods—Harrison’s astonishing poetry, revolving around fishing, totems, dogs, sex, drinking and false memories is a wonderful book for non-poetry fans. For fans of poetry, it’s an even richer feast. He does it all.

Raymond Chandler: A Biography—A very fine piece of biographical writing, which manages to capture Chandler’s essence while also dealing with the many virtues, and faults, of his Marlowe detective novels.

A Game of Swallows—A graphic novel similar in tone and look to Persepolis. Pretty good.

Avengers: Infinite Avengers—Intriguing time travel take on the Avengers, with Captain America and the infinity gems, all of it better written—Hickman and Remender are good writers—than expected, but also convoluted.

Avengers Academy: Permanent Record—Better than average teenage superheroes in the marvel universe. Not sure why I read this.

Iron Man: Stark Wars—A nostalgic journey for me, following late 80s/early 90s Tony Stark and his vengeance against the supervillains who stole his technology.

Hawkeye: L.A. Woman—The comic shifts to Hawkeye’s nearly hopeless female protégé as she navigates hoodlums and crime syndicates in Los Angeles. Pretty damn good.

Light Years—James Salter’s elegiac, haunting and very beautiful novel about a marriage, crumbling, re-constituting, and its ups and downs is a very fine, if ultimately bleak and grim.

Live by Night—Denis Lehane’s epic crime novel follows an Irish hoodlum, the son of a police commissioner, as he moves his way up a criminal empire in Tampa during the 1920s. Very good stuff. (I later read the other two books in this trilogy.)

Chester Himes: A Life—Himes’s life is the stuff of great literature; he was a thief, carjacker and convicted felon who wrote literary stories from jail. Once out, he turned towards crime novels. James Sallis, himself a pretty nifty crime writer, tells the tale. Oddly, the book is just okay.

Borges: A Life—Borges is one of the most important writers of the 20th century, yet he was a shy, withdrawn, mercurial man. (These descriptors apply to his fiction, too.) Author Woodall attempts an old-school biography with Borges, and it mostly works. Yet I kept hoping he would critically discuss Borges’s tales.

You Remind Me of Me—Dan Chaon—both a fabulous writer and storyteller, which is rare—writes of ghostly characters on the margins of society, attempting to start over through radical re-invention. A haunting, very fine novel.

Thanos Imperative—Wow, Marvel has lost control of itself here. Convoluted, poorly conceived, accidentally parodic, derivative, and ultimately pointless, this is precisely the kind of storytelling that forced me into non-superhero comics as a teenager. (Luckily I have Daredevil to balance things out.) [I later read the Hickman run on Avengers and the lead up to Secret Wars and was blown away.]

The Warren Commission Report: A graphic Investigation—A comic version of the events leading up to JFK’s assassination, and the resulting investigation, and a pretty good book. Che was better (really excellent).

Kill Everything That Moves—An excellent, if heart-breaking, book of reportage on American military policy during the war in Vietnam. One that will blister your eyeballs. Should be mandatory reading.

The Razor’s Edge—Maugham’s Moveable Feast, less artful than Of Human Bondage, but still intriguing character study of American and British expatriates. Good, but perhaps not as good as its reputation. Maugham does Fitzgerald, only not as interesting as that sounds.

One More River To Cross: The Collected Works of John Beecher—Protest poet, and descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, John Beecher’s poems hit at the core of the very issues of racism and poverty we’re dealing with today. Plus, he’s funny. Great.

Euphoria—Lily King’s spare, sharp novel of Margaret Mead and two rival lovers living among tribal peoples in New Guinea is sexy, lush and ultimately heart-breaking. A very fine novel.

Danse Macabre—Stephen King’s meditation on horror and why it works is a very fine—and weirdly important—book that came out some thirty years ago. I revisit it from time to time. King is a very cagey and careful reader/consumer, and he has exquisite theories as to why some stories succeed, while others fail. Also, he’s funny.

The Round House—Louise Erdrich’s masterful novel sits at the intersection of a thriller, a coming of age story, and a moving (and terrifying) deconstruction of a family. An American Indian woman is raped on a reservation, and her teenage son tries to solve the crime.

Colder—Oddly unsatisfying horror comic about a nightmare world where the insane go when they are having episodes, and a evil dandy who eats the sick.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves—Karen Russell’s story collection is lush, well-written fiction, lacking in the storytelling department.

The Bottom of the Harbor—When in doubt, go with Joseph Mitchell. A collection of his pieces concerning the harbors and wharfs around the Hudson. “Up in the old hotel” remains one of his finest pieces of writing.

Criminal: The Sinners—Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips best entry in their Boston Criminal series.

The Hair of Harold Roux—After a weak start, a fabulous novel—and recently re-discovered—of a selfish novelist coming to terms with his own misanthropy in an in-progress novel based on the writer’s school days.

Night of the Ripper—Robert Bloch’s take on Jack the Ripper. I wanted to read some semi-literate horror novels and started with this one. It’s fine; Bloch is a professional genre writer, and there’s little fat a more than a few intriguing scenes.

