Our book today is a bit of an antidote to the massive doorstops we’ve been dealing with recently here on Stevereads: it’s The Fur Hat, a 120-page 1989 novella by caustic and sometimes brilliant Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich, here translated into English by Susan Brownsberger.
The book is a treat of hangdog sarcasm. It tells the story of Soviet writer Yefim Rakhlin, a popular hack author who’s been a member of the Writers’ Union for eighteen years and has spent all of that time churning out one new book a year, non-political adventure stories starring decent, heroic people facing and overcoming natural disasters in order to perform selfless deeds. His books – with titles like Avalanche! Operation! And Ore! (“It’s not just the ore in the earth, it’s the ore in each of us …”) – are all bestsellers, and although we’re told that “in his heart of hearts, he always wanted to write something obscure and even impenetrable,” Rakhlin usually sets his literary sites at more mundane levels:
After typing the title of the novel, Operation!, Yefim stopped to ponder. He pictured the word displayed vertically. The fact that his more recent novels all had titles consisting of only one word was no accident. Yefim had noticed that the popularization of literary works was greatly facilitated if the titles could be used in crossword puzzles. The puzzles were a form of free advertisement that had been scorned by those authors who gave their works such long and many-worded titles as War and Peace or Crime and Punishment.
When he discovers that the Literary Fund has decided to honor the country’s writers by presenting them with fur hats, and that the quality of the fur hats will reflect the Fund’s estimation of the prose-quality of the recipients – reindeer fawn for the best, muskrat for the next echelon, marmot below that, and so on – Rahklin is first outraged and then obsessed over the fact that he himself will be getting a hat made of common tomcat.
In a series of deftly-handled comic escalations, Voinovich quickly intensifies this absurd premise to hilarious extents. As Rahklin’s outrage mounts, he gains more attention and becomes something of a cause celebre, seen as a defiant rebel against the Writers’ Union where he’d before been such a faithful member. His notoriety extends even abroad (when a Voice of America broadcast refers to him as a “leading” Russian writer, he can’t help but preen), and Voinovich keeps things so funny that his readers will need to remind themselves that they’re also taking in some fairly acidic observations about envy, state censorship, and of course celebrity culture.
And all in forty-five minutes of reading! It’s like a taste of Spring.
Our book today is Robert Lewis Taylor’s 1958 historical novel The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, which made as much of a splash as any book could reasonably be expected to make. It sold briskly (thanks to an innovatively energetic ad campaign); it garnered an enviable collection of critical praise (The New York Times called it “tremendously exciting,” the old Boston Transcript praised its “grubby verisimilitude,” and the San Francisco Chronicle, perhaps inevitably, referred to its “rollicking good humor”); it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (undeservedly, it must be admitted – good as it is, it’s not a patch on Mary Renault’s The King Must Die); and it spawned a popular TV series. It’s a pure demonstration of sic transit gloria mundi that the book and its author are now completely forgotten.
It’s the story the titular young hero, who follows the pioneer wagon train west from St. Louis to California in the 1849 Gold Rush, a standard spine of travel-novel around which Taylor was free to deck all the period-research he’d done piecemeal over the course of two decades. The book has a deal too much of that regurgitated research, but it’s saved from tedium by the fact that Taylor has a very entertaining grasp of his main character, who comes across as a dimmer, less funny version of Huck Finn:
Well, this was all right. I turned around slowly, naked as a jaybird, roasting one side after another, letting the heat sink clear into my bones. When you come right down to it, there’s nothing like a fire for putting the spunk back into a body. Looked at in some ways, the situation didn’t exactly call for a celebration – I was standing pelt-bare in a strange woods out I the middle of nowhere – but I felt fine and ready to push ahead.
The bulk of the book, as the title suggests, consists of Jaimie’s various coming-of-age adventures, during which he learns the ways of adulthood, the ways of prostitutes (gold-hearted and otherwise), and the ways of the Indians he encounters along the way (those particular scenes are the book’s most memorable by a long shot). These adventures are punctuated regularly by Jaimie’s reflections, not all of which are quite as profound as their author probably thought when he was writing them:
In books I’ve read, I notice that they do a lot of talking about so-and-so’s “character,” making the point that hardly anybody’s what they seem but that everybody’s pretty deep and shifty. I can well believe it.
Taylor wrote a whole shelf of other books in his forgotten career, including 1978’s A Roaring in the Wind, which has an even creakier premise than The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters: a naïve Harvard city-slicker heads out West to Montana, gaining worldly knowledge enough to replace all that stupid book-knowledge he’d been taught at school. It’s a big, very enjoyable book all the same, not quite sunk by the fact that a staggering ten reviewers referred to it as some kind of yarn.
These books are gone now, at least as much gone as any book ever is these days (probably you could buy a copy of each for one penny in 40 seconds online, if you were of a mind to), but re-reading them brought back memories of a reading-era that seems now a bit simpler. Or maybe it’s that the whole sub-genre grew up quickly when Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove appeared.
Our book today is This Thing of Darkness, a whopping-long 2005 historical novel by Harry Thompson about the fateful voyage of the HMS Beagle to Tierra del Fuego in 1828. The ship was captained by 23-year-old Robert FitzRoy, and of course its most famous passenger was the young amateur naturalist Charles Darwin. But Thompson’s novel differs fascinatingly from its only main predecessor, Irving Stone’s 1980 monolith The Origin in that it’s FitzRoy and not Darwin who holds the spotlight at the hero of the plot – no mean trick, especially in light of the one thing most general readers know about FitzRoy, which is that late in his life he Bible-wavingly protested his part in germinating Darwin’s world-changing book on the origin of species.
