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National Book Award winners, part 19: 1966’s The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

10 Jan

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

1.

In 1966, Katherine Anne Porter won the national book award for her Collected Stories. In the seventeen years since the national book award began, she was the first female author to win.

Since 1950—the first year of the award—Pearl Buck, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Lorraine Hansbury, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates all published major novels. None of them won.

The story of women in American fiction is a study in rebellion against acute social control. The big names of Edith Wharton, Djuna Barnes, Kate Chopin[1] and Willa Cather are studies in steely determination and immense talent and drive. Many male authors back in the day slid into writing careers. The women had to hack their way in with bone-handled knives.

Until 1920, women were second-class citizens; they didn’t even have the right to vote. Higher education, publishing, most professions—these things and more were closed off to most women. Virginia Wolff famously said that “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own to write fiction.” Marriage was considered the major goal for women, and raising children the only honorable ambition.

Fiction in America was almost exclusively a man’s game. A handful of female writers broke through this gendered divide. The counterculture didn’t do much better; for all its vaulted transgressive morality, the Beat Movement was just as much a boys’ club as any Ivy League school[2].

Libertines, rebels, spinsters—most of the American female writers were outcasts, expatriates. The accomplishments of American female novelists were often overlooked in their home country. Gertrude Stein, a towering figure in modernism, became successful in France.

2.

Katherine Anne Porter’s life is the stuff of great fiction. She was born in a tiny town in Texas in 1890. It was a wilder time. Lives were stranger, less fixed. Expectations were low for a poor southern girl like Porter. And like many people of her time and station, Porter lived a hard life. Her mother died when she was a child. So did one of her brothers. Her father moved her here and there across Texas, Louisiana. In hotel rooms and boarding houses. She married at 16. She suffered at the hands of a hostile, abusive husband. She divorced at 25. She survived tuberculosis, barely survived the flu pandemic. She moved to New York City. She began writing. She wrote and wrote. Articles and stories. She had lovers, husbands, miscarriages and sadness. She carried bitterness like a stone in her heart.

 

The first female winner of the top fiction award. It only took 17 years.

The first female winner of the top fiction award. It only took 17 years.

Porter was famous in her lifetime for her novel, Ship of Fools. It follows a group of characters heading towards Germany in the 1930s. The writing of it took her over 20 years, but it was worth the wait. Fools was a monster bestseller, adapted into a movie, and it left Porter scalded by fame but also rich.

She didn’t write any other novels. The shorter form was better for her, easier.

3.

Porter is precise, controlled. She writes about small moments, little epiphanies. Some of her stories remind me of D.H. Lawrence. She isn’t flashy. Some of her stories feel plain. The conflicts are often subdued. I kept dipping in and out of the stories waiting for a shock of electricity. The shock never came.

This isn’t to say she isn’t a good writer, for she is. I just kept waiting for the prose to ignite. But she isn’t that kind of writer. She details the internal lives of her characters in quiet tones. Many of her stories are hushed. She details despair and disillusionment, often women realizing the fallow character of their husbands. She traffics in melancholy and regret. You can sense her lurking behind her stories, carrying around a lifetime of hardship and disappointment. To read her stories is to engage with a sad, lonely intelligence of the first rank.

Here’s a taste of her talent and style, the first paragraph of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”:

 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was the not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep.

Now I must get up and go while they are all quiet.

 

I didn’t read all of her stories. I couldn’t. I won’t revisit her work. I (probably) won’t ever read more than the few pages I’ve already read of Ship of Fools. Porter is important for a lot of reasons, but I’m ready to leave her behind.

4.

It was a weak year for American fiction. Irving Stone, Vincent Starrett, Jerzy Kosinski, James Michener, Peter Matthiesson and Norman Mailer all published middling novels. Frank Herbert released his sci fi magnum opus, Dune. Kurt Vonnegut published another intriguing (and depressing) science fiction novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Flannery O’Connor released her fantastic collection of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Porter’s Collected Stories is as good as any of these books, except for O’Connor’s. I just can’t get excited about reading it.

The Nobel prize winners of today were cutting their teeth on the sixties. International fiction was ablaze with bright, young talents who we’re still feeling today: J. M. Clezio, David Lodge, Witold Gombrowicz, Raymond Queneau, and Iris Murdoch.

Now on to Bellow (boo!) and Malamud (yay!).


[1] The Awakening is one of my favorite novels of all time.

[2] Please read Harvey Pekar’s graphic history of the Beats. It’s fantastic.

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NBAW, part 38: 1975’s The Hair of Harold Roux.

