Tag Archives: american fiction

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

23 Jan

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


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

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

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

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

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

A very fine novel of Americans in Mexico.

A very fine novel of Americans in Mexico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is very fine writing, spare but detailed.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

23 Apr


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.


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.


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 13: 1960’s Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth.

28 Oct

(I’m falling behind with the writing of these. Must redouble my efforts.)

In 1960, Philip Roth won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, a novella with five short stories. It’s a very, very, very fine book, his first, and the beginning of an immense, in many ways unparalleled, literary career.

He beat out many established authors, including Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Louis Auchincloss, John Hersey, Shirley Jackson, Robert Penn Warren and John Updike. Roth was just 26.

The title novella follows two young people falling in and then out of love. It’s a superb piece of work, fun to read and funny, heart-breaking, evocative, precise in its descriptions and insights. It captures the plunging experience of first love and the dulling realization of that first love’s inadequacies.

The magic of the novella is that the narrator knows he doesn’t want to marry this woman, but he can’t quite admit it to himself. So he gets to play the victim in his own thoughts, even as he works to sabotage the relationship he says he’s trying to save. It’s a remarkable trick, capturing this contradictory impulse in a way that is subtle, convincing, often funny yet melancholic.

Philip Roth's first novel and it's very, very good.

Philip Roth’s first novel and it’s very, very good.

The short stories are all strong. “The Conversion of the Jews” follows a young boy at a Jewish school who keeps getting punished for pointing out inconsistencies in his rabbi-teacher’s thinking. “Defender of the Faith” follows a Jewish lieutenant who begins to despise the petty manipulations of a Jewish enlistee underneath him; he begins to actively work against the enlisted man. Both are great. The other three are fine, too, if a little weaker.

He can flat-out write. Here he is, describing the parent’s house of the narrator’s love interest:


The basement had a different kind of coolness from the house, and it had a smell, which was something the upstairs was totally without. It felt cavernous down there, but in a comforting way, like the simulation caves children make for themselves on rainy days, in hall closets, under blankets, or in between the legs of dining room tables. I flipped on the light at the foot of the stairs and was not surprised at the pine paneling, the bamboo furniture, the ping-pong table, and the mirrored bar that was stocked with every kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl—all the bacchanalian paraphernalia, plentiful, orderly and untouched, as it can be only in the bar of a wealthy man who never entertains drinking people, who himself does not like to drink, who, in fact, gets a fishy look from his wife when every several months he takes a shot of schnapps before dinner.


Evocative and punchy, but also insightful, hinging on that phrase “was not surprised,” that reveals all the nastiness the narrator hasn’t admitted to himself. Masterful.


My praise doesn’t come lightly. I’ve (mostly) avoided Roth for a number of reasons.

  1. He has an immense body of work, with no easy entry point.
  2. I felt immensely letdown by The Prague Orgy, one of the Zuckerman novels. The blurbs on the back all praised it.
  3. Roth is a mercurial writer who often engages in meta-fictional tomfoolery. His particular brand is the blurring between his fiction and his life. I’m not a huge fan of the narcissistic school of fiction, where every novel is just another chapter in the author’s actual life (this includes Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, etc.), only augmented with the tools of the novelist.
  4. Roth’s mid-90s novels—The Human Stain, American Pastoral among them, the novels everyone praises so much—left me cold when I tried to read them.
  5. Portnoy’s Complaint is brilliant, hilarious, and wonderful . . . until it isn’t. Something about the novel breaks down—his defenders would say the narrative fractures to mirror the fractured psyche of the fragile narrator—and near the end it’s a hot mess. I read this first, and felt I understood Roth, and rightly or wrongly, that he held no future surprises.


But for a serious reader of American fiction, Philip Roth has to be read and considered. This is a difficult task. I must put my misgivings aside.

Roth, like Cheever, Salinger or Mailer, is as much a brand as an author. He used his personal life so well and so often—the divorces, the criticism, the controversies, and so on—that it’s tough to separate the author from the work.

And partially because of this, Roth’s body of work is difficult to digest. He’s published some 27 novels. He’s won numerous awards. He’s big-hearted, funny, yet cutting and vicious, satirical, diamond-edged. His writing is (almost) always clear, often beautiful.

Roth does everything great writers do—he’s intriguing, tough-minded, probing, insightful, ambiguous about the right things. He carries righteous anger and empathetic love side by side for his characters.

He remains a potent force in American fiction. He has a handful of big themes—sex, assimilation, aging, death—alongside his big issue, the plight, rigor, strength, and neuroses of the Jewish-American. He’s pungent on the issue. After his early success, he was accused by Jewish intellectuals of providing ammunition to anti-Semitic forces. He then looped this response to his work back into his fiction, detailing Jewish writers struggling with this exact same criticism. He inserted himself into novels, or a facsimile of himself. The meta-fictional games are wearying, childish even, and others do it better. (They probably reached their zenith in John Barth’s Chimera.)

He isn’t for everyone. He presides over a small patch of turf. His reputation has protected some of his weaker novels. His Zuckerman novels are, almost to a volume, overrated. He draws much of his great power from his authorial solipsism, narrative arrogance. He isn’t quite as wild as his reputation. His defenders are an earnest, hyperbolic bunch. He has experimented far less than it seems; he’s the literati’s equivalent of Stephen King. He takes less chances than many of his colleagues and there’s some essential middle brow nugget—he’d hate this description—marbled into the bulk of his work.

In the end, he’s always good but rarely great.


1960 was an intriguing year for fiction.

William Burroughs published his (extremely overrated) Naked Lunch. Saul Bellow released Henderson the Rain King (see my thoughts on Bellow here). Richard Condon put out his insane, and deranged Cold War novel The Manchurian Candidate. John Knowles published that school-curriculum mainstay, A Separate Peace. Shirley Jackson (who rules!) put out the very scary, very fine The Haunting of Hill House. Terry Southern—one of the wildmen of literature, but also a bit of a continuous misfire, who never quite lived up to his reputation—released the bizarre The Magic Christian. Kurt Vonnegut published The Sirens of Titan, one of his more traditional science fiction novels. Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Robert Heinlein all released novels. Over in England, Keith Waterhouse and Alan Silitoe each put out their defining works, Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, respectively. And way over in Germany, Gunter Grass published one of the major post-war German novels, The Tin Drum.

A good year for literature all around.

And in theatre! My god, Brecht, Sartre, Albee, Williams, Camus, Pinter, Beckett, Genet and Ionesco all published major plays[1].

[1] Maybe I should be writing about drama instead.