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National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow

5 Mar

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Auggie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

 

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Auggie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Auggie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Auggie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.

 


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.

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National Book Award winners, part 25: 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow.

23 Apr

1.

In 1971, Saul Bellow won the national book award for his odd, melodramatic little novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. It was Bellow’s third time winning the top award.

The Adventures of Auggie March, despite its reputation, is overwritten and meandering. (See my review here, along with a summary of 1950s fiction.) Herzog is magnificent, a masterpiece of American fiction and one of the finest novels of the twentieth century (review here). Sammler falls somewhere between the two, never boring but never quite superb either, didactic at times, a touch overheated in others, with long, tedious speeches about the sins of people and the future of man. It’s an interesting failure from a talented writer of immense learning.

The story follows Artur Sammler, a Holocaust survivor, Polish émigré, one-eyed and aged part-time intellectual, through a few days in 1960s New York. His daughter is aimless. His doctor-nephew—and also his benefactor—is dying. The doctor’s son is a dope; the doctor’s daughter is a sex fiend. Sammler sees a pickpocket commit a crime.

He travels by foot, car, subway and bus through the city.

He thinks. He ponders. He bears witness.

The different storylines converge. Some resolution is found. Some characters die.

Sammler suffers all the indignities of his current age with a stoic detachment. There’s something chilly about his heart, and the novel is refracted through his past suffering.

Here’s an early passage, outlining Sammler’s relationship to his planet:

 

“He was not sorry to have met the facts, however saddening, regrettable the facts. But the effect was that Mr. Sammler did feel somewhat separated from the rest of the species, if not in some fashion severed—severed not so much by his age as by his preoccupations too different and remote, disproportionate on the side of the spirtual, Platonic, Augustinian, thirteenth-century.”

The best parts involve his reminisces, his undulating horror at his past. These sections are poetic, moving, horrifying. For example, his war experiences include being buried alive in a ditch full of corpses.

Fascinating, challenging, just not great.

Fascinating, challenging, just not great.

Sammler can’t reconcile the sins of mankind with the advances in science. The world around him is decaying, dismal, alienating. Yet, the human race seems to be moving forward, somehow.

The worst parts involve his ruminations on the social ills of present-day New York.

And when Bellow misfires, he really misfires.

2.

Bellow is grappling with youth culture, with urban culture and with black culture. In this, he fails[1]. He belongs to an early generation, of good manners, clear class divisions, an established literary canon, as well as Trench coats and spats and canes and fedoras. Bellow’s attempts to portray what he clearly perceived as a coarse, threatening youth culture falls flat, flat, flat.

The pickpocket is African American, and the novel belabors the point, returning over and over to the thief’s race and racial characteristics. Even his genitalia.

The pick pocket dresses like a pimp. He doesn’t speak. And he haunts the novel like some specter of sexual dread. Worse, he attacks Sammler near the beginning of the novel and forces the old man to stare at his big penis. (I’m not making this up.) Sammler spends much of the novel deciphering the symbolism of this act. There are no other black characters. The result is a dark, demented minstrelsy that overshadows the rest of the book. But it doesn’t make it any less discomfiting to read. Bellow is attempting to understand and capture the reality of New York while also maintaining a high literary style. The result is cartoonish and creepy.

Here’s a taste, of when Sammler is assaulted:

 

“He was never to hear the black man’s voice. He no more spoke than a puma would. What he did was to force Sammler into a corner beside the long blackish carved table, a sort of Renaissance piece, a thing which added to the lobby melancholy, by the buckling canvas of the old wall, by the red-eyed lights of the brass double fixture. There the man held Sammler against the wall with his forearm. . . . The pickpocket unbuttoned himself. Sammler heard the zipper descend. Then the smoked glasses were removed from Sammler’s face and dropped on the table. He was directed, silently, to look downward. The black man had opened his fly and taken out his penis. It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumsised thing—a tube, a snake; metallic hairs bristled at the thick base and the tip curled beyond the supporting, demonstrating hand, suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant’s trunk, though the skin was somewhat iridescent rather than thick or rough. Over the forearm and fist that held him Sammler was required to gaze at this organ.”