That FitzRoy – much older, much more bitter and confused – bears no resemblance to the brilliant, self-doubting martinet of Thompson’s novel, a young captain with immense force of will who’s as hard on himself as he is on the men under his command. Thompson makes the superb tactical decision of giving us FitzRoy’s adventures aboard the Beagle for a full 200 pages (alone the length of most full novels) before Darwin makes his first appearance. It’s during this first part of the book that we see Thompson’s wonderful realization of a FitzRoy whose later ground-breaking fascination with the workings of weather are only just being born of a tragedy that cost two of his men their lives – a fact for which the young captain can’t forgive himself:
‘Every experienced captain knows where to find a fair wind or favourable current. Do you think the winds blow at random? Those two poor souls who died yesterday – was that God’s punishment or the result of my blunder?’
‘I know it was God’s will.’
‘Mr Sullivan, if God created this world to a purpose, would He have left the winds and currents to chance? What if the weather is actually a gigantic machine created by God? What if the whole of creation is ordered and comprehensible? What if we could analyse how His machine works and foretell its every move? No one need ever die in a storm again.’
‘It is too fantastical an idea.’
It’s not as fantastical an idea as the one that will take shape in the mind of his new onboard naturalist in due time, although even FitzRoy, when confronted with the mulish, offhand racism of his crew, can defend angrily enough the idea that living creatures can adapt and change over time, as when he upbraids a crewman for his dismissive attitude toward the natives of Tierra del Fuego:
‘They most certainly are men, just as you or I. Unfortunate men, maybe, forced by accident of circumstance to inhabit this Godforsaken spot, but they are our brothers nonetheless. They do not look like us because their physiognomy has adapted itself to the cold and the rain. Were I to cast you ashore, Mr King, and were the good Lord to take pity on your soul and spare your life, then within a generation or two your progeny would very likely be short, plump and jabbering away like the lowliest Fuegian.’
‘But it doesn’t mean anything – does it, sir? Those noises they make?’
‘How do you know? To the best of my knowledge, no Dr Johnson has ever taken the trouble to compile a dictionary of their language. An omission I intend to remedy personally. Instead of waving a loaded gun about the maindeck, Mr King, you would be better advised to improve your intelligence of such matters. I suggest you consult the scriptures, commencing with the Book of Genesis.’
By the time the book reaches its long second part, we’re primed for the famous meeting of the two men, and Thompson doesn’t disappoint, underscoring the encounter with light irony:
The stranger was extremely tall – at least six feet in height, thickset and shambling, with long arms, a pleasant round face and friendly grey eyes. His bulbous unsightly nose was squashed against his face like that of a farmer recently defeated in a tavern brawl. All in all, it struck FitzRoy that there was something vaguely simian about the young man’s appearance.
Despite their radical differences in personality and outlook, the two men become fast friends in short order (although he always cited more arcane sources, Patrick O’Brian simply had to have had this relationship in mind when creating Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin) – but the seeds of their future estrangement were never far from the surface, especially on the subject of Biblical inerrancy, a subject about which Darwin, the clerical “trainee” (as Thompson calls him), was well-equipped to debate his pious captain:
‘Come, come, my dear FitzRoy, you know as well as I that the scriptures are contradictory. In Genesis one, twenty-four, the Lord brings forth all living creatures before He maketh man on the sixth day, having already created fish and fowl on the fifth day. What if, as de Luc contends, these “days” were not days as we know them but great ages, epochs lasting many thousands of years? What if man never encountered these monstrous beasts?’
This Thing of Darkness was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 (it lost to the entirely inferior The Sea by John Banville), and Harry Thompson also died in 2005, of lung cancer at the age of 45, after a blazingly innovative and uproarious career writing and producing British television. This enormous and prodigious book was his only novel, a thing he’d worked on more or less steadily for the bulk of his adult life – and into which he poured almost every scrap of his wide-ranging reading and near-perfect gift for dialogue. He never intended this book to be a memorial, but it makes a damn impressive one just the same.
Our book today is Thomas Harris’s ultra-famous 1981 novel Red Dragon, the perfect shard of falling crystal that triggered an avalanche of such proportions that most novelists don’t even dare to dream that anything like it will happen to them. The book was a moderate seller for Bantam in its modest original printing despite near-universal praise from the ranks of hack-punditry, everybody from Stephen King to the happy-go-lucky crew of the dear old inebriates at Saturday Review.
The book tells the popular inversion of the ‘whodunit’ formula commonly known as the ‘howcatchem,’ in which the reader is in on the chain of causation right from the beginning and the point of the proceedings is to watch how the good guys catch the bad guys. The good guys here are gruff FBI chief Jack Crawford and the reluctant specialist he calls in for a particularly gruesome string of serial killings – a former operative named Will Graham, who shot to fame for helping Crawford catch some of the few serial killers ever stopped … including a cannibalistic psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter. And the bad guy in Red Dragon is a gigantic psychotic named Francis Dolarhyde, who believes he needs to slaughter families in order to further his transformation into something more than human. Jack Crawford believes his best chance for catching Francis Dolarhyde before he kills again is to employ the weird ability of Will Graham to synch his thoughts with people around him.
The weird abilities possessed by fictional sleuths seldom bring them happiness, and Will Graham is no exception. The very least that his talent causes him is a kind of oily embarrassment:
Graham had a lot of trouble with taste. Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at this associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved. His associations came at the speed of light. His value judgments were at the pace of a responsive reading. They could never keep up and direct his thinking.
