Sad to Hear Pat Conroy Has Died

Donald Patrick “Pat” Conroy (October 26, 1945 – March 4, 2016)

conroyHe wrote some very good books, four of which were turned into very good to great movies. Perhaps the best of these movies (Conrack, 1974) is the one you’re least likely to have seen. It was based on The Water Is Wide (1972), a memoir of his year teaching school on an impoverished South Carolina coastal island, and it starred Jon Voight as the young Conroy character. His fiction works The Great Santini (1976), The Lords of Discipline (1980), and The Prince of the Tides (1986) were also made into films and all four of his film adaptations featured wonderful performances. Conroy’s characters were recognizably real people who good actors could act.

My parents retired to South Carolina near Charleston shortly after I moved to L.A., so I’ve spent a lot of time in Conroy country – including his lovely adopted home of Beaufort, where the movie The Big Chill was filmed – and I know first-hand how well he depicted the colorful people and achingly beautiful places of that divided part of our nation.

big chill shotHe was also among the best poets of divided manhood (for want of a better term) for his whole generation. The generation of American men for whom the military and sports and other traditional male pursuits and roles were no longer sufficient to live a full and satisfying life. And certainly not enough to heal the wounds inflicted by those males (starting with their fathers) for whom traditional male codes of behavior were everything.

great santini scene

Biff! Bam!? POW!!! Tom Wolfe***!

Thomas KennerlyTomWolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931)

I think it was 2004 (when he was in  Los Angeles promoting the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) that I saw Tom Wolfe in Skylight Books. He was seated alone at a small table in the back of the store (where the staff sets up microphones and chairs for writers who are having readings) and he was signing copy after copy of his book for the store. Tom Wolfe was wearing his trademark white suit, which looked immaculate, and his hair was dyed more or less blond. He looked healthy, but his hands shook as he wrote.

Tom Wolfe was one of a relatively small group of mostly magazine writers (mostly based in New York) who were credited in the 1960s and 1970s with creating something  called the “New Journalism,” which in its broadest sense was defined as the practice of applying fictional techniques to nonfiction reportage. Wolfe was foremost among New Journalists (i.e., the first to achieve fame and make serious money at it) and some of his better fellow practitioners included Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, David Halberstam, Dan Wakefield, Gail Sheehy, and Hunter S Thompson. Established novelists such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer also jumped on the New Journalism train.

Never mind that nearly all of the genre’s so-called innovations (including said use of fiction-style storytelling and immersion in the subject matter) had been around since at least Charles Dickens and Sketches by Boz (1836), which also included another New Journalism staple: trippy illustrations by an avant-garde (for his day) illustrator. Every generation has to pretend they are tearing down the opera houses and beginning anew. And every generation of publishers knows a good advertising gimmick when they see it.

What Wolfe and Talese and Didion and Thompson were doing did at least FEEL new and provided the impetus for some extraordinary books and possibly the most exciting period in magazine history. I can’t tell you the thrill I felt – from the late Sixties until whatever date we decide to pinpoint as the End of Print – when I’d open a new edition of Esquire, New York, Ramparts, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone. You never knew what you’d find but you knew a lot of it would be good and there would be something you didn’t know, something you’d never thought of in that way, something that changed your mind, and occasionally something that ripped your head off. Oh, and you could count the misspellings and typos on the fingers of one hand.

Tom Wolfe (depending on your view of his work, including the later novels such as the Dickens-style serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities) is either a jumped-up reporter and fortunate beneficiary of a certain zeitgeist or a great American writer. I’d say he’s both and I’d make that assessment solely on his New Journalism period. Those early books – from the collections of magazine pieces such as Radical Chic through the two book-length excursions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979), were among the best books of their day and have already stood the test of time.

Wolfe is also a good example of a writer that I mostly disagree with and still mostly admire. (Celine would be an extreme example.) Born in Virginia, he was a bit of a dandy and a Southern gentleman … if that’s not being redundant … and his pronouncements on social and artistic matters tend toward the conservative. Even, at times, the social conservative. I like a lot of 20th century architecture and design, but Wolfe doesn’t and I still enjoyed From Bauhaus to Your House. I love modern art and still (almost) love The Painted Word. And posterity is tremendously blessed that there was one person with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who was “on the bus” to write and only to write.