The Black Beetle—Francisco Francavilla, one of the premiere comic book artists, tries his hand at writing too with this homage to 1930s pulp radio heroes. It’s a mixed bag, fun to look at but in need of some writing work. (Lobster Johnson, a similar hero over in the Mignola universe, is much better.)

Fatima: The Blood Spinners—Comic legend Gilbert Hernandez returns to ghastly science fiction in his peculiar take on the zombie apocalypse. A drug is turning people into zombies. A cure has been found, but the self-appointed police out to eradicate the drug keep killing people close to a cure. A minor work, but kind of fun in a kooky way.

The Infinite Horizon—A stunning retelling of The Odyssey—perhaps the best adaptation I’ve come across—in comic book form, following a black ops soldier in Afghanistan making his way back to upstate New York. Excellent.

“The Goldbug”—Edgar Allen Poe’s bizarre little short story about buried treasure in post-colonial Virginia. Not very good.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”—I don’t know, I always return to it, and it always leaves me cold and a bit irritated. Not great, either.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (audio)—Stevenson’s seminal tale of a man and his dark side. Riveting, if familiar stuff.

The Consolations of Philosophy—De Botton’s wonderful introduction to six philosophers, and how their lives and works can help us through hard times. Excellent and elegant.

Nightfall—When in doubt, David Goodis. A man is wrongfully accused of murdering a bankrobber and stealing the loot. Only, he’s guilty of the crime. Sort of. A near-perfect crime novel without an inch of fat.

The Orphanmaster’s Son—So good I never wanted it to end. A North Korean soldier goes from kidnapper to something else in this epic novel of maintaining individuality in the face of oppression.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (audio)—J.K. Rowling’s detective procedural follows a war veteran and his new temp working to solve the apparent suicide of a young pop star. Very fine, if a bit schematic.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty—Understated, patient, humane but also well written stories about southerners of every stripe.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang—Pauline Kael’s best book, and for me one of the seminal works about movies. Funny, scathing, profound.

The Gospel Singer—Harry fucking Crews! A famous gospel singer returns to his hometown. One of his steady girls (a wretched sex addict) has been murdered, his family (disturbed farmers) want him to stay in town and a traveling troupe of circus freaks continue to haunt all of his revival appearances. Doomy, funny, and fucked up—Harry Crews’s first novel, and it’s a doozy.

On the Other Side of the Wind: The Making of Orson Welles’s Last Movie—A very strong introduction to Orson Welles and his methods, his legend, his self-propagating mystique, alongside his shortcomings and his bad luck.

The Third Policeman—Flann O’Brien’s short, strange, surreal little novel about a murderer who sees his victim a few months later, followed by all manner of cosmic hijinks. A word to the warning: Do not read any introduction or background material if you plan to read this; the spoilers in this case really do ruin a good book. (It happened to me.)

The Book of the Dun-cow—for the National Book Award winners series, and basically a children’s book with talking animals and that fable-magic feel. Not for me, but not terrible. (But it is a terrible title.)

Vermillion—The fabulous science fiction comic, written by intriguing author Lucius Shepard, that should have been a cult hit and run for years but only made it twelve issues. The entire universe has been changed into a single, endless city. One man remembers how things used to be, and the creatures responsible for it.

The Emperor—Kapuscinski’s oral history of the decline and fall of Haile Sellassie is more for people who already know the story of the Ethopian Emperor. I didn’t know the story, and felt a bit lost. Still love Kapuscinski though.

Nosferatu—Short story author Jim Shepard’s take on Murnau, and it seemed perfect for me, and I didn’t enjoy it, not at all.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.—A story we’ve seen so many times before, a self-centered writer in New York, a son of (some) privilege, grappling with relationships. Weirdly compelling, if also a bit dreary and predictable.

Life During Wartime—Lucius Shepard—author of comic series Vermillion—writes a science fiction novel of psychics traveling through huge swaths of central America, attempting to survive a forever war that no one seems to understand. Shepard is an astonishingly gifted writer when describing shanty towns, makeshift bridges, squalor as well as beauty. His storytelling powers are here still a bit shaky.

So Long, and See You Tomorrow—Laconic novel of memory and loss and heartbreak and betrayal. William Maxwell recreates a crime from his childhood, where infidelity between two married farmers leads to murder. An elegant paean to a lost time, that Maxwell artfully (and sneakily) implies might have never existed in the first place.

Voss—Australian novelist Patrick White tells a riveting story of a German explorer wandering through the newly discovered outback. Half Victorian-era comedy of manners, half Heart of Darkness adventure tale, White balances the chamber rooms and tea parties of high society with the jaw-dropping violence of the desert. An absolute stunner.

Deadly Class—Teenage assassins run amok in this new comic series by hit or miss Rick Remender. He hits it out of the park here.

Uri—Some 1970s biography of a man with supposedly psychic powers. Not sure how this got into my queue, I tried it and didn’t finish it. Nope. There’s a reason some books are forgotten.