When Crawford is talking with a consulting expert on the subject, Graham’s weird talents take on a slightly more sinister cast:
“One thing I’ve noticed – I’m curious about this: you’re never alone in a room with Graham, are you? You’re smooth about it, but you’re never one-on-one with him. Why’s that? Do you think he’s psychic, is that it?”
“No. He’s an eideteker – he has a remarkable visual memory – but I don’t think he’s psychic. He wouldn’t let Duke test him – that doesn’t mean anything, though. He hates to be prodded and poked. So do I … What he has in addition is pure empathy and projection. He can assume your point of view, or mine – and maybe other points of view that scare and sicken him. It’s an uncomfortable tool, Jack. Perception’s a tool that’s pointed on both ends.”
In order to sharpen his talent (which has dulled during his idyllic recuperation in the Florida Keys, an earthly paradise well sufficient to dull just about any talent nature ever shaped), Will Graham goes to prison to talk with Hannibal Lecter, and in those quick scenes, the heart of that enormous avalanche is born. Harris portrays Lecter as an eloquent and artistic individual, witty, insightful – a serial killer in a jumpsuit, but the antithesis of Charles Manson – and the scenes are amazingly effective.
Even more so a few years later in director Michael Mann’s surreally visionary adaptation of Red Dragon called Manhunter, in which the part of Hannibal Lecter is played in a deceptively fast scene by British actor Brian Cox (a scene whose magnetic effectiveness was first pointed out to me by Open Letters film critic Locke Peterseim).
There was something about the character, something that drew Harris to re-visit Hannibal Lecter in his next book, 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs and give him a much more prominent role. Every intelligent critic in the known universe praised the crystalline, pitch-perfect prose of the book, but such praises felt distinctly beside the point once Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs hit theaters and introduced the world to Anthony Hopkins’ rendition of Hannibal Lecter. It was a landscape-flattening performance, and it made Harris’s character far, far more than a fictional bit-player. Millions of people who would never dream of reading a book will recognize at sight the famous mask-and-straightjacket get-up designed to neutralize Lecter during his interactions with potential dinners. Hopkins reprised the role, ten-pack-a-day young French actor Gaspard Ulliel played the character as a young man, and Mads Mikkelsen, in the ongoing TV series Hannibal, is crafting episode-by-episode a completely beguiling elaboration of Lecter subtly unlike anything in any previous book or movie.
Professionally underrated and almost preposterously attractive British actor Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham on the TV series, but his fine, nuanced performance is of course invisible, trampled underneath the Hannibal Lecter juggernaut, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame that can be rectified just a bit by re-reading Red Dragon, which is very much Will Graham’s book. It’s also a bravura performance by Thomas Harris, a hundred yards more expertly crafted than his previous book Black Sunday. In fact, all those famous movies actually serve to demonstrate how effective Red Dragon is – because the book is still gigantically compelling to read despite how familiar its contents are to so many of the people who might encounter it for the first time. If you’re one of those people, I highly recommend reading the book – there’s plenty of worthy stuff here that no film has yet captured.
Theres a certain pleasing fluidity to these annual lists, reflecting the fluidity of the publishing landscape. One year there’s an abundance of excellent nature books or books about Venice, and the next year the abundance has shifted to other subjects. A year-end list that held mechanically to all its previous iterations would be a morbid thing indeed – always being sensitive to what the industry is offering is an important part of appreciating that industry – hence the absence of some old familiar categories and the appearance of some new ones this time around. But thankfully, some categories cannot possibly have dry years, and since hope springs eternal in the narcissist’s heart, one of those categories is Debut Fiction! 2013, like all years, was positively BURIED in fiction debuts, and a very encouraging number of those were first-rate (and unlike last year, they don’t all have the same cover!) – easily enough to fill a list twice this size. So here are the year’s best beginnings to careers I hope will last a long time:
10. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Penguin Press) – Fiction in 2013, debut and otherwise, was full to its eyebrows with two things: creaky artifice and arrogant ‘immigrant experience’ condescension on the part of Cantabridgian poseurs who could no more get a book contract in their various miserable cholera-ridden homelands than they could pull diamonds out of their ears but who still somehow find it acceptable to come to the developed West, deposit their education grants, and then open their MacBooks and poo all over their benefactors. Thank whatever gods may be that Taiye Selasi’s debut Ghana Must Go only indulges in the former, not the latter: yes, the book’s framework is that hoary old chestnut, the family-reunited-in-the-wake-of-a-patriarch/matriarch’s death trick, but this story of scattered family members coming together when their stiff and removed father in Ghana dies is entirely free of the spoiled spitting that usually afflicts diaspora fiction. Instead, the whole thing is earnest and energetic and winsome by turns.
9. The Carriage House by Louisa Hall (Simon & Schuster) – The parents-and-children hook is also the heart of Lousa Hall’s very memorable debut: when the head of the eccentric and aristocratic Adair family has a mild stroke, the delicate equilibrium of the clan’s Philadelphia suburb world is offset, and the family’s three grown daughters – all vividly realized by Hall – must suddenly cope with belatedly growing up. You can read my full review here.
8. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Little, Brown) – It’s utterly astounding that an elfin-faced wee slip of a young woman like Hannah Kent could write a novel as cold and bleak and completely hopeless as this one, about a quiet, odd woman accused of murder in 19th century Iceland, but after just a handful of pages, trust me, you’ll forget that jarring little dichotomy. You can read my full review here.