It’s the second line—“than a puma would”—that makes this passage so difficult to accept. Read it again and see if I’m wrong, but it isn’t Sammler thinking that line. It’s Bellow.

Bellow falters, I think, in his attempt to capture the old man’s distaste for the youth culture then in full swing. It sounds too much like an out of touch dude, angry at being left behind. You can hear Bellow’s high-minded distaste for the changing world around him, and through Sammler he often sounds reactionary, old-fashioned and out of touch. And, well, ugly and sexist and racist, too.

The racism seems to come from the slightly paternalistic generosity of the old-time liberal. Bellow was 55 when the novel was published. He had seen the seismic shift of values during the 1960s on the wrong side of 50. The obscenity trials, the British Invasion, the first theatrical adult films—the culture was changing, and it’s clear that Bellow wasn’t comfortable with the shifts.

That he fails is clear.

What he achieves isn’t so obvious.

It would be wrong to linger too long on the novel’s shortcomings without speaking to its virtues. It’s funny. It’s (for the most part) compelling. The writing is often crisp, freewheeling, poetic, free-associated, rip-roaring. Bellow, like all the great writers, ignores rules of grammar, syntax. He wanders. He riffs. He waxes. He razzles and dazzles.

And Sammler is an intriguing character, bent by history but not broken. Bellow tries to use Sammler’s life to find some type of basic decency to people, some redeeming quality of life. He mostly succeeds.

Here’s another passage, with Sammler imagining H.G. Wells near his final days:

 

“Rancor, and gradually even rage, came over Wells at a certain point as he talked about the powers of the brain, its expansive limits, the ability in old age to take a fresh interest in new events diminishing. Utopian, he didn’t even imagine that the hoped-for future would bring excess, pornography, sexual abnormality. Rather, as the old filth and gloomy sickness were cleared away, there would emerge a larger, stronger, older, brainier, better-nourished, better-oxygenated, more vital type, able to eat and drink sanely, perfectly autonomous and well regulated in desires, going nude while attending tranquilly to duties, performing his fascinating and useful mental work.”

And a paragraph later, Sammler’s sad rebuttal to Wells:

 

“Accept and grant that happiness is to do what most other people do. Then you must incarnate what others incarnate. If prejudices, prejudice. If rage, then rage. If sex, then sex. But don’t contradict your time. Just don’t contradict it, that’s all. Unless you happened to be a Sammler and the place of honor was outside. . . . And the charm, the ebullient glamour, the almost unbearable agitation that came from being able to describe oneself as a twentieth-century American was available to all. To everyone who had eyes to read the papers or watch the television, to everyone who shared the collective ecstasies of news, crisis, power. To each according to his excitability. . . . Humankind could not endure futurelessness. As of now, death was the sole visible future.”

Good writing, urgent, pungent, bleak and hopeful and accepting all at once.

3.

There’s a nice symmetry to Bellow winning the first award of the 1970s. Bellow remains one of the strongest of the 1960s novelists, combining the erudition of the academic with the linguistic dynamism of a wordsmith. He’s related to the postmodernism of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo with the moral intelligence of Vonnegut, but he also fits with terse realism of the Victorian novelists, even akin to Hemingway in a bizarre way. He has a foot in both worlds. He’s a key figure in the literary scene. A bridge.

He won over James Dickey’s redneck revenge tale Deliverance, as well as novels from Shirley Hazzard and John Updike and Eudora Welty. Thomas Berger, Gore Vidal, Jimmy Breslin, John D. McDonald, Taylor Caldwell, Roger Zelazny, and Poul Anderson all published novels[2].

Bellow won on his reputation, on the punched up sections of this novel that read like no one else. But the sum isn’t much, in the end, and the novel’s deficiencies are thorny and disagreeable to my 21st century eyes.

Bellow’s weaker novels have a way of feeling overwritten but undercooked. Sammler is no exception. It has breathtaking moments of superb writing and longwinded nonsense that should have been cut.

I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t read it again.

 

 

[1] Malamud, in his white-knuckle The Tenants, grapples with the racial issues in New York in a very different manner; two writers, one white the other black, inhabit a tenement building and through miscommunication and misunderstanding, drive each other to murderous insanity.

[2] I know some of these writers are terrible.