Sinister Forces: The Nine—A terrible cover, but an intriguing—and probably dangerous—book. Levenda is a very fine writer, a very fine journalist, and a very disturbed human being. His premise is that European pagan culture is interwoven with early American societies, and that religious belief has shaped, altered, and at times dismembered American politics. The book is dangerous because Levenda’s agenda, similar to other conspiracy theorists, rests on a lot of conjecture that most writers can’t pull off. Levenda has plenty of skill and verve to spare, and thus makes his arguments alluring, to alluring.

Infinity—Jonathan Hickman’s epic, epoch-defining, cosmic re-arranging of the Marvel Universe has an ageless group of builders, who guide the evolution of life in the universe, attempting to destroy the earth. The Avengers, along with all the space races, band together to fight them. Meanwhile, Black Panther and Prince Namor are waging a war against each other and Thanos is invading earth while the Avengers are away. Complex, convoluted, yes, but also unforgettable. At least to nerds like me.

Old Filth—Jane Gardam, having an immense rediscovery in her dotage, wrote this novel of an aged barrister in England, flashing back and forth to times in his life. Truly superior stuff, thrilling, weirdly sinister, woven with immense skill. (I kept thinking, am I the only person on earth reading Infinity and Old Filth at the same time?)

The Hollow Land—Following up on Old Filth. A collection of stories about two boys from different backgrounds spending summers together in the country. Weirdly compelling.

The Age of Selfishness—Graphic novel following Ayn Rand’s life and thinking and then detailing how her ideas, through Greenspan, played a major role in the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic meltdown. Excellent.

The Wars—Timothy Findley’s novel of the first World War, and it is brief, concise, horrifying, poetic and excellent. A Canadian officer ships off to the western front, where he finds a pointless existence of random violence to people and animals.

After Claude—Iris Owens very funny, raunchy little New York novel about a self-involved woman who is dumped by her French boyfriend, only she refuses to leave his apartment. At one point, it was banned.

Ghost Story—Ramsey Campbell, you’ve failed me again. A great set up: a shock jock radio host and a rising psychic star run afoul of each other. They have a past, and are interfering with each other’s present.

Fordlandia—Henry Ford attempted to build a utopian mixture of farming and industry in the middle of the Amazon. He failed. Part of Heart of Darkness, part history of industry, this intriguing book is very well written.

Soldiers of Salamis—I read this because Roberto Bolaño, one of my favorite authors, is one of the main characters. Kavier Cercas sets out to write a true novel, in the fashion of Capote and Mailer, and mostly succeeds. For Bolaño fans, it’s a major treat.

Any Given Day—Dennis Lehane returns to South Boston—as incubator of crime, cruelty, and sometimes redemption—only in the past, in the 1920s. He evokes the civil unrest and the nascent movement for workers to unionize in this very fine historical novel, only written in his signature lean style. Very fine, if a bit lengthy.

Year of Fear—Non-fiction about 1933, where gangsters and bank robbers began kidnapping wealthy scions, and J. Edgar Hoover used this crisis to beef up the F.B.I. I love this stuff, and this is a very fine introduction to the interlocking problems—the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the murder rate (close to a hundred thousand unsolved murders in 15 years!), bank robbers, organized crime, and widespread civil unrest—that beset the U.S.

Do What Thou Wilt: A life of Aleister Crowley—Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Philip K. Dick is one of the great biographies. Here he turns his immense skill and attentions to the Great Beast, the poet, occultist, novelist, mountaineer and mage. Crowley’s life is too full of events and high weirdness to believe, but Sutin delivers another very fine and entertaining biography. (The introduction, covering the alchemical tradition in Europe, is excellent.) Still, I couldn’t read it straight through. Had to break it into smaller doses.

Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir—Joyce Johnson’s stunning memoir of her life with the other Beat writers is an evocative, spare and beautiful piece of writing. Johnson situates herself, and other females, inside the aesthetic movement. Why did I never read this before?

.red doc—Anne Carson’s sequel to The Autobiography of Red—my favorite book from last year, a novel in verse—picks up with Hercules and Geryon and some of the others, now in different incarnations. It’s stirring writing, just wonderful and weird, but it’s not as good as Red. Of course, few books are.

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong—An intriguing bit of detective criticism, where the reader attempts to uncover the truth in a novel, by looking at the credibility of the other characters. Here the author “proves” that Holmes gets it wrong in The Hound of the Baskervilles; the real murderer goes free.

Lightning Rods—Helen DeWitt’s funny, satirical, pornographic novel of business is a very fine piece of writing, even if it peters out a bit near the end. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, in places, which is very high praise.

Regeneration—Pat Barker’s first World War I novel follows Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owens and Robert Burns as they recuperate from wounds, both physical and psychic, while the war continues to turn men into meat into mud. A very fine and serious novel.

The Eye in the Door—Barker’s second novel is a major departure, and a much weaker novel, from the first. Here she follows some of the characters from the first novel, as they engage in subterfuge, surveillance and oppression over the issue of homosexuality and the pacifist movement. There’s something missing here, and I’m not sure what. Didn’t finish.

She-hulk: Law and Disorder—Beautiful art from Javier Pulido drives this funky, multicultural take on the cousin of Bruce Banner. Similar to Mark Waid’s Daredevil, this clever relaunch is excellent, until the artist changes.