7. The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth (Reagan Arthur Books) – Fiction debuts tend to be about as funny as a child’s bone marrow transplant operation (in fact, they tend to be about a child’s bone marrow transplant operation), and this is understandable for two reasons: first, debut authors tend to be coming off five or six years of working on their novel in stolen hours between slave-wage jobs and therefore have a slightly grim view of existence, and second, funny is so much harder than grim – even for practiced hands – that grim’s allure is all but irresistible. So extra kudos to Gabriel Roth in his debut, which tells the hilarious (yet somehow poignant) story of Eric Muller, a nerdy dot-com gazillionaire (strongly resembling exactly who you think) trying to understand women. The Unknowns is a first book, but it’s smart and polished, and funny, which says a lot about what Roth might become down the road.
6. The Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (Random House) – The funny, of course, wasn’t ever going to last for long in a list like this, and if there’s one word virtually guaranteed to suck the laughter out of a room, that word is “Chechnya” … which brings us to Anthony Marra’s stunning debut, which centers around a complicatedly related cast of characters connected to a dilapidated hospital in the wasteland of that war-ravaged country, where supplies are scarce, situations are hopeless, and valor – especially that of the main character, a doctor – is strained to brittle thinness. When authors create such hell-holes to put us in, the hoped-for bargain is that they will then counter the misery with beautiful prose, and that’s just what Marra does here in one perfectly-orchestrated scene after another. And a world that’s totally alien to most readers is brought vividly to life, which is certainly a nice additional consolation.
5. Double Feature by Owen King (Simon & Schuster) – If you’d have given me the choice last year, I’d have taken my chances in that Chechnyan doom-hospital rather than read a novel by the spawn of Stephen King, who’s been writing novels for half a century and has yet to produce a single goddam chapter that’s worth reading. But King’s son Owen’s debut raises the possibility that face-punching literary ineptitude might be a recessive gene; Double Feature, Owen King’s novel about the hapless son of a famous egomaniac father (…), is more heartfelt, more psychologically acute, and more expertly farcical than anything King Senior could write on his best day – in fact, saying that only insults Double Feature, which is better than what plenty of good novelists could write on their best day. And this book comes to its readers with none of the insulting lies that accompanied the debut of King’s other son, who claimed he submitted the book blind and that nobody in the industry knew “Joe Hill” was related to Stephen King. Double Feature comes with its unholy biological provenance stamped right on it – which may be the most daring thing Owen King could have done.
4. The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell (Harper Collins) – On the surface level, the plot of Lisa O’Donnell’s bitingly smart debut almost seems like a Stephen King premise: two young girls whose lousy parents die (perhaps of natural causes, but then again, perhaps not) bury the bodies in a desperate and fairly cold-hearted attempt to keep any of their busy-body neighbors (to say nothing of the child welfare authorities) from knowing they’re on their own, hoping they can string the whole world along until the older of the two becomes a legal adult. There’s a large amount of subversive, perfectly-controlled dark humor in these pages – yet another occurence of funny on this list, which is, when you think of it, a very hopeful sign for the future of fiction.
3. The Fields by Kevin Maher – Another of the staples of debut fiction is the Bildungsroman-ready young character learning to grow up by confronting the world for the first time, and it’s so hackneyed a device that every year I go right to the brink of thinking it should be banned from fiction writing workshops altogether. But then some novel comes along and does it so successfully (like half the novels on this list) that I temporarily forget my complaints. One such novel is Kevin Maher’s debut, set in 1980s Dublin and featuring horny, questing young Jim Finnegan’s life-shaping encounters with a whole slew of Irish stereotypes, from the haughty girl with the Gaelic name to the predatory parish priest to the saintly old codger. It should all feel so unbearably derivative, but Maher’s raw talent saves it time and again, much to my delight.
2. On the Come Up by Hannah Weyer (Random House) – Our Bildungsroman formula continues in Hannah Weyer’s liltingly inventive debut, which stars young teenager AnneMarie Walker, who’s already negotiating more drama than most women twice her age experience, from a loutish boyfriend to a hellish housing project to social limitations she herself sees with merciless clarity. In an only mildly unlikely contrivance, the novel gives her a chance to experience life outside her crumbling Queens world, and Weyer patiently lets her narrative work out the complications that arise from AnneMarie suddenly learning exactly how unhappy she’s been all her life. Like so many of the debuts on this list, the hope in On the Come Up is exceptionally fragile; it takes exceptional skill to handle so fragile a thing, and Weyer shows that skill on virtually every page of this unforgettable book.
1. The Madonna on the Moon by Rolf Bauerdick (Random House) – And that same Bildungsroman theme takes us home in this, the best debut novel of the year, Rolf Bauerdick’s rambling, mordantly funny, slightly magical story (translated by David Dollenmayer) about a teenage boy named Pavel Botev who’s growing up in a tight-knit Gypsy community in Soviet-dominated 1950s Central Europe when he’s suddenly embroiled in a series of winningly farcical yet gripping mysteries, some of which only deepen as the novel’s timeline piles on the years and Pavel grows up surrounded by a large supporting cast of quirky characters. More successfully than any other debut on our list, Bauerdick not only fills his narrative with dry humor but also uses that humor surgically, to carve some wonderfully funny and savage lampoonings of the 21st Century. First novels this good almost always guarantee second novels that are Hindenburg-style disasters, or else they guarantee no more fiction of any kind, just decades spent slowly getting drunk every night while grading papers. I’m hoping Bauerdick avoids both those fates.
