(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)
(In autumn 2012 CCLaP auctioned off a first-edition copy of Peter Ustinov's The Loser through its rare-book selling service [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks]. Below is the description I wrote for its listing.)
Don't let anyone tell you any different -- Peter Ustinov was a great writer. And the reason some might say otherwise is of course that this British second-generation German/Russian immigrant was known primarily in his lifetime as an award-winning actor, while otherwise being literally the classic, slightly insulting definition of "dilettante" -- someone who dabbles in everything but isn't good at anything, including in Ustinov's case doing a children's album, penning a series of stage plays, directing several operas, being a fixture on American talk shows, starring in an improv radio comedy for the BBC, collecting rare cars, learning six languages, color-commenting on Formula One races, working for UNICEF, and being the passionate president of a prominent "world government" organization. And among these Renaissance Man activities, Ustinov was the author of a handful of novels, including 1960's The Loser, his very first; and for a man who was known by so many for his more wacky roles, he couldn't have picked a more serious subject to tackle for his first novel, charting the entire rise and fall of Germany's Nazi Party through the story of a random twenty-something citizen who got convinced to be one. After all, this came just 15 years after the end of World War Two, and right at the beginning of the countercultural, twentieth-anniversary "naked new look" at exactly what had happened back then; so this was suddenly a very hot topic among society at large at the time Ustinov wrote this, a yearning among the generation right after the war (i.e. the Baby Boomers) to look at these events from their parents' youth, and to speak of both the complexities and atrocities in a way that the older generation simply didn't have the emotional capacity to do.
And that's why I call Ustinov a deceptively great writer, because he takes a surprisingly complex look at what exactly went wrong in Germany in the 1920s and '30s to lead to so many millions succumbing so heavily to the dark side, not exactly sympathetic but more showing that any country back then could've suffered the same fate; in fact, that's where this multifaceted book starts, is with a hefty indictment of all the parties involved with the apocalyptic farce known as World War One, which both the winners and the losers had treated at first like any other of the six-month regional skirmishes they were constantly fighting throughout the Victorian Age, but then with neither side willing to eat crow and finish the damn thing once casualties reached the millions because of the unforeseen innovations that the Industrial Age brought to mass killing. Wounded as a nation, then, overly punished by the winning Allies, with a fascist-friendly culture that had been obsessed with the military and nationalism for an entire half-century, the main narrator of The Loser is a typical young German named Hans symbolically born right at the end of the Great War, literally raised since birth in a culture that could easily breed a party of thugs like the Nazis, with the rest of this novel basically a look at what exactly developed among society there back then to make things turn first as ugly then as nihilistic as they did. A sweeping saga that takes us through several battlefronts before delving into surprising plot turns in Italy, Ustinov's dry, sometimes harrowing novel ends with the question of whether any German raised in such a way would ever have the capacity to be normal, productive members of society again; and the dark answer here is, "Eh, not really," an assessment that panned out in the real world as well, in that Germany was unable to rise even incrementally as a cultural, economical and humanitarian force in the world again until all the way in the 1970s, not coincidentally when all the middle-agers who had lived through the war started dying off, and their positions of power taken over by an entire new generation of radically liberal, green-friendly children. Ustinov was pretty brilliant to be able to lay all this out in such a simple yet powerful way, and this surprisingly great novel will be a welcome treat to those interested in the war, German history, and forgotten gems of Mid-Century Modernist literature. (less)
(As of July 2012, I am selling a first-edition copy of this book through the rare-book service at my arts organization, the Chicago Center for Literat...more(As of July 2012, I am selling a first-edition copy of this book through the rare-book service at my arts organization, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks]. Here below is the description I wrote for its listing.)
Written in the middle of World War Two and the winner of the 1945 Pulitzer Prize, this was just one of the many high points of the fascinating John Hersey's life, over the course of a long and eventful career. A missionary brat who learned to speak Chinese before he could speak English, he was eventually a Yale football star and once a private secretary to Sinclair Lewis, experiences which made him almost perfect to be a TIME magazine correspondent in Asia as well as Europe during the war, where among other heroics he survived four plane crashes and was commended by the Navy for evacuating freaking soldiers in Guadalcanal. He was most known in his own lifetime for the groundbreaking, hauntingly poetic reporting he did from the aftermath of Hiroshima, eventually assembled into an entire standalone issue of The New Yorker that officially kicked off both the term and era of "New Journalism," a public sensation (once read out loud by ABC Radio over two hours because the printers literally couldn't keep up with demand) that led directly to the first successes of other storytelling journalists like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson a decade later. (Interestingly, New Yorker founder Harold Ross once called the publication of the Hiroshima issue the happiest moment of his professional life, while the event ruined Hersey's relationship with TIME co-founder Henry Luce, who felt that he should've offered it to sister publication Life magazine first*.)
But before all that, though, was his first novel, 1944's A Bell for Adano, a thin fictionalization of an actual situation he stumbled across as a war correspondent during America's liberation of Italy. Set in one of the tiny Medieval fishing villages that dot the southern Italian coast, crucial as launching and resupply posts for the inward-bound Americans during the invasion, the book largely follows the fate of one Major Victor Joppolo, back home an Italian-American sanitation-department clerk in the Bronx but here the "temporary mayor" of Adano, essentially the mid-level officer in charge of such medium-term goals as rounding up all the remaining fugitive Fascists, replacing draconian local officials, getting the local judges and police working again, re-establishing infrastructure, food distribution, open commerce, etc. And that's essentially what the story is -- a charmingly slow-paced look at Joppolo's work in this chick-lit-worthy, impossibly magical little Mediterranean town, Hersey's point being to show people back home how the natural "get 'er done" resourcefulness of the average American, combined with the democratic freedoms that so many of us were dying for at that point in the war, repeated over and over in thousands of little situations like this one, was the key to the slow turn in tide that was happening in the war right around this time period.