Notable American Women—After being floored by Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Birds,” I picked up this early novel. It’s . . . hard to describe, and a bit full of itself. Didn’t like it, didn’t finish it. Will try him again with The Flame Alphabet.

A Lesson Before Dying—Ernest Gaines’s very fine novel follows an African American teacher who has been guilt-tripped into tutoring a death row inmate, who is also a former pupil. Subtle and Superb.

Joyland—Stephen King’s coming of age novel is a very fine piece of fiction, if read the right way. (The ghost and the crime are the least important aspects of this novel.) A young man gets his heart broken and takes refuge in a summer job at a low-grade amusement park. The park is haunted.

My Brilliant Friend—Elena Ferrante’s magnificent novel of two friends coming of age in Naples struck me as gothic and even cosmic horror with a light smattering of social commentary. I loved it.

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed—Patricia Cornwell excavates the medical and police files around the White Chapel murders and solves, or so she claims, one of the mysteries of history. A good book, but I couldn’t stick with it.

The Rim of Morning—Two novels, actually, re-released by NRYB. Subtle, extremely disorienting horror from William Sloane, who wrote these two and then stopped writing. The first follows two men as they attempt to piece together why a third committed suicide. They bump against a menagerie of terrifying, cosmic implications.

Trumbo—A fantastic biography of Dalton Trumbo, an intriguing, funny, and acerbic man.

Station Eleven—Hot book of last year, and a very fine novel. A plague has eradicated most of mankind, and a traveling group of actors and musicians eke out a living in a traveling caravan. The flashbacks connect the characters from before the plague, in an intriguing, often exhilarating plots.

The Year of Reading Dangerously—A bullshit artist forgets the joy, pain, love and fear of reading great literature, so he sets out to read 50 great books for a year. Funny and wise and very, very good; author Andy Miller is a very fine companion.

Lookout, Cartridge—Eccentric novelist Joseph McElroy’s crime novel of Vietnam, at least that’s how the jacket copy situates it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, as the narrator is reliving various strands of memories that are happening simultaneously in his mind and on the page. I quit at the third chapter.

We Need To Talk About Kevin—Made it one-third of the way through, but will probably finish it. A mother writes her ex-husband letters about their psychopathic (and homicidal) son. Chilly, pitiless and very difficult to put down. (And, weirdly, very unsettling to read.)

Wolf in White Van—John Darnielle, lyricist extraordinaire of The Mountain Goats, writes his first novel, and it’s pretty fucking good. A disfigured young man makes a living with a mail-in Dungeons and Dragons type game. He narrates the ins and outs of his life through simple, direct and heartbreaking prose. Marked by a complete lack of irony.

Pale Fire—Nabokov’s opaque novel is beguiling, bewitching and difficult to describe. An academic has delivered an annotated version of his dead neighbor’s lengthy poem. Or has he? The novel requires concentration, but offers plenty in return. I loved it, but like many readers, was confounded by it.

Black Sun—Novelist of solitary men in nature extraordinaire, Edward Abbey, here with his first novel (yet published in the middle of his career), and it’s a doozie. A man tasked with watching fires in an immense forest has a brief love affair with a young woman. Simple, but profound, with gorgeous writing and superior dialogue.

Henry Miller by Brassai—A personal account of Henry Miller’s Paris years, by the famous photographer. Miller becomes more intriguing to me as I get older, and here he emerges as kinder, yet wilder. A good book for fans.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning—Most likely the last book I’ll read in 2015. And it’s a good one. The author revisits 1977 in New York, with the Yankees struggling, the Son of Sam murders in full swing, terrifying gangs running amok, and all of it leading up to the blackout and crime spree.

Spirits—Bought this for a quarter. Richard Bausch’s short stories are haunting and masterful. Great stuff, if a strange and downer ending to my reading year.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe—Thomas Ligotti, yowzers, is he bleak. Combining Lovecraft and Poe and Borges, Ligotti writes short horror that is astonishing when it works, and simply alienating and unsettling when it doesn’t. Unforgettable in its way.

Mystery Train—Greil Marcus, a fabulous critic, uses a number of artists (Sly Stone, Elvis Presley, Randy Newman, The Band, Robert Johnson) to express his belief that American art must grapple with the terror of America’s failures and the promise of America’s virtues at the same time. A great book. I was reading it on New Year’s Eve.

 

 

 

NBAW, number 27: 1984’s Victory over Japan, by Ellen Gilchrist.

7 Apr

1.

In 1984, Ellen Gilchrist won the National Book Award for her brilliant, sexy story collection, Victory Over Japan.

Gilchrist is southern, writing in the southern tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah. There’s something jittery, even gleefully evil, in her stories. She torments her characters. She teases them. And she smashes them. She’s also raunchy—thank God, as it is exhausting to read the careful gentility of so much short American fiction—and the book has great sex scenes.