Our book today is the fantastic 1998 novel An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis, a volume I’ve recommended and gifted countless times since it first appeared, even more times than its predecessor, Merlis’ stunning 1994 debut American Studies (and would be happy to gift again, should any of you want a copy), mainly for two reasons: a) though extremely intelligent and moving, American Studies is couched in very much the same ease of AIDS-era gay self-pity that seems to inform 99 percent of gay fiction from the era (see Laura Argiri’s The God in Flight, or Christopher Bram’s In Memory of Angel Clare, even, underneath its flint, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance), and b) I have a rather pronounced soft spot for the mythical world of the Homeric epics – and for Homeric pastiches of all kinds, but especially novelistic ones (some of you – a very few, naturally – will even have read one or all of my own trilogy of such novels, Troy War, Steve Donoghue’s Ulysses, and The Telemachiad).
I’ve been reading what could lightly be termed ‘Trojan War fiction’ for a long time, reading the infinite variations that are all the spiritual descendants of the great, the mighty Troilus and Criseyde by Chaucer. I have championed Homeric adaptations in all their multiplicity, from the youth of the 20th Century (the late and very much missed Christopher Morley’s The Trojan Horse, for instance, or John Erskine’s deceptively subtle The Private Life of Helen of Troy) to the early 21st – in fact, it’s probably safe to say I’ve read virtually every such pastiche that’s ever been written in English, and I could read two more tomorrow without boring of the conceit.
Likewise gay fiction, which went from the long decades of being deformed and fugitive (see David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell’s heartbreaking anthology Pages Passed from Hand to Hand for a good overview of some of the bizarre shapes ‘gay’ writing took in the long years when openly declaring itself would have meant prison or even death – certainly career death – for anybody who dared to do it) and then came into its gruesome, unwanted heyday when the AIDS epidemic struck and unthinkable tragedy had at least the silver lining of catalyzing works of genius.
So naturally I was predisposed to read An Arrow’s Flight when it appeared and very likely predisposed to like it – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s Merlis’ great book (like most of his readers, I’ve given up hope of seeing more long fiction from him than the three novels he’s already written, and 2003’s Man About Town was just strange in its underlying compulsions – it read like the work of a recluse, even though it wasn’t written by one), and every dare it takes succeeds. It relocates the Trojan War to the more-or-less present day and situates it in the long stalemate during which the Greeks are looking desperately for anything to tip the scales in their favor. One of the foremost such x-factors is Neoptolemus, the son of legendary Achilles. There are prophecies that say Troy can’t be taken unless Neoptolemus is a part of the victory, but in Merlis’ book the gorgeous boy has fled from all responsibility and goes by the name Pyrrhus, working as a go-go dancer and rent boy in the gay ghetto of a derelict city, rooming with hapless, good-hearted Leucon, who distracts himself one evening from the muffled conversation Pyrrhus is having with one of his tricks by watching some desultory television:
He sat in the living room and turned on the TV with the volume as low as he could get it and still hear. There was some standup comic telling hate jokes in a nondiscriminatory fashion, everybody got theirs, but especially queers and women. Leucon felt righteously uneasy, laughing at that stuff. But the guy was funny; pussy farts and limp wrists might be funny in a world that could stop at laughter.
You catch the sharp, sad notes of the narrative right way, and those notes are carried along magnificently by Merlis’ edged, elegant prose as he contemplates the exquisite waste of Pyrrhus’ life as it trembles on the edge of mattering:
This is as close as most of us come: when there is a change ahead, so certain that we refuse to make ourselves at home. Then we may, for a little while, be awake to everything. As Pyrrhus was, while he waited for his real life to begin. His days were endless and his nights hectic with the narrowest facts: parts of bodies; the pictures on people’s walls; the code words in telephone calls; the different ways people swore; the various deities they called on when they came.
Because the gorgeous boy can’t escape the prophecy of his key role in Troy’s downfall, any more than one other key player can escape it: Philoctetes, inheritor of the fabled bow of Hercules, who was afflicted with a poison early in the Greek campaign, an incurable disease that made him a pariah among his own comrades and drove the Greek captain Odysseus to maroon him far away from the action. The same muddled prophecy – or maybe it’s merely desperation – says that Troy can’t be taken without Philoctetes and his unbeatable arrows, and things are going so badly at the novel’s beginning that Odysseus is forced to re-think his actions all those years ago. He has a tense exchange with old Phoenix, the wily corporate lawyer baiting the faithful retainer:
“Now who’s the superstitious one? Philoctetes and his magic bow. The bow’s not actually going to do anything. It’s a symbol or something. Maybe Philoctetes is superfluous. I don’t know why we should bother with him.”
After a moment, Phoenix said, “Maybe you need to right a wrong.”
Odysseus was involuntarily impressed that Phoenix should have come so close to guessing his thoughts. This was probably a necessary skill for a career lackey, but not one Phoenix would have had much opportunity to practice, working for Achilles. Achilles didn’t have very many thoughts to guess. I want to eat. I want to sleep. I want to kill somebody.
“I didn’t commit a wrong. I did what any practical captain would have done. He was destroying morale. I would practically have had a mutiny on my hands if I’d left him on board.”
“You don’t have to persuade me.”
“No,” Odysseus said. “Do you know, I had forgotten him? In the heat of everything else, those first years, before we settled down into this eternal stalemate. Since then I’ve had altogether too much time to think.”
“And you think about Philoctetes.”
“Understand, it’s not that I think some god or other is literally punishing us, keeping us from victory until we bring him back. It’s that I can’t go on. It – I don’t know – it breaks my concentration.” He had begun pacing. “Do you know, I’ve never won a case without believing that my side was right?”
“You’ve never defended a guilty client?”
“Oh, of course I have. Innocent people don’t need to pay my rates. Anyone who hires me is guilty almost by definition. But they are procedurally innocent. I don’t get nearly so outraged by someone embezzling or taking a bribe or even killing somebody as I do by the state proceeding improperly.”
“So now that you’re the state, you think you’ve proceeded improperly and that’s why we can’t win?”
