The Best of Lesser Known Writers

I may be repeating myself a little here, but I want to use this end-of-the-year post to tout three known writers who should be much more widely appreciated. Each is an established and capable writer, each a member of that dwindling literary fraternity known as mid-list writers.
Ron Hansen cut his teeth on literary westerns, a savvy way to break into long fiction without having the critics look down their nose at him for writing what many think is genre fiction. I first became acquainted with his work through Atticus, a prodigal son novel set in the Western U.S. and Mexico in modern times. Then he threw caution to the winds with Mariette In Ecstasy, a stylized, poetic rendering of a novice in a French convent who has visions. The book is an abstract meditation on the torment her spiritual gift puts her though. Changing again on a dime, Hansen wrote Hitler’s Niece, the tragic story of Hitler’s niece and first lover. His latest novel, Isn’t It Romantic? was published in 2003, a spoof of a small Nebraska town encounter with a French playboy.
Hansen continues to elude being pigeonholed, and that confounds critics, probably condemning him to something less than literary stardom. Still, be assured his deceptively well-wrought prose will withstand such consternation.
Terry Kay is a Southern writer and former columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His first novel of note was To Dance With The White Dog, a whimsical story true to that subset of Southern literature, the rural fantasy story – almost a ghost story – one that seems astutely in tune with magical realism.
Other early novels were Shadow Song, and The Year The Lights Came On. In 1997 he published The Runaway, which gained regional notice. The story of Tom and Son Jesus, seems an embarrassing clone of Twain’s Huck Finn and Jim. Kay is a writer with Steinbeck’s gift of mood, and this, along with Southern gothic elements that would do Flannery O’Conner proud, save the story and give it delicious twists. He subsequently published Taking Lottie Home and The Valley Of Light. Kay has clearly been influenced by O’Connor and Faulkner, possibly McCarthy, and while he’s little-known outside Georgia, he has proven a writer of consistently well-crafted Southern fiction.
Tim O’Brien is possibly the best known of the three. Apparently driven to write following his military experience in Vietnam, his poetic short story, The Things They Carried, has become the stuff of college literature courses. A thematically similar novel, Going After Cacciato won the National Book Award in 1979. A subsequent novel, In The Lake Of The Woods, was set in Great Lakes country and broke different structural ground, its Maupassant-like ending keeping book discussion groups talking for at least a decade. A recent novel, July, July, seems autobiographical and stuck in Sixties mode, but it also shows new strength in character development perhaps not as prominent in earlier works.
Every Sunday morning I look to the best seller lists, hoping these three writers will be jostling there for position. They haven’t, and that in itself is an indictment of both readers and the publishing industry. All I can do is urge you to put these books on your bedside stack – near the top.

J.K. Rowling and Richard Adams

The hubbub about the new — and last — of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, has me thinking once more of Richard Adams. Adams, also a British writer, and famed for Watership Down, his book of the early seventies, has also had to bear the awkward mantle of fantasy writer. As you may remember, Watership is about a community of English rabbits, who had to contend with the dangers humans imposed on their quaint lives, even speaking in a language Adams invented for them. Everyone at the time, it seems, could sooner or later be seen reading this charming book, even uttering cute rabbit phrases from the book.
Adams followed Watership with a two-book series on a fantasy Beklan empire, Shardik and Maia. These were tomes, and readers soon dropped away. Another one, The Plague Dogs, once again took humans to task for their cavalier treatment of animals, in this case dogs used in medical labs.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Adams’ books was Girl In A Swing, about a man, Alan, who becomes mesmerized by a girl, Karin, who may or may not be real. This book, and Watership Down, made their way into movies, receiving credibly critical reviews but creating nary a pulse within the general populace.
What did Rowling do differently? It’s hard to say. The times are different in the book world, and Rowling’s readers’ ages span several decades. Adams clearly meant his work to be modern, adult myth, even prefacing chapters with quotes in Greek.
And what will Rowling do now that the Potter series is finished? She’s married, so family will likely be job one. But writers don’t simply stop because other aspects of their lives have found fulfillment. Adams is still writing, into his eighties, including Traveler — a book about Robert E. Lee, as seen through his horse’s eyes, and Daniel, a story of a black slave boy in eighteenth century America. Let’s hope Rowling can live out many writers’ collective fantasy by writing compellingly about anything she darn well pleases deep into her later years.
I haven’t read Traveler or Daniel, by the way, and it is nearing Christmas…
Have a Happy Holiday.