Gilchrist is a witty, careful and incisive writer. Her best stories revolve around Rhoda, a wild, amoral, intelligent but almost feral woman with a rough childhood. Gilchrist dips into different periods of Rhoda’s life. Here is the beginning to “The Lower Garden District”:

“Rhoda woke up dreaming. In the dream she was crushing the skulls of Jody’s sheepdogs. Or else she was crushing the skulls of Jody’s sisters. Or else she was crushing Jody’s skull. Jody was the husband she was leaving. Crunch, crunch, crunch went the skulls between her hands, beneath her heals.”

And, a paragraph later,

“She woke from the dream feeling wonderful, purged of evil. She pulled on Jody’s old velour bathrobe and sat down at the dining room table to go over lists. Getting a divorce was as easy as pie. There was nothing to it. All you needed was money. All you needed for anything was money. Well, it was true. She went back to her lists.”

Gilchrist puts Rhoda through a variety of punishing tests, moral, physical, even aesthetic. And Rhoda’s survival instincts overrule any other considerations. She’s a fabulous character, with a barely restrained sexuality pushing against conventions, so carefully invented her thoughts seem real. She’s a strange yet familiar character. Just wonderful.

Japan is one of the better collections of short stories I’ve read. Short story collections often are either a giant bite of an author’s work (and unless your John Cheever, the career is often besieged by inferior pieces), or a combination of stories that don’t hold together. Gilchrist here has a book that feels like it belongs together, with re-occurring characters, themes, locales. It’s reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (with a similar ghostly, druggy feel), and Barry Hannah’s Airships (flat-out astonishing, rule-breaking, iconoclastic, and funny as hell). Bit Gilchrist is a ribald raconteur, funnier than Johnson (who, it must be said, is humorless as hell) and more serious than Hannah (who, it must be said, often has a cartoonist’s eye for slapstick).

And the Southern thing, the hard drinking, the ennui, the racism, the storytelling, the poverty, she delves into all these themes, but stays away from that absurd glorification of manual labor that bedevils so many southern novels. She isn’t looking for redemption—there isn’t any. Her stories are tight but never tidy; there’s wildness aplenty in them, swerving plotlines, random incidents, but all of it modulated by the fantastic control of her writing.

Gilchrist’s characters are urbane and educated, even when they live in shacks outside of mining towns in Kentucky, or in run-down old plantations outside of New Orleans. She’s reminiscent of the early Fred Chappell (of The Gaudy Place and It Is Time, Lord before he fell into that love and glorify the land trap), holding to a high-wire act. On one side there’s the grotesques (look at the lesser novels of Harry Crews—who I adore—to see how miserly this trap can be; or go out and watch Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte) and the simply besotted, blatto and miserable. But she’s funny, irreverent, and so goddamn good at writing that she holds it all together and pulls it off.

One of the better short story collections I've read.

One of the better short story collections I’ve read.

2.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the Southern thing. Southern literature is a vast and often wild place, holding within it such disparate luminaries as William Gay (a thousand times yes!), Cormac McCarthy (blessed be his name), Flannery O’Connor (holy yet wicked), Walker Percy, Margaret Mitchell, Tennessee Williams, James Dickey, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Fred Chappell, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, John Pritchard, Padgett Powell, Anne Tyler, Larry Brown and Eudora Welty all the way down to the menagerie of “new” southern writers, such as Tom Franklin and Karen Russell. The specter of slavery and Jim Crow hangs over most of it, the casual racism, the even more casual violence, the hard-drinking, the rural muck of it all, the fecund, or fetid, swamps and marshes and deltas. A surreal carnival of eccentric peoples. A creeping ennui of a lost (and happily so) way of life. An identity that is, well, an opposite.

All of the genres of American fiction can be found in the crowded, discomfiting ballroom of Southern fiction, including hard-boiled crime (Daniel Woodrell, for example, or James Lee Burke or Frank Bill) to the brilliant comic novels of Charles Portis and John Kennedy Toole. Bad southern novels[1] revel in stupid stereotypes—Uncle Remus, and so on—and an overemphasis on descriptions of vegetation. I worked for a Deep South publisher, I’ve read loads of it, and I feel both qualified to write on it, and also a bit repulsed by some of the tropes found therein. It’s an impressive list, held together (barely) by not just geography but by a kind of suspicion towards New York and cities in general, and a wily exploitation of the stereotype of the southern hick. There’s a rebellious streak to many of the above-writers, a resistance to non-southern culture and also a resistance to the label of southern writer. I will say that Southern writers, almost to a person, are intellectually-minded and clever, but pretend to be anti-intellectual. It’s a conundrum, but so is the modern American South—so is America, for God’s sake—and I can only say that there are thousands of doctoral students at this very moment wringing their hands at the daunting prospect of detangling the heady mix of race, violence, history, irony, oppression, storytelling, privilege, murder, disgrace and shame that constitutes the American South.

Gilchrist sits well with this esteemed and complex list. She deserves more attention, but of course she isn’t alone there. She’s written eight novels, 12 or so short story collections, poetry and essays. She’s a dynamo. She’s fierce. You must read her.

3.

1983 was an interesting year for American fiction. The big money that came with the blockbuster novels created a tiered system of writers. (And critics/serious readers—including me—are often quick to denigrate blockbuster novels. Having said that, I usually hate them when I give them a try.)

