Search results for 'man with the golden arm'

National Book Award Winners, part 3: 1950’s The Man with the Golden Arm.

13 Aug

(In which I read all the previous national book award winners, so that you don’t have to.)

The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award in 1950. It is the story of America’s losers: drunks, junkies, prostitutes, railbirds, convicts, hustlers, hobos and the aged and infirm. The characters live in unheated studio apartments. They eat the cheapest food they can find. They eke by in a society indifferent to their suffering. They drink, shoot heroin, rip each other off. They get fat and soft, they contract diseases, they give in to every temptation because they have nothing else. It’s a hell of a novel, complex, challenging, demanding, formidable, haunting, despondent and beautiful. It made Nelson Algren famous.

The poetic epic of America's underclass.

The poetic epic of America’s underclass.

The main character is Frankie Machine, a down on his luck ex-enlisted man with a heroin habit, a wife who might or might not be paralyzed by an injury he caused, and a job dealing cards that pays just enough to keep him alive. Machine’s best friend is a penny ante conman named Sparrow, who steals dogs when he can’t work and drinks away his money as fast as can. Machine and Sparrow connive, cheat and steal. Frankie isn’t just an anti-hero. He’s pathetic, weak, bored, disaffected and at times just nasty. He’s degraded, insulted, arrested, and he just takes it all with a grim, taciturn stoicism. Sparrow is worse, so incompetent he can’t hold onto a job, steal without getting caught. But Sparrow has words, and a sense of self-irony. You root for them both, even as you know they are doomed.

It feels like a Depression-era novel. The characters are on the fringe, they have no prospects, they have no social mobility, they are trapped. It’s The Grapes of Wrath, minus the journey, the beauty of nature, the dream of a socialist utopia. You can smell the characters on the page, you can see their degradation and discomfort[1].

Algren was a hard-living dude who lived as a hobo and hustler himself during the thirties. He tramped around the southern United States for a while, supposedly living on free bananas and rotgut coffee in New Orleans for months. He saw immense poverty and suffering, and came out of the experience a life-long communist. He’s one of these writers[2] whose legend seems to have outgrown the work, which in this case is a travesty. Golden Arm isn’t some tough guy ledgermain, or faddish novel; it’s a faithful, poetic rendering of America’s underclass. In lesser hands this would be a social ills novel, with speeches, even a foreword explaining how things could be so much better. Which would ruin the novel’s power. Algren offers no solutions. There’s nothing proscriptive at all. Algren doesn’t preach. He bears witness. He also writes vivid, beautiful prose, and carries an immense amount of love for his characters. They have dreams and schemes, and Algren records their struggles with pristine insight and affection.

 

Algren at his typewriter.

Algren at his typewriter, smoking like a son of a bitch.

Golden Arm has a peculiar cadence, running in and out of different characters thoughts and impressions, held together in a jazzy street-slang patois. In some ways it’s the proto-Beat Generation novel—if the crime novel Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on had been edited by Upton Sinclair—but Algren isn’t interested in autobiography, eastern religions or post-adolescent authenticity. He isn’t turning his own life into a story. He’s opening his heart, and the hearts of others, to the stories of the world. There’s a plot, but it’s secondary. The impressions, the writing, the characters—these are what you’ll remember.

The novel has some problems. It’s repetitious, and some of the little asides could have been cut. The dialogue at times feels dated. The urban naturalism, for lack of a better term, isn’t in vogue. Frankie and Sparrow’s inability to accomplish anything is frustrating, even exhausting.

But Algren is also unexpectedly funny. The best scene in the book follows a precinct captain who has to take each man’s statement as he is locked up for the night. This is his life, every night, recording statements from a motley crew combed from the city’s dregs, and the effort to stay decent is ruining him. The scene follows some two-dozen men as they try to trick the captain into letting them go, while the other men snicker and goad and watch on. It’s a stunning set-piece, hilarious and heartbreaking, some fifteen pages of it. Here’s a taste, from page 190:

So the men came on again: the ragged, crouching, slouching, buoyant, blinking, belligerent, nameless, useless supermen from nowhere. . . .

A shock-haired razorback with a bright Bull Durham string hanging over his shirt pocket’s edge: “Just throwed a rock at a wall ’n it happened to go through a window instead. So I followed through. But I didn’t have no intent of stealing.”

“You never have. But you’re in and out like a fiddler’s elbow all the same. What was the stretch in the Brushy Mountain pen for?”

“I got the wrong number was all.”

“I bet you did. The wrong house number.”

“That’s right. The people were home. I was drinking pretty heavy.”

“What do you do when you’re drinking light?”

“Minding my own business.”

“You haven’t got any business. For a quarter you’d steal the straw out of your mother’s kennel.”

And, so on. A few paragraphs later:

The captain’s eyes went down the line. The masks were managing to change, slowly and ever so slyly, to look less like plastic men and more like some plastic zoo: animals stuffed for some State Street Toyland the week before Christmas. Here was the toothless tiger and here the timid lion, here the bull that loved flowers and there some lovelorn moose.

The toothless tiger stood in a faded yellow hat from some long-faded summer, his stripes blurred by the city jungle’s dust and sprayed blood dried on the hat’s stiff brim: but still trying to look like a tiger.

Fantastic writing, eh?

Saul Bass's great ending credits to the lackluster Otto Preminger film adaptation.

Saul Bass’s great ending credits to the lackluster Otto Preminger film adaptation.


[1] There’s a character named Pig, for example, who is blind. Out of spite for the world, he refuses to perform any hygienic tasks, using his physical repugnance as a protective shield.

[2] Hemingway, Plath, Bukowski, and Burroughs, among others, belong to this group.