29 Jul

(Have been writing like a banshee, but have neglected the blog a bit. More to come over the next week and a half, some movie reviews, a True Detective season 2 rant, and other miscellany.)

1.

In 1975, Thomas Williams won the National Book Award for his fabulous academic novel of the 1960s, The Hair of Harold Roux. Williams split the award with Robert Stone’s The Dog Soldiers.

Roux begins with an English professor, nearing middle age and with children of his own, suffering from writer’s block, self-doubt, and existential unease. His name is Aaron Benham. He’s facing a long weekend alone, as he’s mistakenly forgotten a family trip and his wife has left him behind. His star pupil, named George, is nearing the deadline for his dissertation, and George cannot seem to gather the strength to finish it. Another former student, named Mark, has gone missing, and Mark’s mother has asked Benham for help.

So Benham attempts to help George and save Mark, at the expense of taking care of his own family. Here’s an early interaction between George and Benham, on why George won’t finish his dissertation:

“. . . I think I may be going off my nut, and I don’t like it, Aaron.” His eyes are still unfocused. “I mean I can’t shake it. It’s like my head’s in a vice and all the assholes of the world are turning the goddamn handle. We haven’t learned lesson number one. Maybe we don’t even know what it is. But we’re killing the world, Aaron. . . . That’s psychotic, man, and I think I’ve caught it and what’s the use? How can you not think about something, Charles? Nerve gas, radioactive wastes that have to be kept refrigerated for eight generations or else, not to mention being located in earthquake zones. Television fucking outright lies, brain rot, money worship, rivers in hell that catch fire. . . . And the whole stinking race is born of rape. . .”

“So why bother finishing your dissertation?”

“Oh, that. I don’t mean that. I don’t know, maybe so. But everything is dying, so what does anything matter? . . . . We’re deliberately killing ourselves!”

“I am the asphalt; let me work.”

“Yeah.”

“Get your dissertation done and then worry about all that.”

 

And if all of this sounds like the stuff of a good novel, there’s more, for the bulk of the story follows a novel inside this one, Benham’s manuscript titled, of course, The Hair of Harold Roux.

It’s a clever, perhaps too clever, way of dealing with the knotty challenges of writing compelling stories about real people; you occlude through the distance of fiction. Benham’s manuscript details an incident from his college years—his fiction is almost entirely autobiographical—where his alter-ego, Allard Benson, seduces a Catholic school girl named Mary. Benson leads Mary to believe he’ll marry her if she sleeps with him.

This interior story is rich and complex and lovingly detailed, with a dozen or so other students moving around the edges of the plot. One of Benson’s friends is a young man named Harold Roux, a comedic, pathetic, prematurely aged student who wears a ridiculous hair piece and refuses to acknowledge he’s balding. He’s so sensitive that he even walks funny so that a strong wind won’t knock it off. Harold loves Mary, while Allard is screwing Mary’s roommate, and Allard juggles the feelings of the other characters against his own desires with astonishing self-rationalization. The saga plays out against the burgeoning student radical movements of the 1960s.

The manuscript story grows so compelling, that when the novel switches back to Benham the writer, it’s a bit boring. It’s clear, as the novel progresses, that Benham is using the novel to work out past transgressions. But his current predicament—being alone in the house with his memories and too much drink—is so much less compelling than the flashbacks.

The novel grows in power as you read it, becomes more intriguing, more arresting as the pages pass. I was elated to find, near the end, that Williams was a novelist of the first order. And here I had almost given up around page 30.

2.

Williams was a major rising talent in the 1960s, and is now largely forgotten. He is similar to Wright Morris, a feted author and winner of numerous recognitions, short stories in The New Yorker, reviews on the front page of major publications, blurbs from top authors and on firm critical footing who has, somehow, slipped into the dustbin.

Which is a shame, for on the basis of Roux[1], Williams is a major talent. He’s funny, almost unruly in his savagery, sexy, raunchy, clever, thrilling and fun to read. Here he is, describing Benham trying to make a little extra money working on a boat chartered by rednecks:

“The boat moved gently beneath them, and the smell of the cove was powerful: that salty compound of life and rot, chemical, natural, speaking of the dense life of the sea. Through the clamshells on the mud bottom, and crabs moving sideways over white strings of fish parts someone had thrown out.

“. . . When the bus finally came, it was three-quarters of an hour late, having had a flat tire, and the troops had obviously been at the booze. They filed slowly out the front door, a little too careful on the steps. Some carried spinning rods and tackle, but most carried, with many grunts and deep breaths, cases of beer, plastic coolers, and cardboard boxes of food. The logistics of the operation were complicated.