Raymond Carver published his epoch-defining collection of short stories, Cathedral. Mark Helprin released his love-it-or-hate-it fantastical epic, The Winter’s Tale[2]. William Kennedy put out his idiosyncratic, but Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Ironweed. Norman Mailer published his Ancient Egyptian epic—and fetishized sex romp—Ancient Evenings[3]. Gore Vidal took a break from his run through American history of big, but admittedly probably underrated, novels, with Duluth. Ernest J. Gaines released A Gathering of Old Men. Thomas Berger put out The Feud.

And then look at the blockbusters: Dean Koontz, Stephen King, James Michener, Louis L’Amour, Jackie Collins, Isaac Asimov, Ken Follett, Nora Ephron and Danielle Steel all published novels.

Around the world, Thomas Bernhard—he’s great but sour and overwhelming—J.M. Coetzee (ditto), Salmon Rushdie (not for me), Elfriede Jelinek, Roald Dahl, and Samuel Beckett, among others, all published important novels.

[1] Erskine Caldwell, despite his reputation, is a pretty terrible novelist. Great trashy sex scenes, though.

[2] I hate it.

[3] A stinker, but I have a soft spot for it.

Interlude 5: Guest post on the Montgomery Bus Boycott

19 Nov

(My friend—and former boss; he gave me my first job out of college—Randall Williams, wrote this mini-essay to commemorate the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He’s a great writer and editor—hell, we wrote a book together, This Day in Civil Rights History—and he sent this along. He’s one of the most important people in Alabama letters, an important journalist/historian of the larger Civil Rights Movement and a major part of the Southern literary landscape. Here he details some of the legal maneuvering and minutiae that was the least sexy but most important pillar of the larger movement. (The other two being economic boycotts and mass protests/civil disobedience.) At the end is a list of books you should seek out at a local bookstore or library. Enjoy.)

November 13, 1956, was Day 345 in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was also the day that the boycotters won victory in their struggle that began after the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955. The boycott began four days later, on December 5, 1955, on the morning of the day that she was to be tried in Montgomery city court on misdemeanor charges of violating the city law that said that blacks and whites had to sit in segregated sections on local buses. She was tried and was convicted and fined $10 and $4 in court costs. Her lawyer, Fred D. Gray, announced that he would appeal her case, which he did. But Mrs. Parks’s misdemeanor conviction was mooted when the U.S. Supreme Court on November 13, 1956, affirmed a lower-court decision that the Montgomery bus seating law was unconstitutional. That lower-court ruling, based on the principle established in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, was written by U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. for a three-judge panel consisting of himself and U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Rives and Seybourne Lynne. Rives, a Montgomerian, concurred in Johnson’s opinion; Lynne, of Birmingham, dissented.

City and state officials in Montgomery refused to accept Johnson’s ruling and appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because the case involved a constitutional conflict between state and federal law, it was a direct appeal to the Supreme Court without passing first through the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals; that was also why the original case was heard by a three-judge panel rather than by Johnson alone.

Alabama Attorney General John Patterson and Montgomery City Attorney Walter Knabe represented the City of Montgomery. Fred Gray, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter of the national NAACP, and Charles Langford, the only other black lawyer in Montgomery besides Gray at the time, represented the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs, by the way, did not include Rosa Parks. Gray had decided her criminal case needed to be kept separate from the civil lawsuit against the segregation laws themselves. So the four black women who became Fred Gray’s clients and actually sued the city were Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith—all had been previously arrested and convicted on the same charge as Mrs. Parks.

The Supreme Court did not hear Montgomery’s appeal; it simply affirmed, on the basis of the lower-court record and the briefs in the case, the lower court’s ruling.

News of the Supreme Court decision reached Montgomery instantly, but the City of Montgomery, intransigent to the end, did not immediately end the segregated bus seating. That moment did not come for another month until the Supreme Court order was printed, mailed, and received at the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery on December 20, 1956, and formally served by U.S. marshals on the city officials. And then on the morning of December 21, 1956—382 days after they had begun boycotting—Montgomery’s black citizens returned to the city buses with the right to sit wherever they pleased and to be treated with the same dignity and courtesy as white passengers. Which was all they had wanted in the first place.

There are many ironies in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Judge John B. Scott Sr. who convicted Rosa Parks was the grandson of one of Montgomery’s founders. He was also the secretary of the local bar association and had administered Fred Gray’s bar exam in 1954, admitting the young black lawyer to legal practice in Alabama. Attorney General John Patterson would parlay his segregationist stance in the bus boycott and other cases into election as Alabama governor in 1958 (beating a young George Wallace, who was the liberal in the race). Patterson’s election and Wallace’s conversion to segregationist tactics to win the governor’s office in 1962 set Alabama on the path toward full resistance to civil rights progress.

Ultimately Wallace and Patterson both recanted their segregationist views and policies and apologized, but by then Alabama had already lost in every court it ventured into, and Rosa Parks and Fred Gray were both national heroes, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy, just to name two of the boycott participants; there were hundreds of others who played vital roles but never gained national fame.