Although certainly "rah-rah U-S-A" in tone throughout, the obvious explanation for its Pulitzer win a year later, popular Broadway adaptation a year after that, and popular Hollywood movie a year after that, the book definitely has its fair share of darkness as well, moral ambiguity over how the town should even start approaching the job of punishing next-door-neighbors for being on the losing side of the war, and plenty of self-critical comments about the lousiness of some Americans over there; see for example the blustery "General Marvin," plainly modeled after real war hero General Patton but here presented as the story's main villain. An amazing start to an amazing career, and a war novel admired by both troops and citizens of the time, its low price here makes it a perfect acquisition for Hersey fans, WW2 buffs, and those compiling a collection of Pulitzer-winning first editions.
*Oh, and yet more fascinating trivia about Hersey, a man who's been sadly forgotten by the culture at large and deserves to be re-discovered: he once won the National Jewish Book Award despite not being Jewish; a critical essay on the dullness of grammar school literary samplers directly inspired Dr. Seuss to write The Cat in the Hat; and in the late '60s Hersey became a passionate champion of anti-war protestors, the Black Panthers and other countercultural movements, all while serving as a Yale dean, owner of the school's bulldog mascot, and overseer of the campus's antique letterpress program. Wow!(less)
(As of spring 2012, I have a first-edition copy of this book for sale at my arts center's rare-book service [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks], so I thought...more(As of spring 2012, I have a first-edition copy of this book for sale at my arts center's rare-book service [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks], so I thought I would repost here the description I came up with for it, part review and part historical overview.)
Although sadly now nearly forgotten, at one point Arthur Meeker Jr. (1902-1971) was one of the most successful authors Chicago ever produced, a co-founder of the local chapter of PEN who had two national bestsellers in his nine-book career. The son of an Armour executive who was raised among the high society of the Edwardian Age, even after becoming a journalist he remained a fixture among the elite, traveling Europe widely and becoming known for his witty, Ward-McAllisteresque reports. It's no surprise that this second-most popular book of his career would come just a few years after the death of his parents, because in many ways it seems to be an autobiographical roman-a-clef about the years as a child he spent with them: set in stages between the 1880s and World War One, it looks at the comings and goings in Chicago's infamous Prairie Avenue neighborhood where Meeker himself was raised, featuring a main protagonist who also travels Europe widely and eventually becomes a journalist as well. (In fact, the book itself is set at the very specific street address of 1817 S. Prairie Avenue, just across the street from the now historical Clarke and Glessner Houses, although I don't know if this matches up with Meeker's real-life address from those years; if anyone on the internet is coming across this in the future and knows, please drop me a line and let me know too!)
Just like the Indianapolis neighborhood featured in Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, the Prairie Avenue district of Chicago went through a fascinating transition between the Civil War and World War One, the progression of which is the main point of Meeker's own novel. The city's very first neighborhood for old-money blue bloods, and located just two miles south of the downtown Loop, the entire reason it was so important to be that close to downtown in the Victorian Age was precisely because it was so difficult to travel long distances then, making the sprawling estates immediately surrounding central cities extremely valuable, and turning this entire southside neighborhood into a wonderland of moody Gothic mansions, adjoining servant quarters, horse stables and fruit orchards; but as bridges and improved infrastructure started making the city's northside more and more popular in the following decades, and suburban trains drove more and more of the rich out into the wilderness altogether, neighborhoods like Prairie Avenue quickly became discarded slums, with no one left who wanted to buy the crumbling mansions and with more and more of them knocked down to make way for industrial factories and warehouses. Meeker follows both the highs and lows of this progression in his own book, delightfully dropping in literally hundreds of references along the way to long-closed Chicago institutions, famous real families, restaurants, pubs, gentlemen's clubs, local landmarks and a lot, lot more; and he really brings alive the sense of what it must've been like to stroll the sidewalks of this neighborhood in its turn-of-the-century height, a foggy gaslamp-lit amusement park of Victoriana as can only be seen through the wide eyes of an overly eager child, a virtual paen to a way of life that had already disappeared by the time this originally came out in the 1940s, and now of course the stuff only of fanciful dreams and a handful of federally protected landmarks. (For those who don't know, the fight in the 1950s to save the smattering of mansions left in this neighborhood virtually kickstarted the entire national architectural-preservation movement; so in that sense, you can see this popular novel and Book Of The Month Club selection as partly to thank for the US having historically preserved urban landmarks in the first place.)