“. . . They were men from their late twenties to early fifties, but all their aces, beneath their story hats or long-bulled caps, were equally blasted, the younger haunted by the finalities of the older. Except for the starved, thin bodies of the burnt-out, gut-troubled types, most were soft-bellied. Though thin elsewhere, they carried a feminine roll over the hips, and navels or pale hairy mounds of flesh were visible between T-shirts and low-slung belts, or between the gaps of printed sport shirts. . . . Flesh colors were tones of gray; they must have all worked indoors, and in their evenings . . . the television set above the bar must have chrome-tanned them into its own metallic tones. They were shades of green, or bruised blue—all on the side of the spectrum away from blood and life, toward the dank, the enclosed.”

You can read that final descriptive paragraph half a dozen times and marvel at the economy, the concision, the humor, the dread, the worry, the anger and the skill. Marvelous stuff.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

So he writes well. There are some clunkers here and there, flush up against the brilliant writing, but he has plenty of talent.

There are reasons why Williams slid out of view, although they all rest on a number of conjecturing suppositions. But here goes.

He has no one big book. I said this before, but a magnum opus goes a long way to securing an author future readers. (Think Moby Dick or Catch-22.) It provides an entry-point for fans and ballast for college literature courses. He didn’t write any autobiographical coming of age novels, either (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Black Swan Green), which, when written well, gives a writer a chance at a coveted spot on high school required reading lists.

He’s similar to other writers. In this case, with the academic setting, he’s writing in a very specific genre, crowded with masterpieces. Herzog is an academic novel, of sorts, as are John Williams’s Stoner and Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life—three of the great novels of the twentieth century. Roux fits with this company, with more than a little of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom added to the mix. Only Williams, as good as he is, and he is a very fine writer, isn’t quite up to the level of these other novelists.

There isn’t a riveting story about Thomas Williams the man. (Cheever was a bisexual drunk; Norman Mailer an ass-worshiping wife-beater; Flannery O’Connor was a death-obsessed cripple who probably never went on a real date; James Ellroy was a homeless drug addict; Katherine Anne Porter was blinded in one eye by an abusive husband; and so on.)

Williams also comes out of the college writing programs/workshop tradition. This doesn’t endear him to future readers. There’s something overly worked out in his prose.

And, I don’t know, the title? It’s a bad title. All of his titles seem forgettable—A High New House, Town Burning, The Followed Man—or just badly weird: Whipple’s Castle, Tsuga’s Children. Ugh and double ugh.

Perhaps its random fate. Faulkner was almost forgotten. Don Carpenter was forgotten. Some make it, some don’t. Not very cheery, but perhaps that’s all there is.

 

3.

The Hair of Harold Roux revolves around Benham’s moral ineptitude, and the casual treachery of his fictional alter-ego. Aaron Benham is complicit, self-loathing, lazy, cheating, rationalizing creature, a lumbering armchair philosopher who ignores his wife and forgets family gatherings. His fictional creation, Allard, is somehow worse, nearly inhuman in his callousness, devoid of even a modicum of empathy, conniving and mean-spirited. If Roux has any major flaws, it’s in the nasty disregard both of the main characters have for other people.

And, well, we’ve seen this type of character before, the womanizing intellectual. In fact, despite capturing the campus life of the sixties rather well, Williams fills the pages with themes so common in American literature they’ve become tropes: Philandering intellectuals, constantly rationalizing their choices; an undercurrent of biology to the proceedings, men aren’t meant to be monogamous, etcetera; and writing fiction as the hardest job there is[2].

Williams—and Robert Stone—beat out a number of fine novelists for the top award, including Donald Barthelme, Gail Godwin, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrsion, Vladimir Nabakov, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and Mark Smith, who was nominated for his underground Death of the Detective.

[1] The novel was re-issued in 2011, and there seems to be some renewed interest in Williams’s other novels.

[2] Which is patently absurd.

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.

NBAW, number 34: 1984’s Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr.

23 Jan

(I haven’t written any of these in a while. The reasons are manifold: one, I’ve been writing other things, and quite frantically; two, I’ve been reading a spate of new novels, including The Book of Strange New Things, Lila, and The Laughing Monsters, among others; and three, of the remaining National Book Award winners, I’ve read a number of them and are reluctant to re-read them, or they are hard to find, or they are intimidating [William Gaddis and William Vollman, in particular]. Anyway, here we go.)

1.