1_Ken-Kesey-LSD-revolution-750x400
Tom Wolfe seemed happy as he signed his books. I got the feeling – based on nothing other than a feeling – that he enjoys writing and likes being Tom Wolfe. A Southern gentleman in a white suit with impeccable manners who has written books that ripped my head off. I decided not to ask for his autograph. That would have felt redundant.

The_birth_of_New_Journalism

Hemingway, Fitzgerald … and Callaghan

Morley Callaghan (February 22, 1903 – August 25, 1990)

It’s a mystery why some authors survive in print and others fall away. I would like to report that it has to do entirely with the quality of their writing and that the literary cream always rises to the top as the decades go by. I would like to report that, but it isn’t true.

With the exception of those few dozen writers (Hemingway and Fitzgerald are two American examples) who take up permanent residency in The Canon, staying in print would seem to have more to do with what house published you, whether that house still exists, and whether someone at the house that owns your back list thinks money can be made by keeping it current. Movie adaptations used to rescue the occasional forgotten author from obscurity, but comic books are just about the only kind of “books” made into films these days … American films, anyway … so that lifeline has been cut.

I was both pleased – and very surprised – to discover that nearly all of Morley Callaghan’s novels and his collected short stories remain in print; and that his famous memoir of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other expatriate American writers (entitled That Summer in Paris) is available in a new, expanded edition.  Callaghan was one of Canada’s most popular and critically acclaimed writers from the 1930s until his declining years – his slightly pugnacious Irish face once adorned a Canadian postage stamp – and, during his lifetime, he attracted a solid readership in the United States for his novels and especially his stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker during the heyest of its hey days. But I have not met a single non-Canadian under about the age of 50 who has even heard of Morley Callaghan, let alone read his books.

Callaghan was of Irish ancestry – his parents immigrated to Toronto – and a devout Catholic. His novels often have vaguely Biblical titles and (if you look closely enough) semi-religious themes, usually involving sin and the possibilities of redemption. His characters divide up about equally between criminal types and priestly ones. I suspect the Catholic flavorings may have something to do with Callaghan’s loss of readers below the border in recent years. He was most popular during the period when movie actors such as Bing Crosby were playing priests and Ingrid Bergman was playing nuns. Nice priests and nuns, too!

My favorite of the Callaghan novels that I’ve read are More Joy in Heaven (1937) about an ex-con who becomes a reluctant society’s darling; and Such Is My Beloved (1934) about two prostitutes and the young naive priest who tries to help them. The latter is considered Callaghan’s finest book. I highly recommend both novels and any collection of Callaghan’s superb short stories. His fellow reporter at the Toronto Daily Star, Ernest Hemingway, compared Callaghan’s short stories to James Joyce’s. I would compare them to Ernest Hemingway’s … and compare them favorably. Which brings us to that famous (or infamous) summer in Paris.  A late 1920s summer  that Callaghan spent with his friends (Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald) and during which he met just about every other prominent exiled writer of the time who put in time near the Eiffel Tower … from Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound to the aforementioned Joyce.

I’m going to take a wild guess that Callaghan wrote That Summer in Paris (1967), which appeared three years after Hemingway’s own bestselling memoir of expatriate Paris (A Moveable Feast), to cash in on the earlier book’s success. Callaghan achieved his presumptive goal – his own book sold well and still does, particularly when interest in Hemingway is high – but the book stands on its own. And his good but not great memoir has something that Hemingway’s lacks: veracity. Callaghan’s book gets some of the minor details wrong (e.g., where exactly the boxing match between him and Hemingway took place) but it is true about the events and the people it describes. A Moveable Feast gets most of the minor details right and that’s about it, although it is Hemingway (in a sort of late return to stylistic form) so a lot of the lies are beautifully written.

hemingway460This disparity between the two men’s writing had a parallel in their athletic prowess. Callaghan was a trained and experienced amateur boxer. Hemingway just pretended to be, especially when he was drunk and bragging to other delusional drunks. Papa badgered the younger and lighter Callaghan into a boxing match that was to be officiated by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Scott was also to keep time: three minute rounds with one minute of rest in between. I’ll let Callaghan tell you what happened next.