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Brooklyn jollies, Manhattan follies, part 2: Sometimes a great notion

24 Jul

1.

The plan was complicated. We would drive to upstate New York from Chicago, spend a few days with friends, and then zip down into New York City. There we would stay with some of Beth’s friends in Brooklyn; I would go to a party at a friend’s apartment; the next day we would visit Manhattan; and then leave Simone overnight and go to a wedding in Mystic, Connecticut. The next morning we would drive back through New York, pick up Simone, I would attend my online graduate classes, and then we would return to Chicago via interstate 80.

It was an ambitious plan.

Any number of things could go wrong.

And many of them did.

Although punctuated with some bright spots, the trip was a disaster.

Before things fall apart, Simone makes a friend in Cooperstown, N.Y.

2.

The first leg goes fine. Simone is happy. Beth and I listen to David Sedaris on the radio. I develop a crick in my neck, but I deal with it.

Oneonta is a town in upstate New York, surrounded by tree-covered mountains. It’s nice, pretty and quiet, but we don’t sleep enough, hours less than usual.

On the way into New York, we’re cranky. Traffic is light. Beth talks about bridges.

We park the car in Park Slope, where Sherina lives. The early afternoon sun filtered by tree branches and the sky wide and handsome.

Beth’s friend, Sherina, and her boyfriend, Jonathan, live in a two-bedroom apartment. There’s a windowless corridor running from the front rooms, where Jonathan has a command center of computer equipment, to the tiny single-window kitchen. It’s nice and we’re excited to be here. But, there’s a problem.

They have two cats.

Beth is allergic to cat dander. Super-allergic. Her throat constricts, her eyes water, her skin itches.  “I forgot about the cats,” she says in a half-whisper, her bag sitting open and exposed on the bed.

3.

Jonathan and I walk up Fifth Avenue. The street is lined with restaurants and shops, people. We drink Norwegian coffees and talk about comics. I feel better. The cobalt sky and it isn’t too hot. We finish our route, watch Bored to Death and wait for Beth to call. I spend an hour stretching my back on a yoga ball. I call my friend, set up my plans for the night. He lives about a mile away. I’m excited.

Beth finally calls. “We might have a major crisis on our hands,” she says.

“I’m having a bad allergic reaction to Sherina’s cats. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m dying. We might have to stay with your uncle.”

This is serious; my uncle lives six hours away, and if this is the best Beth can come up with, we’re in trouble.

She can’t return to the apartment. She’s stuck outside. Toni, the only other New York friend Beth knows, is out of town.

Sherina has a friend who lives nearby. There’s a couch, etcetera.

My chances of making it to my friend’s party are shrinking.

For dinner, Beth picks a bar on the corner. We sit outside. It’s standard fare. Simone eats French fries and some bread. Her diet this trip has been bad: cheese curds, rice cakes, frozen yogurt, pancakes and fried potatoes. She’s tired, cranky and bored by the end of the meal so I run her up and down the sidewalk, where she touches the blinking walk sign with dirty hands.

I take Simone up to the apartment while Beth begins her peripatetic jaunt around the neighborhood; she’s waiting for the friend to get home.

It’s 8:45. Simone has two dirty diapers in as many minutes; she’s sick. I call the doctor; I inform Beth; I hug Simone and put her to sleep. I email my friend, bail on his party, sit in semi-discomfort, full of regret. I haven’t seen him in two years.

Jonathan reads. I stare at my computer screen. Beth continues her walk. Sherina joins her, and soon so does Jonathan.

I sit in the empty apartment. I contemplate getting drunk. Feels irresponsible. My nose is running. My shoulders ache. I feel clammy. My throat is tightening. Am I allergic to cats, too? I’m anxious about Simone, feeling wretched.

Too tired to read, I dash off a half-finished blog entry and then watch The Golden Child on TV.

It’s something to do.

4.

The next morning, Simone wakes me up at 5:50. We watch Toy Story 3, because I don’t want her to wake up our hosts, and I spoon-feed her yogurt as per the doctor’s instructions. Beth wakes up at 6:30 and starts walking around the neighborhood with her bag. She’s slept maybe 4 hours; I’ve slept closer to 5; Simone has slept 8.

The sleeplessness accumulates. Beth is touchy. So am I.

Simone and I join Beth outside around 7:45.

A week’s worth of refuse and recycling rests on the curbs and sidewalks in multicolored garbage bags.

“At least in Chicago we know what to do with our garbage,” Beth says.

We walk Simone through Prospect Park to the farmer’s market. The place is already crowded. Simone is docile, occasionally kicking her legs inside the stroller. We buy blueberries and eat them as we stroll through the park.

The morning heats up.

We meet Sherina for breakfast. The food is good. Simone eats a pancake.

We walk to Gorilla coffee, a local roaster. The storefront is blanketed with gorilla faces in Che Guavera red. The baristas are friendly. We drink lattes on blood-red benches as the morning shifts into midday heat. Beth’s been on her feet for close to four hours, and it’s just past 10.

Still, a good start to the day.

We walk towards the Brooklyn flea market. Discarded shoes and books dot the stoops of the awakening city.

I strike up a conversation with two guys in a vendor’s stall. They’re both in their forties, one looks familiar, the other is from Australia. We talk about old crime movies. They know their stuff. More than me. We chat for 15 minutes before I leave with a handful of recommendations and plenty of good cheer.

“The brotherhood of the cinephiles!” the Australian says as I back away. Did he want a hug?

Back in front of Sherina’s apartment, Beth stows her bag in the car. “Do you think it’s too hot for my products?” she asks. “Will the bag be okay? Do you think my stuff will melt?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe not. I can run it back upstairs. It’ll only take a second.”