In 1984, Harriet Doerr won the National Book Award for her beguiling, elegant and at times horrifying little novel of stories, Stones for Ibarra. It was her first novel. She was seventy-four.

Doerr was born into a wealthy California family, and grew up in a world of rarified privilege. She went to college in the late 1920s, uncommon for women at the time. She married a wealthy businessman. They moved to a small, craggy hamlet in Mexico to run a copper mine—separated from the townspeople by a giant gulf of culture, language, money and class—and here her husband was diagnosed with cancer. They stayed in Mexico for years, he running the mine and she building some kind of life for herself, before her husband died. She then returned to the U.S., went back to school for creative writing, and when she reached an age when many people were playing golf or filling out crossword puzzles, she started writing short fiction.

This brief sketch of Doerr’s life is useful, for it is the exact plot of Stones for Ibarra. Here are the first lines:

“Here they are, two North Americans, a man and a woman just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico and already lost as they travel cross-country over the central plateau. The driver of the station wagon is Richard Everton, a blue-eyed, black-haired stubborn man who will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines. On the seat beside him is his wife, Sara, who imagines neither his death nor her own, imminent or remote as they may be.”

The Evertons are atheists and outsiders in a Catholic country. The novel follows five or so years in their lives and in the lives of Ibarra. The book has dozens of little stories, anecdotes, village folklore, but little in the way of a larger plot. The tone moves from the small-town gossip to the bemused outsider. And it is these two points of view—the rural, often superstitious, primitive and “backward,” and the urbane, worldly, cynical and “forward”—that collide throughout the novel, in alternating chapters.

A very fine novel of Americans in Mexico.

A very fine novel of Americans in Mexico.

Doerr has a horrid view of Mexican rural life. The lives of the various peasants are filled with daily violence and crippling boredom all tempered—or held in place—by a fatalistic stoicism. There’s no ambition, no prospects. Just drudgery and a dependence on the land or the largesse of wealthier peoples. And everything rests in a culture ruined by a particularly virulent strain of superstitious Catholicism.

Doerr presents within Mexico competing notions of civilization. The peasants of Ibarra find the behavior of the Evertons, and the basic amenities of city life they expect, to be strange. They also resist organization and planning, even when it would ease the town’s suffering. When the town has a problem with rabid dogs, the state sends a veterinarian to inoculate against rabies.

“On that day eighty-four dogs were immunized against rabies. And for every animal the owner was given a metal tag to attach to the collar he did not intend to buy.”

You can sense Doerr’s frustrations with the small-town mindset throughout the novel. A provincial small-mindedness. A dogged persistence to foolish, old ways.

Doerr’s writing style is elegant, spare and, the key word here, controlled. Here’s a sample, of two miners who are stealing from the mine:

“Crouched against the dripping walls, their mouths bitter with the taste of explosives and metal, they ate their lunches of rice and chiles, drank Pepsi Cola, and into the henequen bags that held these things they stuffed all the ore they could take away without suspicion. At the end of eight hours they carried the vividly striped sacks out of the tunnel, into the hoist elevator, and off down the road as if they weighed nothing and it was only pots and bottles that made them budge.”

This is very fine writing, spare but detailed.

But, well, it’s perhaps too controlled. These are men risking their lives for precious little, and the risks are underplayed. Other writers would stretch the thievery, elongate the tensions. Even the wilder events—and the book has suicides, murder, bar fights and so on—feel detached, pre-ordained.

She’s erudite and sophisticated, but also a touch dry and de-sexualized. There’s more than a touch of Paul Bowles in this little novel, the alienation and the odd chilliness radiating somewhere from within the sentences.

2.

Twelve years ago, a friend of mine said, concerning this very novel, “Well, you know what people say. Men write about big ideas, women write about small stuff.” She was comparing Doerr to Cormac McCarthy, who covers similar terrain.

I’m not sure about the idea of men and women writing about different things—there are plenty of women who traffic in big ideas, and enough male navel gazers to fill a museum—but I think Doerr is writing about big ideas, only in a peculiar way. For Ibarra is stuffed with opposites: belief versus non-belief, city versus country, Spanish versus English, and so on. And these opposites play out in her writing in an arch, yet also melancholic way.

In fact, I would argue that the problem with this novel—I enjoyed it quite a bit, by the by—is the effect her gloomy philosophy of pre-ordainment has on the overall drama. She’s a strong writer who writes some great scenes (perhaps the best follows Sara waiting for her husband in a café) but each scene carries little drama. She’s demystified things by zooming back and forth through time, and the result is a cogent argument for accepting one’s fate, but it lacks the pleasure, almost sexual, that you get when a good novel unfolds. Put another way: none of the characters seem to be acting on events. Everyone is wallowing in the flow of time.