“Our first round was like most of the rounds we had fought that summer, with me shuffling around, and Ernest, familiar with my style, leading and chasing after me. No longer did he rush in with his old brisk confidence. Now he kept an eye on my left hand and he was harder to hit. As I shuffled around I could hear the sound of clicking billiard balls in the adjoining room.”

(Fitzgerald called time and the three men joked around until it was time to fight again.)

“Right at the beginning of that round Ernest got careless; he came in too fast, his left down, and he got smacked on the mouth. His lip began to bleed. It had often happened. It should have meant nothing to him. Hadn’t he joked with Jimmy, the bartender, about always having me for a friend while I could make his lip bleed? Out of the corner of his eye he may have seen the shocked expression on Scott’s face. Or the taste of blood in his mouth may have made him want to fight more savagely. He came lunging in, swinging more recklessly. As I circled him, I kept jabbing at his bleeding mouth. I had to forget all about Scott, for Ernest had become rougher, his punching a little wilder than usual. His heavy punches, if they had landed, would have stunned me. I had to punch faster and harder myself to keep away from him. It bothered me that he was taking the punches on the face like a man telling himself he only needed to land one punch himself.”

(Callaghan noticed that other people at the club were starting to watch, and noticed that Fitzgerald seemed to be in awe.)

“I was wondering why I was tiring, for I hadn’t been hit solidly. Then Ernest, wiping the blood from his mouth with his gloves, and probably made careless with exasperation and embarrassment from having Scott there, came leaping in at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch. The timing must have been just right. I caught him on the jaw; spinning he went down, sprawled out on his back.

“If Ernest and I had been there alone I would have laughed. I was sure of my boxing friendship with him; in a sense I was sure of him, too. Ridiculous things had happened in that room. Hadn’t he spat in my face? And I felt no surprise in seeing him flat on his back. Shaking his head a little to clear it, he rested a moment on his back. As he rose slowly, I expected him to curse, then laugh.”

(It was then that Fitzgerald realized that he’d let the round go an extra minute.)

“‘Christ!’ Ernest yelled. He got up. He was silent for a few seconds, Scott, staring at his watch, was mute and wondering. I wished I were miles away. ‘All right, Scott,’ Ernest said savagely, ‘If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake,’ and he stomped off to the shower room to wipe the blood from his mouth.’”

The friendship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald ended that very day – in that moment – and Hemingway attempted to exact a measure of revenge with a stupid, childish, reportedly false anecdote (in A Moveable Feast, of course) about the relative size of their penises. The friendship between Hemingway and Callaghan ended a short time later, when word of the boxing match’s result reached American shores. Callaghan was judged the liar at the time. History has reversed that decision. And Hemingway is most likely still petitioning the Afterlife for a rematch. A contest that everyone – except possibly the equally delusional ghost of Hemingway’s great admirer, Norman “Can’t Box Worth a Shit Either” Mailer – knows that Papa would lose.

Writers should stick to writing.

mailer boxing

Huck Finn and His Detractors

Published on this date – in 1885 – Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Poor Huck. His mom dies, his monstrous father beats him, school sucks and church is worse, the Widow Douglas expects a whole lot of sivilizin’ for three hots and a cot, and his only real friend (Tom Sawyer) never gets in trouble and gets all the great girls. Well, the town’s one great girl, anyway: Becky Thatcher. And then, when Huck finally has some adventures of his own, which he tells about in his own barely-literate 14-year-old voice, the whole damn world – starting with Mark Twain’s wife, who hated Huck’s guts – jumps down his throat and tells him he’s done a bunch of stuff wrong.