“Then it will get more cat hair on it.”

Sherina stays out of it, waits.

“It’ll be fine,” Beth says, and we head for the subway.

Hey, where's my coffee?

5.

Simone, Sherina, Beth and I head for Manhattan. The train ride is uneventful.

We’re going to stay with Toni but she isn’t ready for us. So, we walk. It’s hot. We head to the High Line Park, which is fantastic, an elevated park on an old railroad track, with wild grasses and beautiful benches and stunning views of the city. And people. Lots of people. It’s a crush in the narrow places, and Simone in the stroller is stressing us all out. An impossibly old lady moves at a glacial pace, sliding along with her walker. I feel guilty about it, but when I see an opening I shoot Simone past.

The sun bears down on us. It’s a relentless UV assault. I can feel the golden lasso’s touch on my face and hands.

At the park’s end, we descend.

Beneath the park, there’s an outdoor beer garden and food trucks. I eat spicy kimchi tacos while Simone climbs on the seats and tries to run away. It feels good to sit down.

“How far is Toni’s apartment?”

“It’s about two miles,” Sherina says.

They talk and turn to me. “You want to walk or ride the train?”

“Up to you,” I say, a major mistake.

“Let’s walk,” Beth says.

If only life could be lived backwards.

6.

We walk. The sun is hot. The ground is hot. The sky is glassy, unwelcoming and cloudless. The people have indifferent faces. New York smells like a combination of sea salt and half-rotted sweet cabbage.

On a semi-deserted street, I pass within two feet of some old guy fumbling with some camera equipment and plastic bags.

He flips out. “Six feet of sidewalk and you almost knock a $600 camera out of my hands, you’d be replacing it you piece of SHIT!” his voice raises to a yell. He rails. He shrieks. He threatens. His screaming turns into a rant. We walk.

“That guy is yelling at us,” I say to Sherina.

“What?” They both turn and look at him.

“That guy, he’s yelling at us.”

“He’s crazy,” Beth says.

“I tune all of it out when I’m here,” Sherina says.

“Let’s cross the street,” I say, and cross it we do. The angry old guy follows us to the corner and then stops. He’s wearing a yellow button down with brown suspenders and with a slight bewildered look on his face. It’s clear that he’s forgotten about us.

A Christian youth troupe enacts a public performance about the twelve disciples. They look bored. We move on.

It isn’t two miles. It’s almost three, but we walk six blocks to avoid Times Square. By the time we make it to Toni’s, we’re a ragged, overheated, desperate crew. The sun or the city has bleached the joy out of us.

Beth has now been outside, on her feet, for close to 12 hours. Simone is sleepy and taxed. I feel like a barrel of sour mash. We’re done and we know it, but we don’t put our failure into words.

Chewed up and spit out by the naked city.

7.

Night. Toni’s apartment is small, organized, and air-conditioned. She and Sherina look for gluten-free restaurants while Beth and I ignore each other. I scan the room. Our stuff is everywhere, invading Toni’s orderly life like a rampant weed. Simone is sleeping in Toni’s room. The tv is off.

My eyes pause on Beth’s bag. The coloring is too dark, splotchy in places. Something has spilled inside. I’m tempted to stay quiet, let her discover for herself, but I don’t.

“Hey, babe? I think, maybe, something might have spilled in your bag.”

She bends over and looks. “Shit.” It’s an angry, defeated word.

She empties her bag, methodically. It’s bad. There’s oil on a lot of her clothes. It’s seeped through and stained almost everything. She’s furious. I retreat to the bathroom, hear her through the walls. She’s muttering. “We can’t have a decent goddamn trip because everything is just so fucking terrible.” I don’t catch the rest. I’m so tired my eyes are unfocusing. Beth spends thirty minutes cleaning out her bag, coughing, eyes watering, as she re-exposes herself to the cat dander. She’s miserable. I don’t have the heart to ask if the dress she’s going to wear to the wedding is okay.

Toni goes to sleep. I inflate an air mattress in the bathroom. It’s a clunky, silly procedure, wedging me between the sink and the door. When I emerge, Beth is sleeping on the couch. I’m too tired to sleep, so I read some comics before eventually giving up. It’s almost 2.

Simone wakes up at 5:30. The sleep deprivation continues.

Beth hands her to me, goes back to sleep. Simone is tired, and eventually I get her to fall asleep on the air mattress, half of my back on the floor.

The city has defeated Beth. We take Simone with us up to Connecticut. We leave New York at 10. The wedding starts at 4. We have six hours to drive there, check in to the hotel, and get ready for the night.

I drink a huge cup of coffee for the road. My thoughts spark like exposed electrical circuits. I carry the jittery hungry feeling in my limbs. I bounce my feet. I sing songs in my head. I think of ideas for a new novel. I wonder how Simone is going to handle a night wedding after two hard days.

Beth and Simone fall asleep.

We leave New York behind us.

I have a realization as I catch a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. My face has hardened over the years. I use to get hit up for money every few blocks wherever I went.

Now, it never happens, anywhere.

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 2: 1979’s The Green Ripper.

11 Aug

(In which I read all of the previous National Book Award Winners, so you don’t have to.)

Fans of genre fiction often gripe about the lack of awards given to their people. You hear this with science fiction—although as a genre sci fi novels have for decades flirted with respectability, usually in the form of the dystopian novel—fantasy, romance, horror and crime fiction. Most genre writers, until recently, flew below any literary radar[1].

The National Book Award organization shook things up in 1980. They decided to award the top honor to a mystery novel. (At the time, this included procedurals, detective stories, and crime fiction.) They picked John MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, the eighteenth novel in a series of novels about Travis McGee, a salvage consultant who repeatedly finds himself in violent and extreme situations. When I saw the cover I thought it was some type of joke. It isn’t. The book is a very fine crime novel with a punishing moral center.