National Book Award winners, part 20: 1965’s Herzog, by Saul Bellow.

4 Feb

1.

In 1965, Saul Bellow won the National Book Award for Herzog, his novel about an depressed intellectual in a mid-life crisis. All my misgivings around Bellow are gone; he is one of our country’s greatest writers, on the strength of this novel alone. It is a stunning, masterly work, supremely magnificent.

The novel follows its namesake, a weak-willed failure who is lonely, easily tempted. He has three failed marriages. He has two children, both of whom live with their mothers. He is losing more each day to his third wife, who also might be taking his sanity. He’s a professor who’s unraveling, and he knows it. His thoughts drift. He shifts out of present time into memories, impressions. He writes letters, many of them in his head. He writes to his friends and colleagues. He writes to presidents and scientists, to philosophers long dead.

He understands himself enough to be frustrated by his shortcomings. “I fail to understand!” he thinks to himself throughout the novel. He is weary. He wants to change, but can’t quite break out of his self-destructive patterns. He sees his failures approaching, but can’t quite avert them. He is exhausted with himself, and the novel begins with his vacillating over a new girlfriend. The novel follows his disassembly, and then the slow, torturous (and often hilarious) reassembly as a happier person.

An absolute smash.

An absolute smash.

The characters are amazing. Each feels distinct and alive. Each is drawn in quick, masterly comic strokes.

Bellow’s considerable descriptive talents and vast erudition are anchored by a lean, taut narrative. Unlike March, that sort of meanders on and on, Herzog is a controlled, precise work, bursting with life, yes, but also propelled by a not so slow burn. There’s real madness and menace lurking in these pages, too, if you look for it.

The story is simple, following a week in Herzog’s life. The structure and technique are complex, alternating from third to first person, interweaving the letters—many of them incomplete—in and out of the narrative. The results are dazzling. Here’s a taste:

Unemployed consciousness, he wrote in the pantry. I grew up in a time of widespread unemployment, and never believed there might be work for me. Finally, jobs appeared, but somehow my consciousness remained unemployed. And after all, he continued beside the fire, the human intellect is one of the great forces in the universe. It can’t safely remain unused. . . . The soul requires intensity. At the same time virtue bores mankind. Read Confucious again. With vast populations, the world must prepare to turn Chinese.

Through Herzog, Bellow grapples with the major failings of the end of civilization prognosticators. He tackles Freud, Hegel, Marx, plus a whole lot of dudes I don’t know. He accepts their strengths and critiques their shortcomings. His intellect—both Herzog’s and Bellow’s—is ravishing, probing.

Lust, free will, nature versus nurture. The atrocities of the 20th century. The failure of our political systems to bring us happiness. The specter of thermo-nuclear war. The impermanence of a life. The suffering of animals. The burden of ethics. The need for rituals in our post-religious age.

Herzog refuses to be eaten by history. He is a hero. He maintains bravery in spite of species annihilation. Philosophy is in use, in defense of something: the dignity of a single life. If the life in question is selfish, arrogant, diffident, self-rationalizing, vulnerable and unhinged, that same life is also brace, self-sacrificing, searching, generous and wonderful. Bellow does nothing less than redeem humanity.

2.

That’s enough hyperbole. Let’s get to the prose.

Alongside Bellow’s impressive erudition is his storytelling. His immense talents are, in a sense, squandered in his lesser novels.

Page after page of superior prose, crackling, funny, poetic, leaps off the page. Here he is traveling by train, slipping back in time:

The train crossed at the St. Lawrence. Moses pressed the pedal and through the strained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing. Then he stood at the window. The water shone and curved on great slabs of rock, spinning into foam at the Lachine Rapids, where it sucked and rumbled. On the other shore was Caughnawaga, where the Indians lived in shacks raised on stilts. Then came the burnt summer fields. The windows were open. The echo of the train came back from the straw like a voice through a beard. The engine sowed cinders and soot over the fiery flowers and the hairy knobs of weed.

But that was forty years behind him. Now the train was ribbed for speed, a segmented tube of brilliant steel.

And again, here, where Herzog is speaking with the aunt of the ex-wife, Madeleine, who just cuckolded him:

“Yes, I was stupid—a blockhead. But that was one of the problems I was working on, you see, that people can be free now but the freedom doesn’t have any content. It’s like a howling emptiness. Madeleine shared my interests, I thought—she’s a studious person.”