Called a "light and colorful entertainment" by the New York Times upon its original release, this perhaps does not take into consideration the numerous dark corners contained in Prairie Avenue, including frank depictions of suicidal depression, drug addiction and infidelity among our very proper characters, the efforts to hide and corral these problems fueling much of the melodramatic plot; and indeed, it's widely believed that Meeker himself was gay (but see his Wikipedia page for more on that), so it's certainly possible to argue that this novel's various plot machinations were actually a clever pre-Stonewall way for Meeker to explore the entire issue of being The Other, in a society that doesn't tolerate Otherness. An author who deserves to be rediscovered, at least by a grateful local literary community here in Chicago, it's CCLaP's intention to attempt to put together an entire set of first-editions of all of Meeker's books over the years (including his apparently Max Beerbohm-like 1955 memoir Chicago, With Love: A Polite and Personal History), with Prairie Avenue serving as the perfect gift for anyone interested in Chicago history, the Victorian Age in general, or the various developments in urban living that took place here in the early 20th century.(less)
The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "classics," then write reports on whether or not they deserve the label
Essay #66...moreThe CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "classics," then write reports on whether or not they deserve the label
Essay #66: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), by Robert A. Heinlein
The story in a nutshell: Conceptualized in the early 1950s, but not written and published until 1961 (supposedly so that "society could catch up with it," according to the author), Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is a classic example of a science-fiction (or SF) novel acting as a premonition to its real-world times, only moderately successful when it first came out but eventually a must-read touchstone among the hippies of the Countercultural Revolution a decade later. It starts with the first-ever manned mission to Mars, which because of its length was crewed only by couples, which ended tragically with the unexplained deaths of all on board; but when a second team finally arrives twenty years later, they discover that one of these couples had secretly had a baby, one Valentine Michael Smith, and that the lone survivor was raised by the insanely unhumanlike native Martians as one of their own, guaranteeing his re-introduction to the human race being as awkward as Tarzan being returned to Greystoke Manor.
And in fact, surprisingly the entire first half of this long novel is dedicated merely to the complicated legal questions that have arisen by Smith's appearance, including what powers he exactly has to grant property and mining rights to individual nations or even to commercial interests, cleverly reflecting the real debates that were going on at the time over these same questions in regards to the Soviet/US race to the Moon. And so this is how the gentle, confused man-child eventually becomes friends first with the feisty nurse Gillian Boardman at the hospital where he's being kept; then her sometimes lover, brash journalist Ben Caxton; and then Caxton's friend and one of the most memorable characters in all of modern American literature -- lawyer, doctor, curmudgeon, millionaire hack author, angry libertarian, proud sexist, sculpture collector, Poconos-mansion-owning octogenarian Jubal Harshaw*, who eventually invites the whole party to an extended stay at his secluded Austin-Powersesque compound (including a household staff straight out of a James Bond parody -- three beautiful women who also happen to be experts at office management, cooking, engine repair, high diving and more). And indeed, there's a good reason that it turns out to be such a complex battle to get Smith away from the draconian "protection" of the US government; because hey, it turns out that such "psychic abilities" as mind-reading and telekinesis are actually ho-hum scientific principles, as easily accomplished when you know what you're doing as solving a hard math problem is, just that no human had been smart enough to "crack the code" until Smith was basically raised from birth with the knowledge by the evolutionally superior Martians, skills that the US Army are awfully anxious to learn themselves.
It's when the action switches to this compound, then, that the much more famous second half begins; because with Smith being the curious, inquisitive soul that he is, of course the first thing he wants to do once gaining his "freedom" is to tramp across the country vagabond-style, exploring as much as he can about human life and sampling a wide variety of traditional and mystical religions, trying to find something that can adequately explain the curiously hippie-like belief system the Martians adhere to, and especially the all-important concept in their culture of "grokking" (not quite the simple act of understanding something, not quite religious revelation, not quite a profound connection between two living creatures, but a sort of combo of them all, impossible to fully understand unless you can actually speak Martian yourself). And indeed, this is exactly what Smith ends up doing, is creating his own religion (the Church of All Worlds) dedicated to teaching humans to speak Martian so that they can fully grok this new, enlightened way of living, which apparently also includes a nudist lifestyle and lots and lots of hot group sex…or, er, communal free love, I mean. (Man, those Martians are some real swingers.) Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with most of the other religions of the world, including the suspiciously Scientologist-like "Fosterites" who Heinlein also explores in depth in the book's second half, leading to an easily anticipated martyr-like death for our perpetually misunderstood hero; but not before Smith has a chance to let his followers know that what he's really done is kickstart the next step of human evolution, and that those who refuse to learn the new ways will eventually become as obsolete and then extinct as the Neanderthals are to us.
The argument for it being a classic: Well, for starters, it won the prestigious Hugo Award the year it came out, with Heinlein himself the very first winner of the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America (in fact, when people refer to the "Big Three" SF authors of the 1960s, Heinlein is one of them, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke); plus the Heinlein estate claims with some authority that this is the biggest selling SF novel of all time, with it certainly undeniable how much of an influence it's had on the culture since, including the introduction into the general lexicon not only of "grokking" but the phrase "Thou art God"**. And that's because, fans claim, Stranger in a Strange Land is a perfect example of genre fiction as metaphor, of a fantastical story that actually helps guide us in our everyday lives; that its perfect combination of humor, drama, action and philosophy preaches important lessons about self-determination, loving your neighbor (in all sorts of ways), and the facile nature of so many traditional religions, to say nothing of fringe cults that prey on the weak-minded. A landmark publication in the history of Libertarianism (and with Heinlein in general the originator of the "Libertarians in SPAAAAAACE!" trope now so common in science-fiction), fans say that its lessons of thinking for yourself and rejecting bureaucratic BS couldn't be more timely, the rare book that can be positively cited by both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement; the fact that it almost single-handedly pushed the entire SF industry into mainstream respectability is mere icing on the cake, simply an external sign of just how important this novel is.