Most books just commit one sin in the eye of a single, fairly predictable beholder (e.g., Ulysses is “obscene” if you’re uncomfortable with English as spoken and with sex being spoken of at all; 1984 is politically incorrect if your politics happen to be Soviet; Oliver Twist fails to provide a positive Jewish role model with the character of Fagin). But Mark Twain’s masterpiece managed to commit a multitude of sins and keeps on committing new ones. It has been reviled in more quarters – and banned for more varied reasons – than just about any book in the history of world literature. Which, in my opinion, is one measure of its value. It takes a truly great book to piss that many different people off.

Book-Ban

Mark Twain’s wife found Huckleberry Finn vulgar and urged Twain to make radical changes, some of which he made.  Reviewers at the time objected to the novel’s language – Huck’s first-person vernacular language – as ill-suited to respectable literature. Church folk in the world at large (just as in Finn’s home town) considered the trash-talking, pipe-smoking, shoe-hating, not-always-freshly-bathed Huck a bad example for other boys. They still do. Teachers hated Huck’s poor grammar and questionable word choice. And virulent racists and fans of the recently defeated Confederacy (the Civil War had only ended twenty years prior) hated the book for obvious reasons. And agreed with Huck Finn himself that he would go to Hell for helping Jim escape slavery.

Before I proceed further, let me say a few words about book banners. I’m agin’ ’em. I spit in their eye. I’d invite ’em – if I thought they was worth the trouble of turnin’ around and bendin’ over – to kiss my ass.  Any questions?

In recent years, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been most often attacked – and banned – because of charges of racism and because Huck and some of the other characters (but mostly Huck) use the “N word” a total of 210 times. A bowdlerized edition of the book has been published that replaces the N word with “slave” and changes the two instances of “Injun” to Indian.  Presumably so that it can be read by young children.

Part of Twain’s genius was to present the book as a boy’s adventure (a companion to his first Tom Sawyer book). And to have a boy narrate it. If a 14-year-old without a family to speak of, no use for religion, and little education can figure out that slavery is wrong – and find the courage to do something about it – what the hell happened to the rest of us?

Huckleberry Finn is racist in spots – so is Uncle Tom’s Cabin – at least by contemporary standards. (Despite both books’ good intentions.) And it is not a book for children. In my opinion, Mark Twain’s finest work (and one of the greatest, most important  works of American literature) should not be read until high school. By students a little older than Huck. At which time it should be read as written and in its entirety. If you’re old enough to learn about the horrors of slavery, you’re old enough and sophisticated enough to read the language of its day. Words don’t hurt nearly as much as bull whips, being separated from your family, being sold at auction, and never breathing a free breath as long as you live.

All the Jack Londons

jack-london-two-shelves

Jack London (January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916)

Take everything London wrote – he produced more than 40 books in his time on earth, slightly more than one for every year he was alive – tear out several pages from each book, paper a wall with them, close your eyes and toss a dart. Open your eyes and read the page where the dart lands, you’ll find support for at least one of the following statements:

  • Jack London was a socialist
  • Jack London was a fascist
  • Jack London was a racist
  • Jack London was one righteous, enlightened white dude on race
  • Jack London was the working man’s friend
  • Jack London was an elitist
  • Jack London was a reckless drunk
  • Jack London was America’s first “recovering alcoholic”
  • Jack London was an anarchist
  • Jack London was a totalitarian
  • Jack London was an imperialist
  • Jack London thought America should mind its own business
  • Jack London abused animals
  • Jack London was PETA before there was a PETA
  • Jack London was a worthless hack
  • Jack London was a great American writer – one of our greatest.

Support for all the above statements is possible because Jack London has been all those things – and more – and sometimes several at once. A recent (excellent) biography by Jack Haley is called Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (2010) and the title could not be more apt. London lived enough lives, consecutively or concurrently, for a dozen men and he lived each of them with fierce commitment and at white-hot intensity. The word “driven” – in its contemporary locution – could have been coined for him. And he, of course, found time to write those 40-plus books, which is about the same number of books that present-day writing machine, Joyce Carol Oates, has written and she’s twice as old now as London was when he died. Unless Oates is keeping her sea excursions and prospecting adventures secret from the public, she has also lived only one, fairly quiet, academic life.