“She says you were a dictator, a regular tyrant. You bullied her.”

I do seem to be a broken-down monarch of some kind, he was thinking, like my old man, the princely immigrant and ineffectual bootlegger.
And here, too, as he readies himself for a night with his new girlfriend, who scares him:

. . . Perhaps he had given the impression that he was a little stingy. Or else he had awakened a feeling of protectiveness in her, an effect he often produced. He wondered at times whether he didn’t belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities in life. Herzog’s mouth formed a soft but twisted smile as he considered whether he really had inwardly decided years ago to set up a deal—a psychic offer—meekness in exchange for preferential treatment. Such a bargain was feminine, or, extended to trees, animals, childlike. None of these self-judgments had any terror for him; no percentage now in quarreling with what one was. There was the thing—the composite, the mystical achievement of natural forces and his own spirit. He opened the paisley Hong Kong robe and looked at his naked body. He was no child. And the house in Ludeyville, a disaster in every other way, had kept him fit. Wrestling with that old ruin in an effort to recover his legacy made his arms muscular. Extended the lease of narcissism for a little while. Gave him strength to carry a heavy-buttocked woman to bed.

I love it.

The writing is dense but thrilling. Writing about Herzog at all feels futile, as with any great work of art it teaches you how to read it as you are reading it, shows you how to enjoy it as you’re enjoying it.

It’s an immaculate, big-hearted novel, and it belongs alongside The Wapshot Chronicle in its poetic intensity, its luminous erudition, its desperate lows and its wondrous joy.

The writing is somehow maximalist, poetic and large, and also spare, elegant and taut.

I wish I could read it again for the first time.

3.

1964 was a great year for American fiction.

Bellow beat out Louis Auchinsloss, John Hawkes, Richard Kim, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabakov for the top prize. Bellow deserved to win, but there were other, very fine novels released.

Thomas Berger published his fabulous Little Big Man[1]. Richard Brautigan released another oddball novel, A Confederate General at Big Sur.  H.P. Lovecraft, long dead, released the excellent At the Mountains of Madness and Other Stories. Hubert Selby, Jr. published his challenging but influential novel, Last Exit To Brooklyn. Gore Vidal released his excellent (thinly) fictionalized epistolary novel of ancient Rome, Julian[2].  And, Shel Silverstein published The Giving Tree, a near-perfect picture book.

4.

Leaving the book behind, for the last few days, I’ve felt sad. As if a friend has passed.

It’s an astonishing work, one of the finest novels I’ve read in years. I keep thinking, how many more novels are going to catch me in the head and the heart so fully as this one?

It’s also something of a dead-end, the apotheosis of the realistic novel of ideas. There’s nowhere else for the form to go.

The late 1950s had already brought new voices. The 1960s amplified these trends, of irony, inventive wordplay, nihilistic exhaustion. I heard someone say just yesterday that Bellow managed to keep the realistic, literary novel alive, single-handedly. I believe this is true. And I believe with Herzog, this sub-genre found its peak.

And after[3] Herzog, the deluge.

John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, Joan Didion, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut—some of these had been kicking around for a while, others were fast approaching—were a new wave of American writing, a blurring between genres, between fact and fiction, high and low brow, art and artifice. A sense of cool detachment, or of blasé genius; a love of puzzling wordplay, or a labyrinthine grammatical sense; a mashup of the modernism of Joyce and Faulkner with the destructive creativity and migraine nonsense of Jarry and Beckett—these new wolves romped through American letters.

Meta-textual games, paranoia, distrust in humanity and the arts, a fatal disbelief in the power of stories, an ironic knife blade slicing through anything sincere or heartfelt, deconstruction, postmodernism, an unwinding, madness—after Bellow[4] (or because of him) the novels implodes, resets. The form is exhausted.

New minds auger.


[1] I love this.

[2] I love this, too.

[3] And before. We’ve entered the post-modern way of thinking.

[4] And Malamud, Cheever and Updike, too. Roth was from the beginning collapsing his narratives on himself.

National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

28 Aug

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Augie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

A light, breezy thin novel. At 600 pages.

