Tag Archives: 1970s fiction

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.

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

26 Feb

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

1.

In 1975, Robert Stone won the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers, his fantastic, fatalistic novel of a heroin deal gone bad.

Dog Soldiers follows Converse, a weary and self-pitying journalist in Vietnam. Converse is intelligent. Converse is a leftist. Converse is damaged and bored. Here he is, meeting an aging missionary he wants to sleep with in Saigon, right at the beginning of the novel:

Converse looked into her mild eyes.

Of course.

“You’re a missionary.”

“We don’t call ourselves that way. I suppose some people could.”

He nodded in sympathy. They never like the term. It suggested imperialism and being eaten.

Converse has chosen Vietnam, out of boredom, out of some unspoken dedication to bearing witness. He falls in with expatriates, drug addicts, bohemian travelers, and he realizes he’s made a mistake. Here he is, remembering his first time at a battle:

And, surely enough, the difficulties he had been experiencing with reality were obviated. One bright afternoon, near a place called Krek, Converse had watched with astonishment as the world of things transformed itself into a single overwhelming act of murder. In a manner of speaking, he had discovered himself. Himself was a soft shell-less quivering thing encased in a hundred and sixty pounds of pink sweating meat. It was real enough. It tried to burrow into the earth. It wept.

Converse, out of the horror of his experiences, gives in to the temptation of easy money. He arranges to smuggle a giant shipment of heroin into the U.S. His vehicle is an old acquaintance, Hicks, a disturbed and psychopathic former marine. Hicks is going to carry the heroin to Converse’s wife, Marge, in San Francisco. One of the many wrinkles in his plan is their little daughter, Janey.

Things fall apart. And man, in Stone’s novel, they really fall apart. There’s a ripoff. Hicks and Marge take off on a desperate escape, cooking up every chance they get, pursued by murderous government operatives. Hicks and Marge retreat to a mountainous bunker of a Timothy Leary type named Dieter.

Dieter is Colonel Kurtz, reformed; before the novel begins, he was the head of a LSD cult and thought he was a god. He has turned his back on the violence and seediness and power politics of the world, instead focusing inward with psylocilbin. Converse falls in with the pursuers, and they all end up in a standoff around Dieter’s compound. Heavy ordinance, consciousness enhancing hallucinogens, and a very surreal landscape set the final climactic scenes.

The characters all seem magnified versions of real world types, punched through with a skewered, otherworldly sheen. The characters radiate. They creep around at the edges of the story. You can seem them lurking in other books. What makes them crackle is the dialogue. The characters all speak with a druggy patois of the street-level criminal, augmented by a stoner philosophy and little snippets of eastern mysticism. Most of them are full of shit. They’re armed, money-hungry urchins looking for a bigger bite of the pie.

Stone pulls off a deft trick; the book is somehow a pulp thriller of the lowest order and a work of uncompromising high art. The key is the language, electric, eccentric, yet also elegant and spare. The whole book is quotable, filled with the tautological aphorisms of the junky culture. The logic of the novel is inescapable and merciless. Only the insane can emerge unscathed.

Here’s Stone describing Marge as she waits for the heroin to arrive:

And the dreams, one after another, were bad stuff indeed. Janey teetering on the ledge with a storm-gray New York cityscape behind her, water towers, sooty brick. Something about a mad friar and fruit with blood on it. Something terrible among trees. Each dream incorporated her headache.

Afoot, she was edgy, cramped, accident prone. Coffee burned. A saucer broke. There were two caps of dilaudid left to her but she took some Percodan instead.

Lean, taut, angry writing, that. Right out of the American crime tradition.

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

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

2.

James Cain had life in his novels, corrupted and often obscene, true, but life nonetheless. Chandler and Hammett—both great writers—veer closer to a tough guy parody. Everyone’s a killer. Everyone talks fast, in a string of double entendres. Crime fiction has built into it a parodic edge; it’s so easy to veer into cliché. You have the philosopher-killer on one extreme, and the stumblebum sex addict on the other. Most crime fiction falls somewhere in-between.

Stone fits somewhere at the far edge of the crime fiction spectrum. He belongs to that rarest of subgenres, the literary crime writer. And Dog Soldiers is one of the best of its kind, a magnificent novel that stands alongside John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig; Don DeLillo’s Running Dog; Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men; and Denis Johnson’s Angels and Tree of Smoke among others. These novels carry a special inner gravity. The narratives often collapse, implode, reform like newborn stars after the big bang.

Hawkes is collapsing post-modernism; DeLillo is paranoia run amok; McCarthy is violent stoicism as rugged individuality; And Johnson is zen drugginess and people corrupted by decadent decay.

Stone is of a piece with Johnson. They have similar themes, a similar style. They write extreme fictions, straddling the line between pulp and art. They both are intrigued by religion, eastern philosophy, unemotional violence. They have a genre all their own, something akin to Ginsberg and Burroughs shooting at each other in a samurai movie. After they’ve both overdosed on LSD.

This strand of American fiction contains everything from Fat City[1] to the films of Quentin Tarantino and onward down to True Detective. Fantastical noir. There’s a ringing nightmare at the edges of it. Something dark is slouching towards the reader. The metaphorical overlay isn’t clear. If film noir is French existentialism plus American gangsters plus German expressionism, then Dog Soldiers is all of this plus the Beats, the yippies, the hippies and the Grateful Dead, plus Charles Manson and Richard Nixon waving pistols in each other’s faces. And both of them are naked.

There is a caveat. Stone’s fatalistic stoicism will bore some readers, strike others as wearying. Every character seems to accept his/her fate with a cynical acceptance; it doesn’t always ring true. And there isn’t much life in some of the characters. They operate as ciphers for a lost age.

Stone remains an interesting writer, although he never quite replicated the charging power of this, his best and most remarkable novel. I read most of his work—including his pretty good autobiography—after reading Dog Soldiers some twelve years ago.

3.

Of course Stone is after bigger game. He’s addressing the spiritual void in our decadent, morally bankrupt and a-religious age. Altered states, casual violence—these are rational responses to an insane world. His crime story isn’t just about Converse and Hicks and Marge; it’s also about the plight of Americans in the age of American domination.

Which brings us to Vietnam. Stone grapples with U.S. involvement on multiple levels, alluding to massacres, lost innocence. Somehow, the book’s final firefight—somewhere near the Mexican border of California—captures the horrors of Vietnam better than most novels set there.

Novels about Vietnam are multitudinous. The best of these are probably The Forever War[1], Meditations in Green, The Quiet American, Tree of Smoke, Dispatches (not a novel but reads like one) or anything by Tim O’Brien. Dog Soldiers captures the rot of it, the moral lassitude of American involvement, the spiritual cost.

Converse is intelligent, but exhausted, apathetic, and lazy. Hicks is inexhaustible, irrepressible and crafty, but also vengeful, murderous and psychopathic. They operate at a metaphorical level: these two men are America.

4.

1974 was a good year for American fiction.

Philip K. Dick published his melancholic paean to police-state paranoia, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Joseph Heller released Something Happened[2]. Stephen King published Carrie, his first, and arguably only experimental novel. Ishmael Reed released The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Robert Pirsig published his hugely influential Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Toni Morrison released Sula. Philip Roth published My Life as a Man.

Dog Soldiers is the best of the lot, an American classic of the highest order, not only one of the best novels from the 1970s[3], but also perhaps the best novel about the 1970s, replete with drugs, Vietnam, disillusionment, urban decay, even a porn theatre. Dog Soldiers is the Age of Aquarius turned sour. This narco-noir classic belongs on any best-of American fiction list.

 

 


 

[1] A great novel.

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

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