Something from me to you

It's the season of giving, and since I give my opinions of others' writing on a regular basis, I thought I'd better throw some of mine out for public consumption. Nothing to wow the literary world, you understand, just one of the final projects from my creative writing course, a creative non-fiction piece. Cynn Chadwick, my writing instructor, dissed my last paragraph in its original form. "The previous ninety percent reveals itself," she said. "Then there's a shift in tone, and it feels expository." Got an A minus on that one.
Three things about critiques: first, they make you see your writing through someone else's filtering system, and this lets you know how a reader might react to what you've written. Second, there's almost always something else to critique, even after scrupulous editing (hopefully small stuff). Lastly, critique comments are there for you to dance with or not, although most of the time you should.
So, particularly with that last two points in mind, here's the essay after editing, with Cynn's comments in mind. She had recommending dropping the last paragraph or so altogether. I didn't do that, but I shortened it and paid attention to the tone of it. Does it still need a tweak or two? You decide. It's called ON THE PLEASURE OF HATING
An aging European generation remembers 1956 as the year Nikita Khrushchev’s tanks clanked across the Ukrainian border into Hungary to suppress a revolt. Soviets and Americans grappled at the planet’s outer reaches in a contest promising a new frontier in space but threatening wholesale nuclear destruction. In a world that had barely caught its breath from the Second World War, hate seemed an enduring universal constant. And I was soon to be party to an equally absorbing hatred, but one more personal and far more pleasurable.
Sophocles once remarked that we should hate our foes only so far as we soon might love them, but baseball hatred that year had promised to spread its vitriol too deep for that. The Yankees and Dodgers were to play in the World Series. The Dodgers still haunted Ebbets Field in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section. The East River sprawled like a noxious demilitarized zone separating Brooklyn from the Bronx, where their natural enemies, the New York Yankees, reigned. Yankee players then seemed pressed from the mold of Homeric demigods, their deeds — on-field and off — fodder for adjective and adverb-obsessed sports writers hacking away at their Underwoods. Such adulation has always enraged as much as it has enthralled. Even today Yankee hate reinforces the cleft between underdogs and heroes that forever defines the American psyche.
I was an Air Force brat then, a Southerner living in Niagara Falls, reason enough to find myself parboiled in New York’s lower middle-class ethnic cauldron. I took that in stride, and risked more. I tattooed the loose-leaf binder I carried to school with the names of Yankee players. I regurgitated Yankee lore daily in school hallways in my hick accent, quickly learning that sports disputes in upper state New York were invitations to take the conversation outside and escalate it. Still, I loved my inclusion in this form of hate, this abhorrence of all things Yankee. It allowed me footing and a leg up in an alien locale.
October came, the Dodgers bent on using the World Series to prove the Yankees fallible. By Monday the eighth, the teams were tied at two games apiece, the Yankees seeming all too mortal. I slunk from class to class that day to escape the gloats and catcalls. Clambering up the stairs to study hall after lunch, I hoped someone would have word of the fifth game, already in progress.
Seventh grade study hall resided in a narrow, high-ceilinged room on the top floor, warmed by a bank of full-length windows, the period supervised by a coach whose name I’ve long since forgotten. Hunkered over his radio, he glanced up and informed me that pitchers Don Larsen and Sal Maglie were presiding over a scoreless tie.
Others shuffled in. Soon, one boy asked the question: Would Coach let us listen to the game? To our surprise, he agreed, setting his bulky transistor radio on a bookcase, the volume at a barely audible level. We settled in as the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the fourth. Mickey Mantle arced a pitch into the stands.
“Yes!” I whispered.
Two boys turned to glare. One offered to maul me, as if I were somehow responsible for Mantle’s ice-breaking homer.
“Shaddup!” Coach said.
“Shithead Yankee fan,” the boy mumbled too loudly, meaning Coach, who was. Coach banished the boy to the principal’s office.
Too bad. He missed Hank Bauer stroking a pitch into centerfield in the fifth to score Andy Carey. We didn’t know it at the time, but that ended the game’s scoring. Still, it was hardly the game’s end.
Maglie continued to shave the Yankee strike zone. Larsen’s less-than-memorable fastball slowed to minor league speeds, requiring Mantle and Bauer to shag fly balls as if in batting practice. The period ended before the seventh inning, and we took to the halls, realizing we had been witnesses to history. Maglie pitched flawlessly, but it didn’t matter. No Dodgers were reaching base. Don Larsen had a perfect game going.
As we made our final rounds of classes, the Dodger fans about me seemed to lose their grip on Yankee hatred. Their hatred of me, the hick Yankee fan. For the first time since I’d moved there, I felt let down, invisible, in that forbidding, northern place.
That evening’s TV news revealed the Yankees had hurried through their at-bats in the eighth, as if only Larsen mattered. The sports announcer made hay of hyperbole as he described Larsen’s slow walk to the mound. Larsen struggled against Carl Furillo’s four foul balls, and then coaxed him into flying out. In the Dodgers’ second turn, Roy Campanella grounded out. A no-name pinch hitter, Dale Mitchell, came to bat. He went down on three strikes. An ecstatic Yogi Berra leaped into the taller Larsen’s arms. The Yankee pitcher had done it. He had pitched a perfect game.
The Dodgers managed a weak win in game six, the Yankees roaring back in the seventh to take the series. For days, everyone seemed devoid of the Yankee hate I so enjoyed. I received no glares. Dignity-rescuing scuffles were in abeyance. It was as if my team had abandoned me in stepping to a level inconceivable by mortals, one on which hate could gain no traction.
Why the loss I felt as Larsen’s perfection choked out Yankee hate that day? Perhaps the answer lurked in the idea that hate connotes strangeness and conflict, and conflict ultimately leads to resolution and acceptance, and perfection was too exalted a phenomenon for such goings-on. Whatever the answer, a mass of global problems were crying out for entente, and those problems began to engulf me. During those years, perfection never again stymied me. I always knew I could rely on some pleasurable and benign form of hate to deliver me into the embrace of Sophocles’ collegial love.