And the 382 days . . . for years history books and even the Smithsonian Institution stated that the boycott lasted 381 days. But when they did the math, they forgot that 1956 was a leap year, and adding February 29 makes it 382 days.

[NewSouth Books titles exploring this history include: Bus Ride to Justice by Fred D. Gray; The Judge by Frank Sikora (biography of Frank M. Johnson Jr.); A White Preacher’s Message by Robert S. Graetz (original member of the Montgomery Improvement Association); This Day in Civil Rights History by Ben Beard (that’s me!) and Randall Williams; Jim Crow and Me by Solomon S. Seay Jr.; Nobody But the People by Warren Trest (biography of John Patterson); Johnnie by Randall Williams (children’s book about Rosa Parks’s friend, Johnnie Carr), and Dixie Redux edited by Raymond Arsenault and Vernon Burton (an anthology containing a chapter on national reaction to the Montgomery boycott).]

National Book Award winners, number 28: 1979’s Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.

12 Jun

1.

In 1979, Tim O’Brien won the National Book Award for his superb novel of the Vietnam War, Going After Cacciato. It’s a spare, complex, and startling piece of writing.

Cacciato follows a group of American soldiers, including the main character Paul Berlin, pursuing a deserter through the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Cacciato is the deserter. He is also a baby-faced simpleton who seems to be a master at evasion. On foot, he leads them through Laos, on through Chitagong, Tehren, Athens, all the way to Paris. Along the way the soldiers fall into a subterranean maze, are captured by Iranian secret police and two of the men fall in love.

It’s an absurd, surreal, often violent journey, interspersed with flashbacks to the deaths of the other soldiers in the platoon from earlier fighting. Most of it takes place in the confused confines of Paul Berlin’s mind, as he tries to stay awake through a night watch at some time in the future.

There’s more than a touch of Catch-22 here—there’s even a sort of trial for Berlin that feels pulled directly from Heller[1]—with the narrative circling back to major events, shifts in tone, abrupt violence.

A fabulous novel by a very fine American author.

A fabulous novel by a very fine American author.

O’Brien belongs to a rarified group of writers carrying enormous critical acclaim and commercial success. He carries the burden—what a great problem to have!—well. His work is consistent. His lesser novels—In the Lake of the Woods and The Nuclear Age—are still well-written, intriguing. I’ve never regretted reading one of his books. (I cannot say the same about most authors.) O’Brien would go on to write The Things They Carried, one of the finest novel-in-stories ever written, highly influential, beautiful[2]. He’s a great writer to recommend to people who like to read, but stay away from serious books.

Vietnam plays a role in all of his books, and the very fine July, July in a sense picks up Berlin, or a character just like him, as he approaches middle age. His characters are haunted by their actions and inactions, by their participation in such a horrifying spectacle of depravity, by their laughter, murder, indifference.

The key to O’Brien is he’s easy and fun to read, but challenging in his refusal to fully delineate what is real and what is illusory. The narrative is fractured, intense, at times bewildered. Memory, desire, fear, violent soldiering and impossible fantasy intermingle in a labyrinthine narrative that can feel as meandering and formless as a routine patrol. What is real is never clear with O’Brien. In this way he belongs with the post-modernists. He’s often described as an American magical-realist—this is a descriptor that needs to be put to pasture—but this isn’t quite right. He isn’t Vonnegut. He’s writing about the Vietnam War directly; the fantastical elements occur in the different characters’ minds, or to all of them together, in a collective temporary madness[3]. He’s subtle with his oddities.

2.

Of course the war is the thing for O’Brien, Vietnam and the soldiers who fought in it. He served as a foot soldier in Vietnam; his novels taken together serve as a type of epic autobiography. His work contains a seething rage against his war experiences—the whole endeavor deranged people’s moral sense—tucked into little tiny moments. And his time as a soldier explains the essential enigma to his novels. Here’s Paul Berlin meditating on the moral confusion of the war:

 

“They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory. No sense of order or momentum. No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels. No Patton rushing for the Rhine, no beachheads to storm and win and hold for the duration. They did not have targets. They did not have a cause. They did not know if it was a war of ideology or economics or hegemony or spite. . . . They did not know the names of most villages. They did not know which villages were critical. They did not know strategies. They did not know the terms of the war, its architecture, the rules of fair play. When they took prisoners, which was rare, they did not know the questions to ask, whether to release a suspect or beat on him. They did not know how to feel. Whether, when seeing a dead Vietnamese, to be happy or sad or relieved; whether, in times of quiet, to be apprehensive or content; whether to engage the enemy or elude him. They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish? . . . They did not know good from evil.”

 

Fabulous, moving, straight-forward—he has some Hemingway in him, a lot of Heller. His style is concrete and precise, with hallucinogenic flourishes. Curlicues of madness. Staccato bursts of emotional violence.

He’s funny. He has a superior ear for dialogue. Here he has Paul Berlin being interviewed by a three-man panel of officers:

 

“You an American soldier?” 

“Yes sir.”

“Yeah? Then where’d you get such a screwy name?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Sheet.” The major looked at the captain in tiger fatigues. “You hear that? This trooper don’t know where he got his own name. You ever promoted somebody who don’t know how he got his own fuckin name?”