The argument against: Ahem. "Oh, are you freaking kidding me, you stupid grokking hippie trash?" That's an attitude you heard from a lot of people in the years after this book first came out; and while the vitriol has calmed down some in the 51 years since, it still remains the most effective argument against it, that this silly ode to long-hair orgies and Stickin' It To The Man isn't nearly as well-written or as important as its fans claim, and that it mostly has the reputation it does merely because Heinlein was damned lucky to have put it out right at the exact moment in history when mainstream society was most clamoring for a story like this (an accusation we've heard before in this essay series, don't forget, when we were discussing Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer). And this didn't get any better at all, they claim, even after Heinlein's widow in 1991 managed to get over 60,000 words from the original manuscript put back into the official bookstore version, after originally being cut in the early '60s for being "too scandalous;" because almost all of this cut material happens to be from the novel's infuriatingly repetitive and digressive second half, with literally hundreds of pages in the modern edition now dedicated to dated, rambling explanations of this group's adherence to free love, public nudity, water-based sharing rituals, and the importance of being "one with the universe" (that is, when you're not violently raging against the commies, capitalists, and other SOBs who are trying to steal away all your personal liberties -- oops, sorry, Heinlein apologists, did I just poke a hole in your precious little peacenik logic? Sorry about that!). And besides, say his critics, Heinlein was a cantankerous sexist and military booster who may or may not have been a fan of certain ideas commonly associated with fascism (but see Starship Troopers for a lot more on that), so you're officially forgiven for not buying into his luvey-duvey New Age charlatanism.
My verdict: So for those who aren't familiar already with the fine points of SF history, perhaps it's best to start with the following to understand my thoughts today about Stranger in a Strange Land -- that between the early days of this genre, when it was considered good for not much more than empty kiddie crap, and our own post-Star Wars age when we just take it for granted that a genre project can have millions of fans and generate billions of dollars, there was a perfect storm in the 1950s and '60s (aka "Mid-Century Modernism") when an obsession with rationality and philosophy, a weariness over dogma-fueled wars, the explosive birth of the Electronic Age, and the sudden maturing of American literature all came together in a glorious mess in the world of science-fiction, a "coming of age" moment in which the genre was suddenly the single hottest thing in the entirety of the arts; and Heinlein had a huge role in helping to make this happen, demonstrably the very first genre author in history to get published regularly in conservative, mainstream, middle-class publications like The Saturday Evening Post, and also one of the first people in history to write SF stories where the fantastical science was simply a given, the stories themselves exploring the more underlying human-interest subjects that would naturally come with such innovations (now known as "social science fiction," and again not reaching its true apex until the Countercultural Era a decade later).
So for Heinlein to put something as shocking and subversive as this out in the Kennedy years, after having a following of millions for his generally suburban-safe post-WW2 "juvenilia," was very much like the Beatles putting out "Sgt. Pepper" a mere three years later; a game-changer, in other words, not just a new project but a literal gauntlet that forced other writers to catch up, a line in the sand that served as an easy litmus test in those years to determine whether someone could "dig it" or not. And indeed, reading it for the first time a half-century later, this is still a very funny, thought-provoking and above all highly entertaining novel, full of intelligence and wit and great surprises; and sure, its critics have a point, that the second half does get bogged down occasionally with Heinlein's love for pontification (plus overly detailed descriptions of hippie orgies), but in an era that gave us Walden Two and Atlas Shrugged, it's important that we be more forgiving of this than we would with a contemporary novel, and understand that overblown philosophical treaties disguised as genre actioners are actually one of the most charming things about Mid-Century Modernist literature in general. Granted, this book inspired a lot of awfulness after the fact, not least of which is the entire trope of "Brilliantly Advanced Space Alien Who Acts Like Sweet Guileless Mentally Challenged Man Child Merely Because He Doesn't Yet Understand The Dirty Ways Of Our Flawed World" (see E.T., Starman, K-PAX, The Man Who Fell to Earth, ad nauseum); but in general, this is exactly as groundbreaking and still inspirational as its fans claim, and I have no hesitation today in declaring it a literary classic that everyone should read at least once before they die, a title that I'm convinced is just going to become more and more important as the years continue. It comes strongly recommended to one and all, as long as you approach it with a little patience and forgiveness, just as you should with all Mid-Century Modernist genre novels.
*And hey, yeah, just how autobiographical is good ol' Jubal? He sure looks and talks like Heinlein, after all; and in fact many have argued that the main character in this novel is not Smith but rather Harshaw himself, and that the entire Martian premise is just a thinly veiled excuse for Heinlein to essentially rant for several hundred pages on the subjects of women's lib, artists who receive state money, out-of-control central governments, and how much he hates each and every one of them. But on the other hand, genre editor and Heinlein friend David G. Hartwell has said before that Harshaw was based on mystery author and "Perry Mason" creator Erle Stanley Gardner, who like Jubal was a prickly former lawyer who got filthy rich off an endless series of hacky pulp novels.