The cover is misleading; this is a potboiler with a melancholy center.

The cover is misleading; this is a potboiler with a melancholy center.

The Green Ripper starts with loss and ends in carnage. McGee isn’t a detective or a cop. He’s an ex-military badass looking for happiness but continually finding dissolution and death. The novel begins with the death of McGee’s girlfriend. He mourns. He drinks. He suffers. Then he investigates. His travels lead him to a Weathermen-type terrorist organization. He infiltrates. He tries to ascertain who gives the orders. Then all hell breaks loose.

The novel is simple, logical, but untidy. Mistakes happen. Some decent people die. Most of the destruction is pointless. Little is resolved. A deep melancholy permeates its pages.

MacDonald belongs to a small group of professional writers with prodigious outputs and a (fairly) consistent level of quality. (Joseph Wambaugh, Stephen King, Anne Rice, George Simenon, Arthur Conan Doyle, and John Updike, I suppose.) He has a staggering 80 plus books to his name.

MacDonald is a fine writer of action, an underrated virtue. Action is hard to do; poetic descriptions of nature are much easier. He’s also insightful, incisive and spare, with aphorisms galore. Here’s a sample passage:

“We are all at the mercy of the scriptwriters, directors and actors who work in cinema and television. Man is a herd creature, social and imitative. We learn the outward manifestations of inner stress, patterning reaction to what we have learned. And because the visible ways we react are so often borrowed, we wonder about the truth of what is happening underneath. Do I really feel pain, grief, shock, loss?”

MacDonald earned tons of accolades from writers all over the map. He kept churning out novels of every stripe. He was one of those restless souls, banging out stories on his typewriter, never satisfied, never content, driven by unseen demons to keep writing, writing, writing. I don’t know if I’ll read another of his novels, but this one was pretty damn good.

2.

The Green Ripper is solid, professionally written and intriguing. It isn’t a great novel, however, and not a great mystery novel either.

I can think of a dozen or so mystery/crime novels that deserve top awards. The Long Goodbye is a great American novel. So are James Ellroy’s American Tabloid and James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. David Goodis’s Shoot the Piano Player is superb. Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon are both amazing. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is perfect. Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us is fantastic. Ross MacDonald is good, Dwight MacDonald is good, George Higgins is good (The Friends of Eddie Coyle is incredible!), Patricia Highsmith is good. Fat City, A Rage in Harlem, The Killer Inside Me, I could go on and on. And Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, sort of a crime novel, is one of the great novels of my life so far.

None of these won national book awards. None of them won much of anything. The writers, almost to a person, made their living submitting to b-grade magazines and publishers. Ellroy was a drug addict, Chandler was a lush, Crumley was a drug addict, and so on. They were a tormented bunch. They had what many of the literary establishment don’t have, which is real-world, and world-weary, credibility.

The trend for the last fifteen years or so has been literary writers trying to sneak into the hard-boiled club (or other genre fiction). They try and (almost) always fail[2]. Even a writer as talented, fascinating and strange as Denis Johnson was foiled by the genre; Nobody Move is flimsy, warmed over treacle, way beneath his talents. It seems easy, but it isn’t. Noir isn’t just guns and dames and heists and double-crosses. It’s atmosphere and attitude, neither of which can be faked.

3.

The National Book Award people picked a strange year to highlight mysteries, because 1979 was as strong as year as any for fiction. Cormac McCarthy released his magnificent Suttree[3]. Angela Carter put out the odd and creepy The Bloody Chamber. William Kennedy published the critically heralded (if disjointed and dated) Ironweed, Anais Nin released Little Birds; Charles Portis published one of my all-time favorite novels, The Dog of the South; and Tom Wolfe released The Right Stuff (which probably would have won the award if it hadn’t been a mystery year).


[1] Which isn’t a bad thing. Part of the appeal of genre fiction is its ability to be nasty, trashy, transgressive, unpredictable, and fun.

[2] No Country for Old Men is unapologetically a crime novel and very, very good.

[3] Strangely, a descendant of The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Award Winner. No one points this out.

National Book Award winners, part 1: 1961’s The Moviegoer.

31 Jul

(I’ve set myself a reading project; I’m going to read each National Book Award winner. Preferably in order, but The Man with the Golden Arm, the first winner, defeated me some years ago so I’m putting it off. I’ve started, instead, with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

Walker Percy owns a peculiar stretch of literary territory. He’s highly regarded, but receding from memory. He’s southern, urban and urbane. You won’t find any of the cornpone dialect, the love affair with the fecund land. His characters live in cities. They are (often over-) educated. They flounce around manicured backyards. They drink sophisticated cocktails. They ruminate. They meditate. They look at trees. Occasionally they fuck.

The Moviegoer, his first novel, won the 1961 National Book Award. It’s considered his best.

The 1961 National Book Award winner.

The 1961 National Book Award winner.

The novel is about ennui and malaise, the discontent of privilege, the loose disaffection that comes from middle class money. The narrator, a stockbroker living in New Orleans, floats through life seeing the world as a reflection of movies and not the other way around. Too rich to be a social climber or a schemer, and too poor to be an aristocrat or a gentleman, stuck somewhere in-between, mediocre, drifting, smart enough to see the obstacles of the world but not clever enough to find a way around them, he goes to movies. He observes the strange and often beautiful world around him. He spars with his family. He reveals little tidbits about his past. He ruminates on Southern gentility, subtle racism, New Orleans culture. There are references to heroism, the specter of the Korean War, a few jokes. There isn’t much plot. There isn’t much story. Strangely, there aren’t that many movies.