A light, breezy thin novel. At 600 pages.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Augie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Augie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Augie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.

NBAW, number 35: 1981’s Plains Song, by Wright Morris.

12 Feb

(I’m still writing away, although I feel a bit like a medieval monk locked in the scriptorium. What’s the opposite of illumination?)

1.

In 1981, Wright Morris won the National Book Award for his elegiac, lyrical novel of hard-scrabble Nebraska women, Plains Song. It was his second time winning the top writing award.

Plains Song follows multiple generations of women in the same family, through a huge chunk of the 20th century. His women are hard-working, quiet, dignified. His women don’t complain; they endure. Here we meet Cora, the matriarch of this clan of tough women, as she spends her wedding night with her stranger-husband, Emerson:

In Burlington, after a heavy meal, she put herself to bed. He came back from his bath smelling of soap, his face nicked by the razor, his hair wild from his scrubbed scalp, his thick body tight in a suit of oatmeal-colored flannel. For some time, as if alone, he sat on the edge of the bed rubbing his scalp. His hair needed cutting; his head, seen from the back, was like that of a plucked chicken. Nor was he in a hurry. Her heart pounded as he stopped to trim his nails. The words of the seamstress came to her with such force that she saw him as an utter stranger. Before he puffed the lamp out and rolled toward her, the bed creaking like the body of the wagon, her dismay had given way to a dread that paralyzed her will. When he moved on her, his groping hands confusing the sheet with the nightgown, she had already put her clenched fist into her mouth and stared sightlessly as the ceiling. What did she experience? It might be likened to an operation without the anesthesia. Horror exceeded horror. The time required by her assailant to do what must be done left her in shock. In the dawn light she found that she had bitten through the flesh of her hand, exposing the bone. Emerson’s bafflement moved him to speech . . . . he seemed to doubt what it was he saw. H was able to escort her to the lobby, however, and inquire where they might find a doctor.

That is crackerjack writing, detailed, precise, disturbing, fiendish even, yet humane.

This first—and the novel implies, only—coupling leads to the birth of Beulah Madge. Emerson’s brother has daughters of his own with another woman, and the years pass in the lives of these farm women as they work, marry, bear children, and die, locked in a disillusioning struggle with the confines of their lives. Only one of the farm women, Cora’s niece, Sharon Rose, escapes. Here we see her traveling to Chicago:

. . . . what Sharon saw through the soot-smeared window was like a continent under water. There had been heavy rains; deep ruts fouled the roads, water sat in pools that reflected the sunrise. A sway-backed white horse stood like a specter in a field of corn stubble, its head drooped as if too heavy to support. The dip and rise of the telephone lines, which she had once found so distracting, seemed wearisome and monotonous to her, like the click of the rails. It might have been an abandoned country. Even the towns seemed curiously vacant. It seemed incomprehensible to Sharon that people continued to live in such places. Numbed by the cold, drugged by the heat and the chores, they were more like beasts of the field than people. Where a lamp glowed a woman like Cora would be lighting a fire, setting a table, or gripping the cold handle of a pump, the water rising with the sound of a creature gagged. Only work that could not be finished gave purpose to life.

Sharp and poetic and unnerving and wise, and part of Morris’s larger theme in his work: a reaction to the realities of the present day, and a rejection, of sorts, of modern technologies and conventions[1]. The book is also a rejection of conventional plotting, conflict and drama. Instead he offers us a poetic, often moving, interpretation of real life.

The texture of daily lives. The gravitas of toil and suffering. And the element so many novels lack, dignity!, is here in spades.

Other novels follow a similar passage of time: The Shipping News, Love Medicine, Them, Stoner. And like these others Morris mines the banal for something heartbreaking and (almost) profound.

A damn good novel, if most of the drama is passed over.

A damn good novel, if most of the drama is passed over.

He dances over tragedies with a sure, light touch. A baby dies—and holy god, as my children get older, I find incidents like this absolutely horrifying—and it happens inside a single paragraph. And then he moves on. He is more concerned with work and stoic suffering than drama or tension or uplift.