**And speaking of its impact on the real world, here's an amazing piece of trivia I came across that didn't fit well into the main essay: that a year after the book first came out, a man who now goes by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart started a very real church modeled after Smith's fictional one, which like the novel adhered to a strict policy of hedonism and Do What You Want. And they're still in operation! (less)
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of C...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)
It's said by some that Chicago might have the most vibrant literary community in the entire United States right now; and if that's indeed true, it'd be due in part to the remarkably popular "One Book One Chicago" (OBOC) program run by the Chicago Public Library (CPL), one of the many things that makes it such a treat to be a book lover in this city. Inspired by similar experiments in smaller towns, the CPL essentially twice a year picks an interesting book, stocks up on a thousand percent more copies than usual (done many times via a promotional tie-in with a particular publisher), then tries to convince as many people in the city as possible to all read the book in the same thirty-day period, through things like an informative study guide, a series of events around the city, discussion groups in every single of the 150 branches of the CPL system, encouraging local bookstores to put the book on sale and do their own front-room displays, and many times even getting the author to actually come to the city and appear in a number of events as well, if they're still alive. And I have to say, there's something almost unbelievable and magical about stepping onto a random el one day with one of these OBOC books, and to spy ten or fifteen other strangers just on that car alone who are all reading it too, which is one of the things that the various artistic government agencies here are so good at, adding a little magic to everyone's lives.
This fall's pick is Saul Bellow's 1953 rough-and-tumble masterpiece The Adventures of Augie March, one of the first great novels about Chicago ever written; and that's especially appropriate here, in that this fall just happens to be the tenth anniversary of the OBOC program as well, and the CPL is putting a kind of energy into this particular cycle that they often don't with others. And in fact, this pick is a great example of another big benefit that comes from the OBOC program, which is simply learning more about books that were once important but have started becoming obscure; because as someone with no academic background in literature myself (instead, I studied photography), I have to admit that Bellow was one of the many important writers in history I knew almost nothing about before opening CCLaP, and in fact it seems that he's rapidly falling off the cultural radar just in general these days as well. And that's a shame, because as I've discovered in the last year (not only from reading this novel but also Humboldt's Gift for the CCLaP 100), Bellow was profoundly more important to the 20th-century arts than a lot of us realize anymore, a smart and funny blue-collar intellectual who not only helped define Late Modernism and Postmodernism, but was literally one of the first Jewish authors in history to gain a global following, paving the way for the post-Holocaust "mainstreaming" of Judaism, leading eventually to Mel Brooks and then Philip Roth and then Jerry Seinfeld.
And the irony, of course, is that this "most American" of American writers is an immigrant twice removed; a first-generation Ukrainian whose upper-middle-class family was forced to flee in the early 1900s, he grew up in Canada under a mother who was never able to let go of how much they had lost from their forced relocation, a scrounging day laborer who was ironically raised with a fine appreciation for classic literature and philosophical thought. It was only after moving to America, though, going to college, being drafted into World War Two, then holding a series of odd jobs all over the various neighborhoods of Chicago that it first hit Bellow to try combining these high- and low-brow elements of his life into complex works of fiction; and after a couple of overly serious, not very popular novels in the late 1940s, it was Augie at the dawn of Late Modernism that established the sort of meandering tone and almost absurdist humor that was to mark the rest of his extremely long and productive career. (Bellow lived until his nineties, dying just a few years ago, was still publishing award-winning new fiction into his eighties, won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer at various points in his life, is the only person in history to win the National Book Award three times, and is also the only person in history to be nominated for it six.)
And indeed, when I first sat down a few weeks ago to read Augie myself, I quickly found myself just really entranced and addicted to the loose, anecdotal, causally connected style that Bellow establishes right away, a book that's just as famous as everything else for being one of the first great odes to the American immigrant experience, not a wish-fulfillment morality tale about assimilation and becoming a good little docile citizen (like virtually all stories about immigrants had been before then), but rather a loud, messy celebration of the chaos and shady dealings that marked most immigrants' real experiences, a full-armed embrace of the idea that a man literally defines himself in the US using any criteria he wants, versus the pre-ordained class and caste and serf systems that still existed in so many other parts of the world at the time. And that's really the main thing to know about Augie before reading it, that it doesn't really follow a traditional three-act structure at all, a Modernist academic experiment that made its explosive commercial success such a huge surprise to nearly everyone involved; instead, it's written as if Augie were simply sitting at an older age and reminiscing about his youth, moving organically from story to story and with there being no big beginning, middle and end to his tale. Instead, Augie lives a life of random starts and stops that is much like ours, albeit much more bizarre and exciting than most of ours will ever be, an autobiographical element that was the singlemost biggest reason for its initial bestseller status; tackling the same mesmerizing 1930s Great Depression events as were being looked at by actual 1930s Social Realist authors like Richard Wright and Nelson Algren (two of Bellow's co-workers at the Chicago WPA office during the New Deal years), but in his case written twenty years later when a more even-handed look could be taken, Augie is full of such derring-do as riding the rails hobo-style, getting involved with bootleggers and gangsters, sneaking around high society under false pretenses and more, but with a kind of rascal/scamp humor that the dour, politically motivated Social Realists of the '30s were never able to bring to their work*, a textbook example of the "picaresque" novel that both exposes the kinds of injustices and hard-scrabble lives that so many Americans were living back then, but also kind of gleefully celebrates this life too, arguing that it at least made them as young men feel really alive, really in charge of their own destinies.