There is some beautiful descriptive writing: “The children are skiing with Roy. They blue boat rides up and down the bayou, opening the black water like a knife. The gear piled at the end of the dock, yellow nylon rope and crimson lifebelt, makes aching phosphor colors in the sunlight.”

Big things happen—people die, get married, go crazy—but it all unfolds in a glancing manner, parsed through the narrator’s disaffection. He’s bad company, but worse, sort of boring. I kept hoping for some crime, some gusto, some passion. But that would run counter to the novel of moneyed soul-sickness. Action, urgency, ambition—these don’t exist in the bourgeois novel of manners.

It’s a very fine Louisiana novel of parishes and swamps, but a disappointing New Orleans novel. The city’s sadistic, seething decadence is invisible.

The author, in his dotage.

The author, in his dotage.

Percy’s reputation is as a humorist with a dash of fatalism, but the jokes have faded with the passage of time. What’s left is a melancholy little book with a few dashes of humor. The narrator exists as a shade, opting instead for the artificial glory of the silver screen. Here he describes William Holden walking down the street: “An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it.”

Percy’s genteel, educated, but also kind of soft. There’s no wildness. There’s little danger. Because he deals with internalized psychological issues, he’s held as a better writer than the glut of southern wildmen who came just a bit later. He isn’t. I’d take Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor or Charles Portis any day. Percy is humane, but perhaps to a fault.

I read Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb[1] recently, and the two novels are eerily similar. Roth’s novel follows the disassociative decline of a nobleman as the world wars ruin his family name, destroy his empire, and pulverize his lifestyle to dust. He’s left with no skills, few social connections, a mound of debts, and no future, just twilight and the coming end. The Moviegoer contains a similar gray spirit in the pages. Here’s the first line: “This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch.”

The Moviegoer came out in 1961. That same year, Borges’s Ficciones was published. Joseph Heller published his fantastic and unforgettable Catch-22. Richard Hughes published his odd The Fox in the Attic. Norton Juster released The Phantom Tollbooth, one of the finest children’s books every written. J.D. Salinger published Franny and Zooey, the beloved, if slightly overrated follow-up to The Catcher in the Rye. Richard Yates released Revolutionary Road. Murial Spark published The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Robert Heinlein published (the also overrated) Stranger in a Strange Land. Harold Robbins, Evelyn Waugh, Irving Stone, Iris Murdoch and John Steinbeck also published novels this year.

In this crowded list the National Book Award folks picked Percy’s slim and slender novel and bestowed upon it the top literary award of the day. It made his career. With hindsight, Percy shouldn’t have won. Heller, then perhaps Borges, if you have to make a list of it, and then Yates or Spark. The Moviegoer rests as a kind of elegant historical oddity. Heller’s novel is richer, stranger, more relevant with each passing year. Borges gathers more and more acolytes with the passage of time. Yates has his die-hard fans, as does Spark and Murdoch. Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, and Evelyn Waugh, although not to my tastes, has legions of adherents.

I can’t help but wonder if Percy’s greatest contribution to American letters was helping the lonely mother of John Kennedy Toole publish her dead son’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

 


[1] A loose, unofficial sequel to The Radetsky March, one of the great novels of the 20th century.

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, 39: 1982’s So Long and See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell.

31 Aug

1982: So Long, See you Tomorrow

1.

In 1982, William Maxwell won the National Book Award for his elegiac, elegant little novel of memory, heartbreak and loss, So Long, and See You Tomorrow.

Maxwell is a major force in American fiction. He was the fiction editor at The New Yorker for forty years, playing a role in the development and discovery of hundreds of American authors. He also imparted his keen, laconic style.

The New Yorker is so influential in American fiction it often goes unnoticed. In terms of literary fiction, you could argue that The New Yorker is the single most important entity in American letters. This long shadow has consequences, some of them negative. Careers were made. In some cases, the American public was subjected to egoists and blowhards who had no business being published in the first place. And The New Yorker style, which is William Maxwell’s style, came to define good writing, leaving out strong stylists and important artists who didn’t write in that same style. The style is realistic, small-scale, often moody little chamber pieces with the important bits hidden under the surface of the glossy prose. The stories often end with an ambiguous, or heart-breaking, gong of future doom. The prose is crystalline and usually spare, elegant in its way but also tiresome in bulk. Little science fiction or fantasy, little in the way of mystery, and only a handful that delve into the sinister. (The most notable exception to this rule is Shirley Jackson, a psychic vampire who stormed the glittering halls of the literati with her talent and creepy verve.) If there’s a locus of the reading public’s appetite for what has come to be called literary fiction, it is The New Yorker.

(There’s a pretty nifty overview of his career here. And here’s a killer Paris Review interview.)

So William Maxwell, the fiction editor. He shepherded most of the important writers during the post-war era, including John Cheever, Truman Capote, and Eudora Welty among most if not all of the important novelists dur. Along with Maxwell Perkins and Gordon Lish, William Maxwell is probably the most important editor of 20th century American fiction. And that’s not an understatement.

 

2.

To his book.

Maxwell uses a small Illinois farming town as his locale. He tells a simple story refracted through his untrustworthy memories. He’s very, very good. He here is describing an old photo album:

“At the beginning and end of the album, pasted in what must have been blank places, since they run counter to the sequence, are a dozen pictures of my father. Except for the one where he is standing with a string of fish spread out on a rock beside him, he is always in a group of people. He has a golf stick in his hand. Or he is smoking a pipe. Or he is wearing a bathing suit and has one arm around my stepmother’s waist and the other around a woman I don’t recognize. And looking at these faded snapshots I see, the child that survives in me sees with a pang that—I am old enough to be the man’s father, and he has been dead for nearly twenty years, and yet it troubles me that he was happy. Why? In some way his happiness was at that time (and forever after, it would seem) a threat to me. It was not the kind of happiness children are included in, but why should that trouble me now? I do not even begin to understand it.”