There’s plenty of violence, too, including a pitiless drowning, a few savage beatings, even a murder or two. It all happens. It’s all part of that sunny world.

The closest novel to Ibarra is probably Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day, which also zooms in and out of time, and presents the deaths of certain characters in an offhanded way. And there’s something vaguely similar, in the novel’s structure, to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio (although I don’t think either Doerr or Anderson would appreciate the comparison). And there’s just a hint of Katherine Anne Porter here, too.

Finally, Doerr has the distinction, shared only with boxing writer F.X. Toole, of entering publishing in her seventies. The novel is short, but meandering; it takes an experienced, wise writer to do that.

3.

Of course, one of the big draws of this novel is the depiction, by an outsider, of the daily ordeals of the Mexican peasant. Doerr’s Mexico is a dry, dusty desert in a culture dominated by bullshit machismo and terrible violence.

American fiction has an on-again, off-again love affair with Mexico. (You don’t see any of the kind of fiery lust in regard to our other neighbor, Canada.)

Many of our finest novels deal with the border, not the least of which is Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel of racism and bloodletting, Blood Meridian, or his magnificent All the Pretty Horses. John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.—my vote for the greatest American novel—has sections set in Mexico. Wright Morris’s The Field of Vision involves American tourists in Mexico. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano—loved by many, but not me—follows a drunken day in the life of an American in Mexico. And The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—we don’t know where the author, B. Traven, was from, but the fabulous film was made in the States—follows gold miners in Mexico.

This unstable love affair is even more prevalent in films. There’s something—and this is the cartoon version of it, I know—about the spice, local color, superstitions, grinding poverty, horrible violence and rampant corruption that entices writers and filmmakers and artists.

And, well, there is something exploitative, discomfiting and cartoonish about America’s creative class and their relationship to Mexico. But this makes sense, as a larger exploitation has existed between the two countries for over almost two hundred years. Doerr, and she isn’t alone here, presents a Mexico that seems inhabited by a totally alien mind, a landscape hammered by angry gods, a people blind to their own stagnation and confused by the very revolution that created the country they live in. You can almost hear Doerr screaming through her work: modernize! Update! Get with the fucking program!

I’m not faulting Doerr for her beliefs; she lived in Mexico for close to a decade. She saw what she saw. She lived through what she lived through. But I think The Savage Detectives, as just one example, delivers a more rounded view of Mexican life (with more humor and self-awareness. Also, lots of sex.)

4.

1984 was a great year for American fiction, both high and low. Louise Erdrich won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award[1] for her magnificent Love Medicine. Tom Clancy put out his military thriller, The Hunt for Red October[2]. Thomas Pynchon released his only volume of short stories, Slow Learner. Gore Vidal published the critically lauded Lincoln. William Gibson released the early cyberpunk masterpiece, Neuromancer. Stephen King and Peter Straub put out their very fine young adult fantasy, The Talisman. Sandra Cisneros published her excellent short story collection, The House on Mango Street. Padgett Powell, William Kennedy, Philip Roth, Kent Haruf and Allison Lurie all published fiction in a very crowded, dynamite year for American letters.

Around the world, fiction was cresting. Milan Kundera published his best novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. J.G. Ballard released his epic, autobiographical novel of living in a Japanese concentration camp, Empire of the Sun. Thomas Bernhard put out his excellent, disturbing novel, Woodcutters. The always interesting Julian Barnes published Flaubert’s Parrot. And Ian Banks released his highly lauded disturbed vision of British society, The Wasp Factory.

Amongst this impressive list, Doerr stands out partially as an oddity—due to her age and the chilly polish of her prose—and partially on the strength of her haunting, elliptical writing. It’s a tough case to argue her novel is better than Love Medicine, or some of the other novels here, but Stones for Ibarra is in its way unforgettable and moving.

[1] I plan on doing entries for these, too. Maybe?

[2] Okay, not for me, but he isn’t horrible.

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.

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

4 Dec

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Everybody stood by, waiting to hear the alternative.

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

At this, Brother Harold nodded.

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

“Let me understand you,” said Father Urban.

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

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

“Not necessarily.”

“Do it by hand, you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s fir.”

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

“Mostly they’re using oak and maple.”

“Not fir?”

“No.”

“Well, they you are.”

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

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

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

Good but not great.

 

 


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