But of course, as mentioned before, don't underestimate how profoundly important this work has been to the development of 20th-century Jewish-American culture as well, and specifically how the sometimes exotic ins-and-outs of daily Yiddish life have been acknowledged and dealt with by the vastly larger Christian population around these people since the end of World War Two. As regular readers know, this is an endlessly interesting subject to me, that I've dealt with in much more detail in my essays on Philip Roth's "Zuckerman" series that I'm in the middle of reading; how important it is to remember, for example, just how anti-Semitic the US in general was before the rise of Nazism (as was the rest of the world), and how it was the shocking events of the Holocaust that first started changing millions of Americans' attitudes towards Jews for the first time, an easing of discrimination that many weary post-war Jews wanted to encourage by never reminding Christian-Americans of their Jewishness ever again, making it a scandal when someone like Bellow delved so matter-of-factly into it in a national bestseller like Augie, not just acknowledging the strange-sounding Yiddish parts of his culture but also daring to admit that the Jewish community sometimes sees dysfunction, dark humor over its own foibles, and yes, sometimes even voluntary reinforcements of lazy Jewish stereotypes. A lot of assimilation-oriented, Holocaust-surviving Jews did not like Bellow at all for doing this; but for people like Roth, Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon, who were all in their teens and twenties when Augie first came out, it showed them that it was possible to address the details of their Jewish lives with candor, humor and self-deprecation, that it was even possible to win over Gentile audiences with such work, without the usual Shylockian "they're laughing AT you, not WITH you" worries of pre-war Jews. And thus did a novel like Augie in the '50s begat something like Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in the '60s, which begat Annie Hall in the '70s, which all eventually led to a sitcom in the '90s about seder and Hanukkah and the Catskills and rye loaves becoming one of the most beloved artistic projects in American history.
The Adventures of Augie March is all of these things and more -- for example, also a meditation on extended families, additions and losses to such families, truth, beauty, and all kinds of other deep subjects -- and it's a shame that Bellow's reputation is starting to wane a bit among the general population, because after reading him it's easy to see why so many people count him as one of the top three influential writers of the entire 20th century. And like I said, the CPL's embrace and promotion of Bellow is just one of the things that makes it so great to be both a writer an a heavy reader in Chicago in the 2000s, and why I'd be willing to compare this city's literary community against almost any other in the world and bet that ours will at least match it if not come out on top. I'll be attending many of the related events going on this month for this book's promotion, and writing up little field reports for the blog; but for now, I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of this remarkable novel and give it a read yourself, and of course I congratulate the Chicago Public Library for ten fantastic years of bringing the city's book lovers together in the unique, powerful way they have.
*And in fact, I think it no coincidence that, of the dozens of radically left, communism-friendly Chicago writers being published in the 1930s, the only three we've still heard of (Wright, Algren and Bellow) were all deemed more Trotskyist than Stalinist, all balked at the Stalinist idea that art should always serve a serious political purpose, and all eventually quit these communist-friendly groups in disgust long before the Red Scare of the 1950s. I think it no coincidence at all that out of all those writers back then, these are the only three still worth reading. (less)
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)
I recently received a hundred-dollar gift certificate to Borders from my brother and sister-in-law for Christmas; but that ironically created a problem for me, in that I've thoroughly trained myself over the last three years to think of books only in terms of library rentals, making it difficult to picture what kinds of books I might want to actually own permanently. So I bought a hundred bucks in comics! J-sus Chr-st, I suck! And one of these purchases was a volume in Fantagraphics' new hardcover reissuing of all 18,000 Peanuts strips that Charles Schulz ever wrote, each massive over-designed tome covering two years in the strip's history; the one I picked up covers the 730 strips published in 1965 and '66, a seminal time for Peanuts that cemented the strip's lasting popularity for good. See, it seems anymore that less and less people understand this, but it was during the '60s that Schulz first started infusing his deceptively simple strip with all kinds of heady Modernist references to theology, philosophy, the "New Math" and more, turning it from the simple children's diversion it used to be into a suddenly hip Silver Age cultural touchstone; and this of course was before the '70s, when Schulz first started running out of ideas, deciding to devote the strip more and more to being the unchanging daily core of a TV-friendly merchandising empire.
So on the one hand, the book is a real treat, a reminder of the exquisite minimalist humor that Schulz was so perfect at when he was at his creative height, during the exact period of work I myself was raised on (mostly through an endless series of cheap tattered paperbacks bought for a dime at garage sales) that so heavily influenced my own sense of humor; but on the other hand, I'm also kind of disgusted at myself for buying a $40 over-designed hardback doorstop full of freaking comic strips, and acknowledge that that now officially makes me one of those academically trained stuffy white males who are as we speak sucking away what little fun still remains in the world of comics, just like stuffy academic white males ruined jazz, and ruined baseball, and ruined the blues. (In fact, if you want a good look at all the formerly fun things that stuffy academic white males have ruined over the years, simply make a list of all the documentaries Ken Burns has ever made.) As nice as it's been to sit and re-read all these classic strips from the series' height, it's hard to look at all those artsy detail blowups and that dark-on-dark design scheme and not think, "You know, I've now officially become one of those creative-class douchebags who everyone complains about, and there's a part of me who hates myself for it." Good grief.