A beautiful, heart-breaking and near-perfect passage, encapsulating the themes and power of the book.

maxwell

The story follows a narrator re-visiting and at times re-enacting a crime from his childhood. The crime, as told to us in the first pages, is a murder-suicide. And the son of the culprit was a sometime-friend of the narrator. The narrator re-imagines the events leading up to the crime after seeing the boy, now a man, on the streets of New York, seeing him and then ignoring him. Ashamed, he goes back in his memories. He digs. He burrows.

Maxwell is also tapping into what one author described as the occult superstructure of childhood. He is haunted by his former self, the now-disappeared culture and lifestyle of his pre-teen years. (We all are, aren’t we?)

The novel is structured like an old Hollywood thriller[1]. Shocking event, then present-day, then flashbacks leading up to event. What makes this novel something else, literature of a time and place, is the artful way Maxwell renders the unreliability of his own memories. He isn’t certain, of himself or others. So the novel has this (immensely pleasurable) golden haze around it. Like a halo. And as he investigates his own slanted memories, he comes to startling (or not, depending on how close a reader you are) conclusions.

Through his simple, straight-forward style, Maxwell investigates the lives that populated his childhood self’s world, and the result feels Biblical in scale.

And if this sounds fussy or somehow affected, it isn’t. His style is near-invisible, the kind of writing that you fall into, forgetting that you’re reading at all.

I’m hesitant to say anything else about So Long. It’s easy and intriguing to read, slim, powerful and moving. What else needs to be said?

The award was for best paperback edition. Maxwell beat four other very fine stylists: Shirley Hazzard, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler, and E.L. Doctorow.

[1] A dirty secret: a lot of “high-brow” novels follow this formula. Giovanni’s Room, as just one example.

National Book Award winners, number 30: 1974’s A Crown of Feathers, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

28 Jul

In 1974, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the National Book Award for his superb, humane, and thrilling short story collection, A Crown of Feathers. It was his seventeenth book. The award was split with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

Singer is a magnificent talent, a writer I’ve given short shrift to for years. I’ll go into why in a minute. This collection is powerful, elegant, evocative. His prose is diamond-hard, sometimes folksy, sometimes charming, always powerful. He wrote in Yiddish, and then helped translate his own stories into English[1].

His life is the life of an immigrant. He carried his Judaism with him, but felt disconnected to any country or place. Europe had betrayed him; America never fully welcomed him. He ended his days in Miami, amongst other aging New York transplants. (There’s something sad about Singer wearing the garb of South Florida excess.)

The stories are touching and humane, yet unsentimental. A common refrain in Singer’s stories is, “Who invented the world?” His characters question God, history, the wind. For Singer’s god is the god of ice storms and blood sacrifices, the maker of Leviathans and tigers, the wind of knives and the great deluge. What can man do in the face of such avaricious indifference?

Marvelous, heart-rending and humane.

Marvelous, heart-rending and humane.

Singer can be relentlessly punishing to his characters. In the title story, a Jewish woman named Aksha lives fifty years of joyless fear before dying, as tough yet rewarding a reading experience as Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. Her sin is denying the Jewish faith. Her penance? A lifetime of extreme suffering.

Here he is, detailing the dissolution of Aksha, in “A Crown of Feathers”:

 

“For the remainder of the night, Akhsa was neither asleep nor awake. Voices spoke to her. Her breasts became swollen, her nipples hard, her belly distended. Pain bored into her skull. Her teeth were on edge, and her tongue enlarged so that she feared it would split her palate. Her eyes bulged from their sockets. There was a knocking in her ears as loud as a hammer on an anvil. Then she felt as if she were in the throes of labor. ‘I’m giving birth to a demon!’ Akhsa cried out.”

He has much in common with Bernard Malamud. Both write about racism, oppression. Both write with terse elegance, folksy humor, and dark spiky surprises rattling around in the sentences. Both carried the terror of the Holocaust inside. The horror of history for the Jews is a reoccurring theme. So is the indifference of god. Here, in “A Day in Coney Island”—a fabulous story—he has a character contemplating the world, as he stands on the brink of deportation back to Poland and certain death in 1942:

 

“…even if I survived, how would another novel or story help humanity? The metaphysicians had given up too soon, I decided. Reality is neither solipsism nor materialism. One should begin from the beginning: what is time? What is space? Here was the key to the whole riddle. Who knows, maybe I was destined to solve it. 

“. . . . I closed my eyes . . . . Through my eyelids the sun shone red. The pounding of the waves and the din of the people merged. I felt, almost palpably, that I was one step from truth. ‘Time is nothing, space is nothing,’ I murmured. But that nothingness is the background of the world picture. Then what is the world picture? Is it matter? Spirit? Is it magnetism or gravitation? And what is life? What is suffering? What is consciousness? And if there is a God, what is He? Substance with infinite attributes? The Monad of Monads? Blind will? The Unconscious? Can He be sex, as the cabalists hint? Is God an orgasm that never ceases? Is the universal nothingness the principle of femininity?

“ . . . . I opened my eyes and walked towards Brighton. The girders of the ‘L’ threw a net of sun and shade on the pavements. . . . No matter how space and time are defined, I thought, it is impossible to be simultaneously in Brooklyn and Manhattan.”