His sure, confident touch with the passage of time becomes tedious. He dances over dramatic scenes, and near the novel’s end the story seems thin. And the shifting narrative points of view are intricate and clever, but also irritating. As he leaves Cora behind—with her befuddlement and horror at the crass, mechanized and alien world she lives in—he inhabits more conventional characters. And he never gives Cora’s granddaughter, Caroline—the most intriguing character in the novel, a near-genius who has trapped herself in a conventional, provincial life, and she hates it—her own voice.

2.

Morris is one of the few writers to win the National Book Award twice, along with Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Philip Roth and William Maxwell. (Not Annie Proulx, not Thomas Pynchon, not Don DeLillo!, not Cormac McCarthy!, not Denis Johnson, and so on and so on.)

Morris wrote some twenty novels, won dozens of grants and awards, received an avalanche of praise from critics and top writers. Yet now he’s gone, dust, fingertips on broken stones, barely a trace, almost a ghost, as elusive as the characters he so hauntingly creates. He’s brilliant, his novels are artfully constructed, spare and evocative. I kept thinking, how has he not made the cut? I keep looking for reasons. He’s mercurial enough to be interesting, and weird enough to be memorable. His work holds together. So why is he being passed over, while some of his contemporaries are studied, re-published, re-contextualized, re-energized, not forgotten?

Yet this is part of it, too—this slipping into the pit of time, this forgetting, that seems so fitting in Morris, who details failure and forgetting in his fabulous novels. It’s as if, in writing about the passing, never-to-be-recovered days of his characters, he was detailing his own diminishing stature in the world of letters.

There’s something of Cormac McCarthy about his style—beautiful, rugged landscapes; a focus on work and tasks and processes; terse, often brilliant dialogue. (Only, Morris leaves out the blood-letting and rapine and murder.) There’s something of Annie Proulx, too, that struggling against the daily despair and the continual passing of time. Morris feels like a lot of other writers, yet he’s also wholly his own.

Part of his originality lies in his devotion to the lives of Nebraska settlers in various times of American history.

3.

Morris’s attachment to the Nebraska plains settles him directly in one of the major trends of post-war American fiction: regionalism. Regionalism is fiction rooted in the folklore, foibles, colloquialisms, landscape and people of a region. They are mostly realistic, focusing on small moments. Many fine writers fall into this (admittedly rather broad) category, including Welty, Kennedy, Carver, Proulx, Harrison, Watson and Haruf. They are all writers who obsessively detail their specific terrain (although each would probably be irritated with the label). They weave an inter-textual tapestry between their own novels. Morris’s novels aren’t inter-dependent, but rather provide a deeper, richer glow when taken together. In this way, Plains Songs is best read as part of a larger story.

Regionalism is partially a response to other movements in literature, as a movement away from the high-low, pyrotechnic hi-jinks of the postmodernists, for one example[2], or a rejection of the grotesque gothic horror stories often set in the American South. Many academics and critics have tried to pin down a set of rules or guidelines for regionalism, but I think the major characteristic is realism on a small scale. These small moments are narrowly focused on small, daily stuff: washing dishes, taking out the garbage, arguing with a neighbor. A good cognate is Italian neo-realism, life with all “the boring bits,” left in. It’s a rich, varied tradition, including comic novels, like The End of Vandalism, to more dramatic fare, such as Provinces of Night. Novelists in this vein often have less at stake—there are rarely murderers skulking about—in any kind of dramatic sense but strive to capture the way people actually live their lives. Morris mostly succeeds, although I wonder if in an earlier draft there weren’t a little more bickering or strife.

I haven’t yet fully formulated an opinion on regional fiction—I do think a very good argument could be made that a regional American cinema, where regions and states would develop movies situated within their localized cultures, would be a godsend to our national movie culture—as it has become intertwined with my thoughts on southern fiction over the years. I get tired of endless descriptions of the land; I want to traverse the bumps and ridges of the characters’ souls. And only very fine writers can get away with quotidian stuff and make it interesting for very long. But when a writer captures the banal in an exciting way—that’s magic.