“Something like that.”
Phoenix smiled. “I hate it when people say ‘something like that,’ as if I were a bit dense and we’d all better settle for a near miss.”
As the novel progresses, Pyrrhus decides to go to Troy and maybe reinvent himself, and his encounters with bitter, haunted Philoctetes are charged with double and triple meanings. The whole book is, really: there are meditations here on the bleak joys of survivors, on the impartiality of war, on the searching of youth, on the nature of beauty, and on the unthinking brusqueness of the straight world toward the gay world, especially in the immediate wake of an epidemic that brought those worlds into such close and ragged contact. That epidemic is masterfully, crushingly summoned in the book’s brutal, beautiful final scene, but it would be mere reportage without Merlis’ gift for drama.
You’ll never read a piece of gay fiction or a piece of Trojan War fiction even approximately similar to this one (Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles comes close in some ways but lacks – couldn’t help but lack, really – the historical urgency of the undertone); I highly recommend it.
Our book today is Hamilton Basso’s 1954 runaway bestseller The View from Pompey’s Head, which brought its fifty-year-old author the one thing he’d once upon a time wanted more than anything from the world, the one thing he’d slowly, gradually convinced himself he’d never have: renown. The book was a huge hit. It spent close to a year on the bestseller lists, was translated into half a dozen languages, was a selection of the Literary Guild (back when that really meant something!), was adapted into a movie, and was the book requested by every other bookstore customer for the whole year (causing a good deal of reflexive bitterness in the breasts of frustrated bookstore clerks in love with classical literature, since most of those customers came into the store asking for “that book about Pompey” – but alas, Pompey’s Head is the name of the fictional Southern town where the novel takes place). It unstoppered what its author semi-ironically referred to as “the streams of providence” and permanently floated a bank account that had seen its share of shallows.
The novel tells the story of Anson Page, a young lawyer (“a slender dark-haired man with serious brown eyes and a grave expression on his thin, well-modeled face”) at a New York firm that represents most of the best-known authors in America. One of Page’s bosses has been alerted to a possible problem: there are allegations that Phillip Greene, an editor at one of the houses the firm represents, may have embezzled twenty thousand dollars from the royalties of the novelist Garvin Wales, whose 1917 blockbuster Cenotaph was “banned in Boston, outlawed in Atlanta, burned in Baltimore, and denounced on the floor of the Senate.” Greene, a Maxwell Perkins stand-in, discovered Wales and labored to bring his books to the reading public, and now Wales, old and blind, has retired to an island just offshore of Pompey’s Head, where his privacy is guarded by his formidable wife, who detested Greene despite all the success he brought her husband.
Wales and his wife aren’t popular with the locals, needless to say. “Friends?” one of them tells Page, “With him? Anybody who’d write the books that he does, with all that rape and incest and somebody catting around on every page, making it seem like that was all we did down South …”
The catch is, Page is a local too, and his boss sends him to Pompey’s Head to handle the whole business. It’s a fraught homecoming, since Page is both disdainful of the snakepit aspects of the place (“God, what an awful town!” he thinks at one point, “The things it does to people!”) and emotionally in love with his memories of it:
Everything came back to him. He could see the squares that everyone was so proud of, not only for their oaks and magnolias and masses of azaleas but also because they had been laid out at least a decade before the squares in Savannah, a circumstance that Savannah was reluctant to admit but which was a matter of historical record just the same, and he could see the narrow Georgian streets that ran off from the squares, each house built close to its neighbor and the streets filled with sunlight that fell through the trees and stippled the sidewalks with a pattern of leafy shadow that shook and trembled with every current of the wind. It probably wasn’t the same any more, not after fifteen years, but on mornings like this there were no fifteen years.
The further complication – the one that sends lightning through the veins of an otherwise slightly conventional you-can’t-go-home-again Southern novel – takes the form of Dinah Blackford, Page’s old love, who has since married a crass and dim-witted businessman named Mico. When Page returns to Pompey’s Head, the novel immediately takes on a dual harmonic: Page is interrogating the past involving Garvin Wales, and the past is interrogating him involving his long-dormant feelings for Dinah, and hers for him. The steadily increasing simmer of these balanced plots gives Basso some incredible dramatic opportunities, and he makes the most of them. The actual revelations surrounding the embezzlement mystery, though well-deployed, are a bit tepid – but the character of Dinah takes on a wrenching depth of tragedy as the novel builds to its climax, a harrowing scene in which, over Page’s anguished protests, Dinah angrily confesses all the secrets of her life:
“You’ve been wondering why I married Mico, haven’t you? It’s been in the back of your mind all the time. Well, I’ll tell you! ‘Swear, fool, or starve, for the dilemma’s even; a tradesman thou! and hope to go to heaven’ – and someday I’ll explain what that means, though I hope to God that I never see you again until you’re so old and wrinkled and horrible that I can laugh myself sick over ever having been in love with you!”
It goes on for pages, and in all its torrid excess it’s one of the best things Ham Basso ever wrote.
He wrote endlessly – it was his profession. He turned out eight novels before he wrote The View From Pompey’s Head (they’re all rock-solid, even his requisite precocious debut, Relics and Angels, and especially what might just be his masterpiece, Wine of the Country), and he did his beloved travel-writing whenever he could, wriggling his toes in the sand at Samoa, letting the waves lap around his knees, he’d grin and say “This is office work!” (some of that travel-writing was collected in a wonderful book called A Quota of Seaweed), and in addition to a slew of newspapers, he also wrote for many years for The New Republic and The New Yorker (as usual with so many authors, the vast, intensely good book-review work he did all those years has never been collected, much less lovingly reprinted). But he never struck gold until he wrote The View From Pompey’s Head.