Fantastic writing, a great mixture of ponderousness, intellectual heft and hard-edged in-the-moment reality. There’s humor too, despite the looming darkness, and all of these things, with a swirl of urbanity and a touch of shtetl wisdom and there you have Singer. Plus the possibility of sex. With a soupcon of Jewish mysticism.

Singer felt like a refugee, and many of his stories deal with other refugees, struggling to maintain dignity and identity in alien shores. Many of the stories follow a narrator listening to the tales, anecdotes, recollections and wisdom of other characters, immigrants carrying their history and culture with them into the bright promise of early 20th century America.

2.

I confused Singer with not one but two other writers: Isaac Babel, who I want to like but haven’t yet found affection for; and the intriguing but thin Isak Dinesan, who is female and Danish[2]. I combined all of them into a cute, schmaltzy writer of children’s stories and little comic fables. (I’m not proud of this.)

Like other Jewish writers, he’s more prominent in Jewish circles. Which is a pity. For Singer is a writer of great descriptive power and moral weight.

Singer was born in Poland in 1902, and he didn’t come to the U.S. until the early 1930s. He belongs to the enormous first-generation and second-generation Jewish-American/Eastern Europe wave of talent into the U.S. that includes Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren, Isaac Assimov, Frederick Busch, Robert Bloch, Stanely Elkin, Harlan Ellison, Nora Ephron, Ira Levin, Irving Stone, Edna Ferber, Gordon Lish, Leon Uris, J.D. Salinger, Andrea Dworkin, Budd Schulberg, Nathaniel West, Elie Wiesel, Richard Price, Woody Allen, Chaim Potok, David Goodis, and Ben Hecht. This same heady cultural stew produced most of the great Hollywood writers and producers, and many of the great Broadway writers, too. Hell, standup comedy has its roots in the Yiddish theatre.

The point is that American intellectual history—including 20th century fiction—is in some sense defined by Jewish-American writers and thinkers. And Singer is rightly placed at the forefront of this immensely important, and rich, subculture of American letters. Many of our writers, Jewish or not, draw from the well he and Bellow and Roth and Malamud dug.

3.

Singer wrote with a keen insight and economical concision, moral weight and a questing, often religious intelligence.

For the early seventies, he was a man out of his time. The trend was towards playfulness, deconstruction. It was the era of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Of silly wordplay and the smashing together of high and low brow culture. Of ironic distance and the refusal to draw moral absolutes. Singer stands against all of this, and it is a testament to his writerly skill—Donald Barthelme was one of the judges—that he won the to award. Of course, Pynchon shared the top honors with him, which is as it should be.

He won the award over the young postmodernist turks, like Thomas McGuane (not my cup of tea, really), John Gardner (ditto), Tim O’Brien (a very fine writer), and Toni Morrison (my feelings on her are too complex to go into here).

Gore Vidal published the very fine historical novel, Burr. Rita Mae Brown released Rubyfruit Jungle. Jerzy Kosinski published The Demon Tree. Cormac McCarthy released his grim, ultra-violent backwoods saga, Child of God. Kurt Vonnegut published one of his stranger novels, Breakfast of Champions. Jerome Charyn released Tar Baby.

Around the world: Milan Kundera published Life is Elsewhere. J.G. Farrell released The Siege of Krishnapur. J.G Ballard, Martin Amis, Graham Greene, and Mario Vargas Llosa all published novels.

An impressive year for fiction, but Singer deserved the top award. I will read more of him, and soon.

 

[1] Some critics say he’s better in Yiddish, some say he’s worse. The consensus is his Yiddish is looser.

[2] Ah, the human brain. I used to confuse Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, and Rod Steiger. Also, Jean Genet, Andre Gide, Celine and later the filmmaker Jean Jeunet. I would feel dumb about it, only other people do this, too. For years, Beth thought that Annie Proulx was Annie Dillard, and she hates Dillard, and thus would badmouth Proulx and neither of us read her. Now, we both love Proulx. Funny, how a mistake of memory can deprive people of pleasure.

National Book Award winners, number 29: 1967’s The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud.

19 Jul

1.

In 1967, Bernard Malamud won the National Book Award for his harrowing, thrilling, astonishing novel of anti-semitic oppression, The Fixer. It’s one of my favorite novels, and as dark a page-turner as you’ll ever read.

The story follows Yakov Bok, an embittered, povery-stricken, viciously angry Jewish man living on the outskirts of Kiev. Near the end of the Russian Empire, Yakov works as a fixer, receiving payment in noodles and potatoes and eggs. He cannot save anything, he cannot do anything other than toil. He reads a little at night. He has no friends. His maligned wife abandons him before the novel begins. So against the advice of his father-in-law, his only friend, he sets out for Kiev. He has terrible luck. Here’s how we found out about his family:

 

“His own father had been killed in an incident not more than a year after Yakov’s birth—something less than useless: two drunken soldiers shot the first three Jews in their path, his father had been the second. But the son had lived through a pogrom when he was a schoolboy, a three-day Cossask raid. On the third morning when the houses were still smoldering and he was led, with a half dozen other children, out of a cellar where they had been hiding he saw a black-bearded Jew with a white sausage stuffed into his mouth, lying in the road on a pile of bloody feathers, a peasant’s pig devouring his arm.”

Malamud is rather strangely characterized as a writer of fables, of little magical comedies. Re-read the passage above and see if that description fits. He is a writer of the first magnitude, a writer of moral fictions, a writer of great books that are also thrilling to read.

Yakov creates a new life for himself in Kiev, by lying about his identity. But his new life doesn’t last long. A Christian boy is found murdered, and the Russian police decide it is the work of Jewish killers. Yakov is arrested.