Anyway, 1980 was a very fine year for American fiction. Shirley Hazzard published The Transit of Venus. William Maxwell released So Long, and See you Tomorrow. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was published, posthumously. Walker Percy put out The Second Coming. Powerhouse short story writer Eudora Welty released her Collected Stories. Although no one saw it at the time, one of our finest contemporary novelists, Marilynne Robinson, appeared on the scene with her first novel, Housekeeping. Pat Conroy published another autobiographical novel, The Lords of Discipline. E.L. Doctorow, Stephen King, Thomas Disch, Walter Tevis, and Woody Allen all published new fiction.

An impressive list. I don’t see a trend. The eighties were a fertile time for American subcultures, with punk rock, metal, and rap all appearing at the beginning of Reagan’s decade. A new wave of literary outlaws surfaced, many in direct opposition to the new president. But I’m straying from my topic[3].

Around the world, J.M. Coetzee published one of his many grim, elegant novels, Waiting for the Barbarians. Umberto Eco released his very fine medieval detective story, The Name of the Rose. Salmon Rushdie put out his epic (and highly overrated) novel of the formation of India, Midnight’s Children. Anthony Burgess published what many consider to be his magnum opus, Earthly Powers. William Golding, P.D. James, John Le Carre, Haruki Murakami, Graham Greene, and Douglas Adams all released new novels.

I don’t know if Plains Song is the best novel of the year, but it is rich and deserving of re-discovery.

[1] The conundrum is that the lifestyle he is eulogizing was one of constant work, and therefore anathema to the act of writing fiction.

[2] Or an outright rejection of the high modernism of Joyce, Stein, etcetera.

[3] More on this in a later post.

Books I read in 2014.

5 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A film education unto itself.

A film education unto itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profoundly, absurdly good.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tres—Roberto Bolaño’s best book of poetry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best American Comics, 2013—Meh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A novel in verse you won't soon forget.

A novel in verse you won’t soon forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books I failed to read much of:

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

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

Leapfrog—Just . . . nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Must be careful.

National Book Award winners, 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.

Interlude 3: The academic novel.

9 May

(And the crime novel. And my life in academia. In 55 lovely points.)