Naturally, once he struck gold he had no idea what to do with it (sudden ample money often has this effect on ink-stained wretches), and a few years elapsed before his next novel, which ended up being a ‘prequel’ to The View From Pompey’s Head and which more than a few critics considered superior to the earlier work (it was put up for the National Book Award and lost out to Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus). He’d scarcely typed the words “the end” on his last novel when his Creator typed those same words on him; he died in Connecticut in 1964, and his reputation didn’t wait long to follow him into the ground. He himself had often noted how brusquely the American literary scene could deal with those who had only years before been its darlings; he always expected it to happen to him, so he might not be chagrined to know how thoroughly he’s forgotten in the 21st century.
Forgotten, but not entirely gone: plenty of copies of The View From Pompey’s Head can be found ready for purchase online.
Some Penguin Classics get the royal treatment – whether they deserve it or not. By ‘royal treatment’ I of course mean not only induction into the Classics line itself, honor enough though it is for one lifetime, but the bestowal of one of Penguin’s gorgeous “Deluxe” volumes, extra-sized, deckle-edged, supremely aesthetic re-packagings that not every Tom, Dick, and Diderot gets.
The Deluxe Classic in question today is the one Penguin published in 2005 of Sigrid Undset’s famous historical fiction trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, with a new translation by Tiina Nunnally and an Introduction by Brad Leithauser. The translation is meant to replace the much earlier one done as a hobby by the indefatigable Charles Archer in the 1920s because, as Nunnally somewhat astringently points out in her Translator’s Preface, “Accuracy and faithfulness to the original tone and style are both expected and required” in modern translations. So when old Lavrans takes his young daughter on a pleasant ride upland, Nunnally gives us this:
High up on the grassy slope they came to a small hut. They stopped near the split-rail fence. Lavrans shouted and his voice echoed again and again among the cliffs. Two men came running down from the small patch of pasture. They were the sons of the house. They were skillful tar-burners, and Lavrans wanted to hire them to do some tar distilling for him. Their mother followed with a large basin of cold cellar milk, for it was a hot day, as the men had expected it would be.
“I see you have your daughter with you,” she said after she had greeted them. “I thought I’d have a look at her You must take off her cap. They say she has such fair hair.”
Whereas Archer gives us this:
High up the mountain-side they came to a little croft. They stopped by the stick fence; Lavrans shouted, and his voice came back again and again from the mountains round. Two men came running down, between the small tilled patches. These were both sons of the house; they were good men at the tar-burning, and Lavrans was for hiring them to burn some tar for him. Their mother came after them with a great bowl of cooled milk, for the day was now grown hot, as the men had foretold.
“I saw you had your daughter with you,” she said when she had greeted them. “and methought I must needs have a sight of her. But you must take the cap from her head; they say she hath such bonny hair.”
Setting aside textual considerations (Archer omitted some passages, all of which Nunnally implies are crucial to the trilogy), I don’t have much hesitation as to which I prefer, and even gentle Leithauser can’t be completely condemnatory:
Nunnally unquestionably brings us closer to the heart of the book than Archer did. While I have a lingering fondness for the Archer translation – he was the museum guide who first led me to the tapestry – on the grounds of lucidity and authenticity the nod must go to Nunnally, who has surely done as much as anyone in recent years to bring Nordic literature to this country.
“It’s the fate of most long books never to be revisited,” Leithauser writes, and he’s sadly correct. Deluxe format or no Deluxe format, it’s permissible to wonder just how many new Undset fans Nunnally’s artlessly accurate translation (one short, bald declarative sentence after another, like rocks pelting a wall) created. Certainly Archer’s version – florid ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s notwithstanding – created quite a few. Who knows? Maybe one day that translation will get a Penguin Classic of its own, far from the power-washed asphalt of expected and required. It would have lots of fairly distinguished company. George Chapman could make the welcoming toast.
Some Penguin Classics – the vast majority of them, in fact – make their appearance too late to console their authors. Our case-in-point today involves an author who needed more consoling than most: the novelist and short story writer John O’Hara, who flourished in the 1930s and ‘40s, in the heady first heyday of The New Yorker, for which he wrote such an endless stream of short stories. O’Hara’s literary reputation has languished in the basement for decades, consigned there in large part by the comic, utterly damning evisceration the author received at the well-manicured hands of Brendan Gill in his classic Here at the New Yorker. It hardly matters that Gill praises O’Hara’s writing ability; the portrait he paints forever fixes O’Hara in the public imagination as a crass, sour buffoon.
It shouldn’t matter that he wasn’t, but the portrait stuck, and O’Hara’s stock declined to such a flea-market and church-sale low point that you’d never have guessed he was once famous and extremely well-paid. So extra kudos to Penguin for bringing out his best works, starting with Appointment in Samarra, the 1934 debut whose smash success shot its author, not yet 30, to the height of literary renown.
The novel tells the story of the inexplicable, seemingly unavoidable (hence the title) downward spiral of small-town Cadillac salesman Julian English who, in the course of only three days, manages to drink himself into a stupor several times and alienate virtually everybody he knows personally and professionally. O’Hara knew a great deal about the kind of career yearning that can lead a man to the comforts of nightly drinking, and he knew a great deal about how pointless those comforts feel, and he knew a great deal about their miserable aftermaths. And it’s all here in this easily-underestimated novel: Julian English has no genuine reason to first destroy and then end his own life – he’s goaded by persecutions that remain dark to the reader. But his uncomprehending, self-destructive, flailing anguish along the way feel as real as any drunk-scenes ever written.