What all London’s living and writing left little time for, in my opinion, was much thought. And  practically none of the deep, patient, reflective kind of thinking that can lead a writer to provide us with broad-based insights and well-formed conclusions. Ideas flowed through Jack London in the same way experiences did – directly from life to the page.

A lot of London’s literary output is commercial tripe and a lot of his ideas for shit. And, depending on the work and the day of the week when he wrote it, London was guilty as charged of being a socialist, a fascist, an anarchist, a totalitarian, a racist, an imperialist, an enthusiastic celebrator of mood-altering substances, a depictor of animal cruelty, and a bad poet (except in the best of his prose).

So what do we do with Jack London? Kick him and all of his books to the curb?

The local librarian in my suburban Indianapolis neighborhood growing up was a pinch-faced, purse-mouthed, McCarthyite old bat who saw her mission in life not as the dissemination of culture  but its winnowing into a single approved channel. Sexless, painless, joyless, and “politically correct” … which for Pinch Face meant “not Communist.” I was in fifth grade, I think, when I wanted to check out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. “That book’s too old for you,” Pinch Face said, taking it from me and putting it out of reach behind the counter. Maybe she was thinking of the Lenny scenes, but she also refused to let me read The Pearl or The Red Pony or anything else by “Mr. Steinbeck,” as she referred to him, on the grounds that “his ideas were wrong.”

I had slightly better luck with Mr. London. “You can read the dog books,” Pinch Face told me. I gobbled them up and asked for more, including London’s many other books that weren’t about dogs, but Pinch Face refused.  When pressed on her reasons, she pursed up her mouth and said, “Mr. London is a Communist. The most popular writer in Russia.”

I believe the theory back then – among the Pinch Faces of the world – was that encountering “wrong” ideas and attitudes at a tender age might permanently damage one’s thinking cap and make it impossible to have the “right” ideas later on. So how should we handle Jack London’s books now, full as they are not only with old wrong ideas but new wrong ideas and attitudes that many of us (including me) find offensive?

Book-Ban

I say we read them. I’ve read dozens of them, including several in childhood, and they don’t seem to have damaged my thinking cap. Or inculcated me with bad ideas and attitudes. Books aren’t crimes. They aren’t viruses. And, even if they were, the antibodies can be found in other books … and, in London’s case, in other London books.

I would recommend starting on London – at a young age – with a selection of his superb  short stories and the wonderful “dog books,” The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) that even Pinch Face liked. For bigger boys and girls – like you and me – I’d try his most personal novel, Martin Eden (1909)although it has its longeurs: London ran into trouble when he tried to stretch out. John Barleycorn (1913) is the first – and still one of the best – meditations on alcoholism. The Iron Heel (1907) is a fascinating science-fiction dystopia that precedes, by a lot of years, Orwell’s 1984. But my current favorites among London’s books are The Road (1907) and The People of the Abyss (1905), his two plunges into immersive journalism. In the former, Jack takes to the rails, riding trains with the hobos and fighting the “bulls.” In the latter foray, he impoverishes himself among the city of London’s desperately poor in order to write as truthfully as he can about their plight.

His best book is the one he didn’t live long enough to write … the group autobiography of all the Jack Londons. The recent Haley biography will have to suffice.

David Bowie Is

His body short-circuited. His body of work lives on. David Bowie is. I love his music, his changing personae, most of all his lyrics. You become a lyricist by reading, immersing yourself in words. Below is a recent list Bowie compiled of his favorite books and some photos of him reading.