  1. The academic novel is one of the great, under-appreciated subgenres in American literature.
  2. Academic novels tend to feel insulated from the real world. And yet besieged by heightened real-world problems. Of identity, sexuality. Of how to live a good life without harming others. Plus the white-knuckle terror of ideas.
  3. Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life, John Williams’s Stoner, and Saul Bellow’s Herzog form a sort of trilogy on the subject. White Noise is the epilogue.
  4. Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table should be added to this list. A post-script, maybe.
  5. John Williams gets my vote for the most under-appreciated great writer. He only wrote four novels, and three of them are pure dynamite.
  6. Edward Anderson, of Thieves Like Us, is gets my second vote.
  7. Thieves Like Us is one of the great crime-caper novels, with two very good film versions. (Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.)
  8. Academic novels often use the atmosphere of noir. There’s something about universities and tenure and the classroom that lends itself to the mood of crime fiction.
  9. Existentialism?
  10. Noir fiction is not detective fiction. The difference is in the details.
  11. Noir is French existentialism plus American gangsters plus sex.
  12. Detective fiction is crime plus honor plus lawlessness plus fearlessness plus heroism. And usually sex.
  13. Noir is death, dread, damaging sex. The hero rarely makes it out alive.
  14. Detective fiction is hard talk and individual genius. The hero rarely dies.
  15. I like both.
  16. Crime fiction has so many good writers that it’s difficult for new writers to make it their own; they risk parody or imitation. There’s little left. The Long Goodbye and The Maltese Falcon have not been improved on.
  17. Having said that, No Country for Old Men is a fabulous crime novel.
  18. The Last Good Kiss is, too. James Crumley. He rules.
  19. It must be said: Ross McDonald is underrated. Not sure why he seems to be receding, while Hammett and Chandler are secure.
  20. But I have a hard time reading new hard-boiled fiction.
  21. The hardboiled school of writing is often more sentimental, more romantic, more false than just about any other type of writing. The detectives are often creaky old men drinking their way through clues.
  22. “Creaky old men drinking their way through clues.” This could be an analysis of much of detective fiction of the 20th century.
  23. Case in point—my favorite line in Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest: “At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”
  24. I recently finished Nic Pizzolato’s (writer and producer of True Detective) Galveston. It won awards. It sold boatloads. It’s good but not great. See point 21 above.
  25. Southern noir is the weirdest of subgenres. The kudzu, the heat, the spread out towns and cities, the drinking, the scars of slavery—it somehow works. Few shadows. Small towns. Oodles of violence.
  26. I’m struggling with the final touch-up of my latest novella. I can’t quite ratchet things into place. Everything feels right—the characters and the mood and the sentences—but something feels off. Absent. Missing. Letting my subconscious mull.
  27. Ennui: writing a random blog post while thinking about deficiencies in your own work. By the by, here’s the first sentence: “It’s almost midnight and I’m just inside my apartment with enough juice in my veins to power a steam ship across the Atlantic.”
  28. Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It is an academic novel.
  29. So is J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
  30. Umberto Eco’s Foucoult’s Pendulum is an academic novel, too. Sort of.
  31. If I could go back in time, I would try to attend the best university in the world. Or study semiotics with David Foster Wallace.
  32. Lucian Carr and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg began as academics. They were drawn to transgression, drugs, petty crime, seduced in some sense by Herbert Huncke. Carr eventually murdered David Krammerer. Knifed him and dumped the body into the Hudson.
  33. Keroauc drank himself to death. Sounds like a character out of any number of crime novels.
  34. (I knew another grad student who focused on Keroauc. Only, he didn’t like Keroauc at all. Not at all.)
  35. William Burroughs shot his wife in the head.
  36. De Tocqueville said, almost two hundred years ago, that unlike Europe, America has few suicides but tons of murders.
  37. What is it, in our cultural DNA that loves murder so much?
  38. It’s a reoccurring theme: art equals intelligence plus disgust plus hard work plus crime. And usually sex.
  39. A good description of Roberto Bolano’s work.
  40. I’m getting off point here. Or maybe I’m not. 2666 is both an academic novel and a crime novel.
  41. There’s something quixotic about the life of the scholar. Something brave and wonderful and near-useless.
  42. I once met a ph.d. student focusing on English ballads of the 16th century. This was the entirety of his work. I asked him if he just loved English ballads. “Not really,” he said.
  43. I asked another grad student what her dissertation was about. “Comic book zines,” she said. What about them? I asked. “You know,” she said, “jargon jargon jargon.”
  44. John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is an academic novel. (And a key meta-fictional text.)
  45. I wanted to go to graduate school for ancient history. But you have to be able to read German and French and Latin. I didn’t even apply.
  46. Like every other writer, I tried to get a spot in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I spent a month reworking three short stories, which I had already worked on for months. At the last minute, I switched one of these with a new story, which was hardly a first draft. I don’t know why I did this; some impulse to self-sabotage. This was years ago.
  47. I didn’t get in.
  48. I applied to my wife’s program, American Studies. I wanted to study gangsters, true crime, film noir and 1930s crime fiction. I titled my application essay, “The killers are us.” I thought I was a shoo-in.
  49. I didn’t get into this, either. (And thank my lucky stars for that.)
  50. Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is an academic novel. The movie is fantastic.
  51. I think the magic of the academic novel is the collision of high-minded ideals with randy youth.
  52. There’s something smug about graduate students. Only tempered with a streak of self-pity, and an undercurrent of self-disgust.
  53. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is an academic novel. The movie is . . . not fantastic.
  54. For librarians, it’s the air of perpetual moral high ground. We stand for diversity, democracy, pluralism. We stand against censorship, small-mindedness.
  55. Unless we work for a law firm. Or a corporation.
  56. I eventually earned a Masters in library science, (barely) circumventing many of the tribulations facing humanities grad students.
  57. I’m a library scientist. I can’t think of any good academic novels about that.

 

 

 

Interlude 3: the books I read last year.

26 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A great story collection by a master.

A great story collection by a master.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prose beautiful and sharp like cut glass.

Prose beautiful and sharp like cut glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wonderful revisionist western.

Wonderful revisionist western.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masterful.

Masterful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artfully pornographic literature from Brazil.

Artfully pornographic literature from Brazil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like being drunk and hungover at the same time.

Like being drunk and hungover at the same time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

15 Dec

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I must tread lightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

“Morning,” I said.

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

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

“I don’t know where I am,” I said.

“You are where you is,” she said.

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

“It lay before you,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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