Out of 10: 9.0...no, wait, I mean 6.2...no, wait, I don't know what I mean (less)
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of C...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)
The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "literary classics," then write reports on whether or not they deserve the label
Essay #61: A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), by John Kennedy Toole
The story in a nutshell: Originally written in the 1960s, although not published until 1980 (but more on that in a bit), John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is set in the Late Modernist New Orleans of 1963, and mostly follows the ignoble adventures of one Ignatius J. Reilly, perhaps the most unpleasant "hero" in the entire history of the narrative arts -- an absurdist amalgam of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy and The Office's Michael Scott, this morbidly obese, self-deluded intellectual is just a critical mass of smugness, hyperbole and hypocrisy, a lazy, racist, self-satisfied gadabout who believes that every human invention since literally the Renaissance has been an apocalyptic detriment to society, and is sincerely flummoxed as to why the world doesn't just naturally accept him as their moral superior as he knows he is. Or, perhaps "racist" isn't the right word for Ignatius, since it's clear that he's a champion of blacks and gays in a pre-civil-rights Deep South, albeit for his own comically twisted reasons (he's sure that he can convince them to perpetuate a lumpen/luddite revolt that will revert America back to a pre-technological society, with of course himself as their Trotskyist leader); and to be frank, the main reason to even read this book is not for the minimalist plot holding it together (Ignatius's live-in mother needs money, forcing Ignatius to ineptly hold a series of bottom-rung jobs for the first time in his life), but rather for the way it languidly and with much love explores all the dark back alleys of '60s New Orleans itself, from the crumbling go-go district to pre-Stonewall gay soirees, black slums, the mentally ill and homeless crowd that is centered around a low-class hot dog franchise, and a lot more, as our disgusting but fascinating unreliable narrator takes us on a cracked tour of it all, never understanding why the "mongoloids and whores" won't simply defer to his own unquestioned brilliance.
The argument for it being a classic: The main reason this seems to be considered a classic is from that mesmerizing real-life history I referred to before; originally written in the Kennedy years, its utter rejection by the academic world was one of the contributing factors that led to Toole's mental breakdown and eventual suicide in 1969*, with his mother of all people finding a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript in a trunk and spending years literally begging people in the publishing industry to read it, with its eventual printing in 1980 resulting in not only a huge bestseller and an immediate new touchstone in the world of Southern fiction, but even with Toole posthumously winning the Pulitzer Prize a year later. But there's an important reason that people went so crazy for it once it was out, argue its fans, besides merely its interesting history; and that's because it's a dark comic masterpiece, they claim, a work truly ahead of its time whose reflections can be seen in our current popular culture no matter where you turn, and that heralded the birth of an entirely new literary genre (the curmudgeonly, sneakily charming, self-satisfied retro-obsessed lout) which has influenced everyone from Daniel Clowes to Paul Giamatti to literally an entire wing of full-time academic authors.
The argument against: There seems to be two main arguments against this being a classic, both of them ones we've discussed in this essay series before: first, like the criticism leveled at many of the genteel writers of the Edwardian period, critics say that neither Toole nor his one adult novel have had enough of an impact on the arts in general to be considered a classic, certainly a great book but more a modern fluke than anything else, one that will quickly be forgotten once the generation that was around when it was first published (i.e. us) are eventually dead and gone; and then second, like you sometimes also see from angry online reviewers of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, some people find the characters in A Confederacy of Dunces to be simply too repulsive to be worth reading about, an entire parade of unredeemable losers whose pathetic antics and Archie-Bunker-like casual prejudices are like fingernails on a chalkboard to some readers, making this not only a non-classic in their eyes but an abomination to be violently tossed across the room into the nearest trashcan.
My verdict: It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of so-called "anti-villain" tales, the term I came up with a few years ago for literary narrators who at first seem like quirky yet normal protagonists, but then become more and more monstrous as the story continues (for two excellent examples, see Sam Savage's Cry of the Sloth and Tod Wodicka's mindblowingly great And All Shall Be Well…); and now that I've read A Confederacy of Dunces, I realize that all these characters can be traced back to the douchbaggy master Ignatius himself, the ur-antivillain from which all the rest are merely pale copies. And so of course I not only adored this novel, but very quickly deemed it to be one of the greatest novels in history; but I also acknowledge that this is a highly personal, therefore highly biased opinion today, for a supposed "objective" series of write-ups like these CCLaP 100 essays, and that there's also a very strong and valid case to be made for this novel by despicable in some people's eyes, and for its critics to not only mildly dislike it but to hate it with a burning passion.
And indeed, even if you eventually end up loving the book yourself, admittedly there's a lot to get used to at the beginning of it that simply doesn't conform to the usual hallmarks of the three-act narrative story arc; we're not used to our novels' narrators being so thoroughly vile and detestable, certainly not used anymore to seeing racism and homophobia so openly displayed, and have been conditioned our entire lives to believe that a piece of literature isn't worth reading unless we find ourselves rooting for the main character to succeed at their quest, unless they are sympathetic enough that we care what happens to them. That's a tricky tightrope to straddle, to write a whole book about disgusting people but that makes us still compelled to find out what happens to them; but much like David Simon did with his utterly remarkable television show The Wire, Toole is a master here at making us interested in utterly unlikeable people, a comic tour-de-force that incidentally teaches us more about the coming countercultural revolution just around the historical corner than a thousand beat poets and proto-hippies all added together. Although in many ways the flash in the pan that its critics accuse it of being, in this case it's also hard to deny that A Confederacy of Dunces is a legitimate classic, if for nothing else the way its style and concepts have so thoroughly infiltrated our general culture by now, thirty years since its publication and now fifty years since its original penning.