“Maybe he forgot,” said the captain in tiger fatigues.

“Amnesia?”

“Could be. Or maybe shell shock or something. Better ask again.”

The major sucked his dentures halfway ot of his mouth, frowned, then let his teeth slide back into place. “Can’t hurt nothin’. Okay, soldier, one more time—where’d you find that name of yours?”

“Inherited it, sir. From my father.”

“You crappin’ me?”

 

He’s a fascinating writer on nature. I could read his descriptions of Vietnamese landscapes for hours:

The land was luminous. Pink coral and ferric reds, great landfalls of wilderness, and they moved through it for twelve days at a buffalo’s pace. No villages, no people. Only the road.

 

He’s terrifying—you can get a sense of it from any random page—but he’s also wise:

In the morning the fifty new men were marched to a wooden set of bleachers facing the sea. A small, sad-faced corporal in a black cadre helmet waited until they settled down, looking at the new recruits as if searching for a lost friend in a crowd. Then the corporal sat down in the sand. He turned away and gazed at the sea. He did not speak. Time passed slowly, ten minutes, twenty, but still the sad-faced corporal did not turn or nod or speak. He simply gazed out at the blue sea. Everything was clean. The sea was clean, and the sand and the wind.

They sat in the bleachers for a full hour.

Then at last, the corporal sighed and stood up. He checked his wristwatch. Again he searched the rows of new faces.

“All right,” he said softly. “That completes your first lecture on how to survive this shit. I hope you paid attention.”

 

Simply beautiful.

3.

1979 was a good year for American fiction. John Irving published his influential—but overrated and unsatisfying—The World According to Garp. Charles Bukowski continued with his poetry of the gutter with Women. Don DeLillo released his superb, and underrated, literary thriller, Running Dog. (It’s also, in a coded and intriguing way, about Vietnam.) Hubert Selby, Jr. published Requiem for a Dream. John Updike, Richard Yates, Gore Vidal all published novels. Cacciato is the best novel of an impressive year.

The blockbuster novel had already arrived. Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Richard Matheson, Mario Puzo all published books.

Around the world, the British continued their post, post-war boom: Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, Ismael Kadare, Gunter Grass, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Beryl Bainbridge, Kingsley Amis and Martin Amis all published novels.

And yes, there are few women on the above list, a continuing problem, and few minority authors, too.

4.

Ambiguity, violence; a summation of the absurdities of the Cold War; the ragged edges of American military power; imperialism, Orientalism, racism—the Vietnam War affected everyone from Muhammad Ali to Oliver Stone. Yet we still argue over the root causes, even the ultimate result, of this most agonizing and divisive of American wars.

Films, comics, music—the Vietnam War is one of the most important events in our recent history. And yet, very few people can agree on anything about it.

Yet the ambiguity, the pastoral beauty of the country, the horrendous destruction of the U.S. bombing campaigns, and yes, the terrorism, the odd silence of the Viet-Cong—the war brings the best out of our writers because of the very things that make it so difficult to understand. The uncertainty gives the subject a mysterious power.

The Vietnam War has many fine books about it, including Michael Herr’s stunning book of reportage, Dispatches. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke—and it’s a fucking miracle of a book, perhaps his best—is about Vietnam. Robert Stone’s white-knuckle harrowing The Dog Soldiers is about Vietnam; it’s his best book. Stephen Wright’s bizarre psycho-fantasia, Meditations in Green, is about Vietnam; it’s his best book, too. Halberstam’s best (non-fiction) book, The Best and the Brightest, is about how we ended up fighting over there. Lenny Bruce’s best bits involved Vietnam. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is one of his finest works. And, yes, it’s about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, too.

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War—one of the finest science fiction novels ever written—is about Vietnam. And, it’s his best book, too.

The Punisher was a Vietnam veteran.

John Rambo was a Vietnam veteran.

James Crumley’s detectives are all haunted by the war. Ditto for most of the detective fiction from the 1970s.

And so we circle back to O’Brien, the best novelist of Vietnam, the writer closest to its horror and stink. Other writers fought in Vietnam, but O’Brien is the most haunted by it.

Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried, are much more than war novels. They stand as lyrical expressions of a singular American writer.

 

 

[1] If you haven’t read “The Trial of Clevinger,” from Catch-22, you’re missing one of the great comedic set pieces in American fiction.

[2] It also has the distinction of being the one book I’ve lent out three different times, and each time the other person kept it.

[3] A pretty good description of the war.

National Book Award winners, part 22: 1975’s Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone.

26 Feb

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

1.

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.

Of course.

“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.

A fabulous novel in the literary crime subgenre; I love this book.

A fabulous novel in the literary crime subgenre; I love this book.

2.

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[1] 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.

3.

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[1], 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.

4.

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[2]. 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[3], 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.

 

 


 

[1] A great novel.

[2] Reportedly, Heller’s second best novel, but I couldn’t get through it.

[3] I kept seeing those great seventies films—Taxi Driver; Three Days of the Condor; Klute; The Conversation; Charley Varrick, among others—playing out in these pages.