Even the critics who hated O’Hara agreed that he had a knack for eavesdropping on the everyday speech of his characters, and a fresh re-reading of Appointment in Samarra confirms it: the dialog here, even between two comparatively minor characters, is as vivid and unassuming as anything in John Cheever:
“I’m going upstairs now and make the beds. I’ll see if the pants of your Tux need pressing.”
“Oh God. That’s right. Do I have to wear that?”
“Now, now, don’t try and bluff me. You look nice in it and you know it. You like to wear it and don’t pretend you don’t.”
“Oh, I don’t mind wearing it,” he said. “I was just thinking about you. You’ll be so jealous when all the other girls see me in my Tux and start trying to take me outside. I just didn’t want to spoil your evening, that’s all.”
“Applesauce,” said Irma.
“Why don’t you say what you mean? You don’t mean applesauce.”
“Never mind, now, Mister Dirty Mouth.” She left.
What a girl, he thought, and resumed reading his paper; Hoover was receiving the newsboys for Christmas …
O’Hara went on from his stunning debut to write an entire bookcase of novels and short story collections, plus a good deal of occasional prose and a vast heap of letters. We can’t expect Penguin to get to all of that verbiage, but we can fantasize that O’Hara’s restless ghost is grudgingly pleased with some of his fiction is now being honored as Penguin Classic reprints. And the fact that Brendan Gill’s own superb short story collection, 1974’s Ways of Loving, is currently nowhere to be found? Well, that’s just extra.
Some Penguin Classics make their courtroom cases with the blunt force of a bulldog trial lawyer, flatly asserting that their client deserves a better deal. Of course this is what all reprint editions should do, ideally: no book should assume a second life in print – books cost money to make and time to read, after all, and especially on the proving-ground of fiction, momentum should count for nothing. If there comes a time when “Beowulf” no longer speaks to readers, “Beowulf” should be taken off life support and allowed to lapse out of print (or at least as out of print as any classic can be at the dawn of the 21st century, when anybody with an Internet connection can download a free copy of any classic they want in about fifteen seconds). From its inception, Penguin Classics has had a knack for finding audiences where nobody predicted they’d be, so the risk of advocacy becomes a moral duty.
The 1986 Penguin Classic reprint of the 1969 “Penguin English Library” edition of Mrs. Gaskell’s masterpiece Wives and Daughters, for instance, takes its advocacy very seriously: it considers the book to be one of the most underrated masterpieces in the fiction canon. “Jane Eyre, or Barchester Towers, or Pendennis are flabby in comparison to its wit, its pathos, its intelligence,” Laurence Lerner writes in his take-no-prisoners Introduction (since supplanted in more recent editions, sadly). “It raises Elizabeth Gaskell to the level when we can compare her with Jane Austen or George Eliot.”
Lerner makes his case for both book and author right away:
The great woman novelists all have two names: Jane Austen, Emily Bronte (or ‘Ellis Bell’), George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. The names may be false, or masculine, but at least they look like names. Behind them, dimly thronging the pages of the histories of literature, come the modestly feminine writers who shelter behind their marriage lines: Mrs Radcliffe, Mrs Humphrey Ward, Mrs Oliphant, Mrs Gaskell. Elizabeth Gasell was a modest woman, and would not have been surprised to find herself among the minor or even the unread. Those who have read only one of her books – it is invariably Cranford – may feel that she belongs there, assuming that her other novels are even more feminine, more limited, and perhaps not quite as charming. This book will give them the pleasure of discovering their mistake.
As charming (and deceptively subversive) as Cranford is, Lerner is certainly right that it’s a quick Homeric hymn compared to the Iliad that is Wives and Daughters, and although every plot-strand of the book is bracingly complex, the heart of that different elevation is the relationship between the book’s heroine, the virtuous Molly Gibson, and her stepsister Cynthia, who’s franker and more jadedly vivacious. The book has a great deal of action and plot in its 700 pages, but I’m sure I’m not the only reader who’d have been perfectly happy eavesdropping on Molly and Cynthia the whole time (or at least more time than we get) – imagine prolonged and slightly more even-footed dialogue between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and you’ll almost have it:
“What did he tell you?” asked Cynthia, almost fiercely.
“Nothing but that. Oh, yes! He praised your beauty, and wanted me to tell you what he had said.”
“I should have hated you if you had,” said Cynthia.
“Of course I should never have thought of doing such a thing,” replied Molly. “I didn’t like him; and Lady Harriet spoke of him the next day, as if he wasn’t a person to be liked.”
Cynthia was quite silent. At length she said:
“I wish I was good!”
“So do I,” said Molly simply.
“Nonsense, Molly! You are good. At least, if you’re not good, what am I? There’s rule-of-three sum for you to do! But it’s no use talking; I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.”
“Do you think it easier to be a heroine?”
“Yes, as far as one knows of heroines from history. I’m capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation – but steady, every-day goodness is beyond me. I must be a moral kangaroo!”
That question – the difference, if any, between a good woman and a heroine – runs all through Wives and Daughters (you might even say it’s adumbrated in the title), as was perhaps predictable when considering that the author was, as Lerner puts it, “a busy, happy woman who wrote her novels in the interstices of family life.” The narrative is big and boisterous like a bright choral performance, and it was all but – but not quite (think of the last-second scorpion-sting at the end of Northanger Abbey) – over when Mrs. Gaskell died suddenly in November of 1865 (“What promised to be the crowning work of a life is a memorial of death,” as her Cornhill editor put it). But that’s OK – plenty of classics come to us incomplete. Penguin honors them anyway, as is only right.