*And by the way, despite the similarities, don't mistake this for an autobiographical novel; although the overweight Toole obviously suffered from mental problems himself, lived with his mother as an adult for a short time, and based a few of the plot developments on real experiences (for example, he once actually was a hot dog vendor who quickly ate all his profits), it's also clear that in the academic world he was a witty, popular, respected professor, in a steady relationship for most of his youth, who apparently did wicked impressions at cocktail parties, making his eventual mental breakdown and suicide even more tragic. (less)
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of C...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
The CCLaP 100: In which I read a hundred so-called "classics" for the first time, then write reports on whether they deserve the label Review #10: The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger (1951)
The story in a nutshell: Not so much of a traditional plot-based story, The Catcher in the Rye is instead a look at a 48-hour block in the life of an American teen named Holden Caulfield, a skinny and obnoxious kid who comes from a generally comfortable, decent family on the east coast, but who for some reason just seemingly can't get along with anyone or fit in anywhere. In fact, as the novel opens, Holden has just gotten kicked out of yet another private prep school; it is right before holiday, in fact, with his family expecting him home in two days anyway, so he's decided to just hoof it around the New York area for the next 48 hours and spend some time thinking about his life.
As a result, not much of note actually happens to Holden over the next two days -- he visits an old teacher he doesn't like very much, invites an ex-girlfriend he doesn't like very much to go traveling with him, eventually ends up in Manhattan, then back at his parents' place, and then finally an amusement park while entertaining his little sister. The main point of the book, then, is to try to understand Holden as a character and deeply flawed human; to watch the way he looks at life, to notice the way he idolizes his older brother, out in Hollywood and making a living as a screenwriter. Holden is both restless and old-fashioned, tender and cruel, someone who is sometimes blurting out uncomfortable truths and sometimes lying right to your face. And by the time we're done, hopefully we've learned something not only about him in particular but about teens in general, and especially the sense of alienation and standoffishness that comes to so many at that age no matter when in history we're talking about.
The argument for it being a classic: The argument for this being a classic is a clean and simple one -- it is demonstrably the very first book in history to establish the "confessional young adult" genre, one that has grown in our modern times to accommodate tens of thousands of books and millions of grateful teen fans. Before Catcher in the Rye, its fans say, there were only two types of stories considered appropriate for younger readers -- either moralistic tales that very sternly taught right from wrong, or the kind of psuedo-science babble mysteries like I was mentioning last week, when I was reviewing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Salinger was the very first person to publish a book about a teen written from the teen's point of view himself, a very raw point of view that contains sex, filth, cursing galore, and all the other prurient stuff that comes with peeking inside a 16-year-old boy's head; it was a breakthrough of the Modernist era, fans claim, one of those seminal projects that broke the ground for all the naturalistic books and films in the '50s, '60s and '70s that came afterwards. Oh, and if this weren't enough, it just also happens to be the most censored book in the history of the United States, as well as a personal favorite of both Mark David Chapman (who killed John Lennon) and John Hinckley Jr (who shot Ronald Reagan); these facts alone almost guarantee it a spot on any list of classics.
The argument against: The main argument against this being a classic seems to be that it's become a victim of its own success; indeed, Catcher in the Rye has been so influential over the decades, its critics say, an entire genre of "Salingeresque" work now exists (which like I said is more formally known as "confessional young adult"), many books of which are actually much better than the original that started them all. After all, let's admit it, Catcher in the Rye has its problems, ones typical of any young and inexperienced writer (which Salinger was when first penning this); just as one good example, there are only so many times you can use the word 'g-ddam' in one story before it becomes a self-parodying joke. Like many of the books being reviewed in this essay series, I don't think there's a single human out there who would deny this novel's historical importance; but that's not what we're trying to determine here with the CCLaP 100, but rather whether it's a book you personally should read before you die.
My verdict: So imagine my shock when I found myself finishing this book and saying to myself, "My God -- JD Salinger is basically Judy Blume with more cursing." (Or to be completely fair, I guess that should be worded -- "My God, Judy Blume is basically JD Salinger with Jews and menstruation.") I guess I had been expecting a lot more, given what a supernaturally high regard this book has among such a large swath of the general population; I was expecting it to not only be a good Young Adult novel (which it admittedly is) but also something that was going to reveal some sort of transcendent truth about the world to me as a fully-grown adult.
Er...it doesn't. This is just a good Young Adult novel, and you owe it to yourself to know that going into it; that unless you're a teen yourself when you read it, there really isn't going to be anything too terribly original or groundbreaking found in this manuscript. In fact, you could argue that Salinger was quite smart to basically wall himself off from the press and general public after this book, and never publish again (he's still alive, by the way, for those who don't know, reputedly living a happy and quiet life somewhere on the Atlantic Seaboard); because ultimately this is not a great book but simply a good one, eventually made legendary because of the time period it was published, and the subsequent reclusive career that Salinger has had. Its overwhelming historical significance I think earns it a place on the classics list, plus the fact that it's not actually a bad book at all; it's just that this is a kind of book that adults have already read many times before, especially if you were a fan of such authors as Betsy Byars when you were a teen yourself.
One of those classics I haven't read in a long time, that I remember being very good, but that I should really read again soon in order to confirm. Ev...moreOne of those classics I haven't read in a long time, that I remember being very good, but that I should really read again soon in order to confirm. Even more important than before these days, in fact, in that it was one of the first projects ever to precisely define exactly what Fascism is; remember, before this novel, there were lots of disagreements over what linked Hitler and Mussolini together (for example) ideologically, apart from it being advantageous for them to team up against the Allies. When I think back now to so many of this book's plot points, they match up with actual items from the Bush administration so precisely to be scary; that's why I'm thinking of sitting down soon and reading this again for the first time in a decade.(less)