David Bowie’s Favorite 100 Books

  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 2007
  • The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007
  • Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007
  • Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002
  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001
  • Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997
  • A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997
  • The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996
  • Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995
  • The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994
  • Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993
  • Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992
  • Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990
  • David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988
  • Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986
  • Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985
  • Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984
  • Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984
  • Money, Martin Amis, 1984
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984
  • Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984
  • The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984
  • A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980
  • Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980
  • Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980
  • Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980
  • Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91
  • Viz (magazine) 1979 –
  • The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979
  • Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978
  • In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978
  • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976
  • Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders, 1975
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975
  • Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972
  • In Bluebeard’s Castle : Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971
  • Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971
  • The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970
  • The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968
  • Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967
  • Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. , 1966
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
  • City of Night, John Rechy, 1965
  • Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964
  • Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963
  • The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
  • Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
  • Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –
  • On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961
  • Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961
  • Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961
  • The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960
  • All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd,1960
  • Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958
  • On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
  • The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
  • Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957
  • A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956
  • The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1948
  • The Street, Ann Petry, 1946
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker, 1944
  • The Outsider, Albert Camus, 1942
  • The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, 1939
  • The Beano, (comic) 1938 –
  • The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, 1937
  • Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood, 1935
  • English Journey, J.B. Priestley, 1934
  • Infants of the Spring, Wallace Thurman, 1932
  • The Bridge, Hart Crane, 1930
  • Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh, 1930
  • As I lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930
  • The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos, 1930
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929
  • Passing, Nella Larsen, 1929
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, 1928
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
  • The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, 1922
  • BLAST, ed. Wyndham Lewis, 1914-15
  • McTeague, Frank Norris, 1899
  • Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual, Eliphas Lévi, 1896
  • Les Chants de Maldoror, Lautréamont, 1869
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856
  • Zanoni, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1842
  • Inferno, from the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, about 1308-1321
  • The Iliad, Homer, about 800 BC

On the 1st Anniversary of a Great Writer’s Death

I saw Robert Stone walking past the Beverly Wilshire Hotel one sunny afternoon, on the same day – and a few minutes after – I had spotted Michael Caine reading a book in the hotel’s bookstore. I love Michael Caine, but seeing Robert Stone was both more surprising and the bigger thrill.robert stoneThis was in the 1980s, not sure when, but Stone was already sporting the longish receding hair and full beard that characterized his dust jacket photos of the last decades. He wore a faded blue denim shirt with one shirttail out and gave the impression of being large and lumbering, although this last may have been my imagination. Or time’s rewrite. I know Stone was smiling, recalling something pleasurable, perhaps, or just enjoying the day. Or maybe he was smiling because he’d received an option check on one of his novels for a movie that never got made (more often than not, the best possible scenario for a writer whose complexities don’t translate well to the screen).

I don’t believe it entered Robert Stone’s mind that he’d be recognized – his face bore none of the caution of movie stars in public places; the tall Mr. Caine, for instance, was hunched over his reading at the end of a row – and, because I didn’t want to interrupt Stone’s enjoyment in that moment or risk his displeasure, I didn’t try to stop him and thank him. To tell him how much his books had meant to me.

There were only three (possibly four) books by that time. A Hall of Mirrors (1966), which depicted an early Sixties New Orleans of racial and religious extremes that never quite cohered as a novel but introduced that voice – precise yet poetic with slightly druggy inflections, depressed but fighting against it, continually aspiring to hope. The next book Dog Soldiers (1974) is still his finest novel and, despite having only maybe 40 pages set in Vietnam, the best book by an American on the impact of that war. Stone’s novel about a thinly disguised Nicaragua in revolution, A Flag for Sunrise (1981), is a second straight masterpiece. And it’s possible by then that Stone had published Children of Light (1986), which also doesn’t entirely come together but which contains some of the best writing anyone has done about both schizophrenia (which Stone’s mother suffered from) and the schizophrenic nature of Hollywood at the end of the 1970s.

Stone went on to write seven more books, including the much-acclaimed Israel-based novel Damascus Gate (1998) and his terrific 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties … Stone was a friend of Ken Kesey and the other Merry Pranksters and put in his time “on the bus.” Among the serious writers of his generation, Stone may have written the most and had the widest range. His novels depict not only what it felt like to be an American during his lifetime but also the effect that we Americans have had on the world at large. A handful of his contemporaries have written as well, but none with his ambition. We lost a great one a year ago today, but the books survive. Here’s the first paragraph of Dog Soldiers:

THERE WAS ONLY ONE BENCH IN THE SHADE AND CONVERSE went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his forehead to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.