Most of the book is a prison novel, one of the greatest ever written. With brutal, precise, and harrowing prose, Malamud follows Yakov as he is intimidated, tortured, beaten, maligned, and humiliated.

Much of the novel follows Yakov interacting with his jailers, and you keep hoping he’ll make some type of connection. He doesn’t. Malamud is strict, exacting and unsentimental. There are few moments of kindness and little understanding. The guards are ignorant, cruel and superstitious. They beat him, starve him, poison him. One guard points a rifle at Yakov’s genitals every few days. Another douses him with cold water.

In a lesser writer’s hands, this would all be wearying. But the prose. It crackles. It spits. It burns. Each page holds surprises, twists, astonishments.

Great, great, great, but also punishing.

Great, great, great, but also punishing.

Malamud doesn’t just torment Yakov. He disassembles Yakov. He flattens him. Yakov ends up in solitary confinement, and here Malamud writes some of the greatest prose, with Yakov alone in his tortured thoughts, trying to make sense of his situation, trying to parse some moral rightness out of it:

 

“He tried to recall the biology he had studied, and reflected on as much of history as he could bring to mind. They sat God appeared in history and used it for his purposes, but if that was so he had no pity for men. God cried mercy and smote his chest, but there was no mercy because there was no pity. Pity in lightning? You could not pity anything if you weren’t a man; pity was a surprise to God. If was not his invention. . . . He recalled things from the Scriptures, in particular, fragments of psalms he had read in Hebrew on old parchment. He could, in a sense, smell the Psalms as well as hear them. They were sun weekly in the synagogue to glorify God and protect the shtetl from harm, which they never did.

“. . . . He thought of himself pursuing his enemies with God at his side, but when he looked at God all he saw or heard was a loud ha Ha. It was his own imprisoned laughter.”

Insightful but unforgiving. And yet, the greatness of this novel lies in Yakov’s ultimate refusal to accept leniency in return for larger condemnation of his people. Malamud finds redemption in the torture. It is a magnificent feat of writerly skill. In the new introduction, Jonathan Safran Foer says that after finishing The Fixer, he felt “castigated but inspired.” That’s just about perfect.

2.

Yakov’s sins are understandable and few. He desires a life for himself beyond the filthy confines of the little Jewish settlement where he was born. He pretends to be Goy. He misleads a few Russians. He is angry and bitter. He denies the existence of god, claiming to be a freethinker. For this the entire apparatus of a murderous state is brought to bear on him. He is subjected to enormous suffering, held in a bureaucratic stasis pulled straight from Kafka.

Some critics feel that Malamud is punishing Yakov for his sins. This is precisely wrong, a terrible interpretation. Yakov is a victim, and although he plays into the oppressor’s hands with his minor deceptions, he is being buffeted by the immense forces of history that have left the Jewish people in the crosshairs. Yakov’s story is based on a real-life crime.

 

“. . . . But Israel accepts the covenant in order to break it. That’s the mysterious purpose: they need the experience. So they worship false Gods; and this brings Yahweh up out of his golden throne with a flaming sword in both hands. When he talks loud history boils. Assyrian, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, become the rod of his anger, the rod that breaks the head of the Chosen People. Having betrayed the covenant with God they have to pay: war, destruction, death, exile—and they take what goes with it. Suffering, they say, awakens repentance, at least in those who can repent. Thus the people of the covenant wear out their sins against the Lord. He then forgives them and offers a new covenant. Why not? This is his nature, everything must begin again, don’t ask him why. Israel, changed yet unchanged, accepts the new covenant in order to break it . . . . the purpose of the covenant, Yakov thinks, is to create human experience, although human experience baffles God. God is after all God; what he is is what he is: God. What does he know about such things? Has he ever worshipped God? Has he ever suffered?”

Here we have Job with the God of the mysteries, the flashing teeth in the dark clouds, the maker of the tiger and the leviathan, the punishing Old Testament dragon who holds humanity in his mouth.

Malamud later in his career took this thinking to its bitterest conclusion with his final novel, God’s Grace, a companion to The Fixer. Grace has the last man on earth try to build a new society with talking monkeys while God looks on, a face in the clouds, inscrutable, unknowable, mocking. In both novels the protagonists strive to do something more than survive, haunted by failure, besieged by suffering. How do we go on? We go on.

Or, as Yakov thinks to himself near the end of the book:

“My God, what have I forgotten? I’ve forgotten nothing.”

Finally, The Fixer is one of the few novels Don Draper is shown reading in Mad Men. Why? An interesting question.

3.

The Fixer was the best novel of 1967, and just about of any year, but it beat out some notable works.

Paul Bowles (see here) published his potboiler, Up Above the World. Louis Auchincloss released The Embezzler. Truman Capote published his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, which remains one of the highlights of the decade. Daniel Keyes published the seminal, if now rarely read in its entirety, Flowers for Algernon. Larry McMurtry released The Last Picture Show. Thomas Pynchon published his fascinating, and frustrating, novel of postal conspiracies, The Crying of Lot 49. And, one of my favorite authors, Philip K. Dick, released three novels, including the intriguing Now Wait For Last Year.

Around the world, immense novels appeared. Mihail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita—a hotly debated, love it or hate it type of novel if I’ve ever read one—surfaced. John Fowles’s The Magus, one of my favorite novels, was put into print. Jean Rhys published her best-known work, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Leonardo Sciascia, Mario Vargos Llosa, Patrick White, Margaret Atwood, Kingsley Amis and Chinua Achebe all published notable books.

But, The Fixer holds a special place, a novel that is both good and great, punishing and relevant but also paradoxically fun to read, the kind of book that can change your life, leave you feeling cleansed. I cannot recommend it enough.

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.