On Grabbing the Brass Ring

Since I have a minuscule background in things naval, I recently picked up a pair of novels, two parts of a trilogy on John Paul Jones, by Nicholas Nicastro. Nicastro, like most published novelists, is relatively unknown, but the man has a mean set of literary chops. Having just completed the first of the series, entitled The Eighteenth Captain, I can vouch.
Nicastro wrote this one as a period piece, in that rather stilted but charming version of eighteenth century English. Clearly a man who has done his research, he also wrote it in a style of the time. You remember the old English novels, with the omniscient narrator, who occasionally turns a one-eighty to speak to the reader. Nicastro didn’t do that, but he slyly simulated it. He wrote in a first person peripheral point of view similarly to The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway tells Gatsby’s story. Nicastro’s narrator is a U.S. Navy sea Captain, John Severence, shedding light on the notable American hero’s character in a way that would be impossible by any other literary device. Is tells of his adventures with Jones to two French belles de noir in a bargain to bed them for free if they deem his story worthy. The cleverness comes in – and this is how the simulation occurs – when the pair of women interrupt to comment on the story Severence is telling. I know, it isn’t the same thing, but it evokes that antiquated narrator speaking to the reader.
The story isn’t merely technically superlative. Nicastro orchestrates Severence’s tale in a spellbinding manner, releasing the tension of their naval escapades to build on his portrayal of Jones the man.
In case you haven’t guessed, I recommend the book highly. But there’s another reason I’m going on about this newly found author. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but be struck by the parallel between it and the one that made Charles Frazier famous, Cold Mountain. It, too, was a period piece, and well written. Cold Mountain didn’t enthrall me to the same degree as Nicastro’s, but that may be because I love sea tales.
Today, I felt compelled to very briefly compare their careers, and the findings are intriguing. Cold Mountain was published to great acclaim in 1998, The Eighteenth Captain published in 1999. Nicastro’s second of the series, Between Two Fires, came out in 2002, Frazier’s latest, Thirteen Moons, in 2006.
I know these comparisons are arguable to the umpteenth degree, but here goes:
Their Amazon rankings, as of the date of this writing:
For Frazier:
Cold Mountain – 20728
Thirteen Moons – 59
For Nicastro:
The Eighteenth Captain – 285,207
Between Two Fires – 296,305
Of course, the comparison is striking by any standard.
My point in drawing even dicey comparisons here is to demonstrate two things. First, sales aren’t always (perhaps often) comparable to artistic merit, even for literary fiction. And second, your most pleasurable reads aren’t always (perhaps ever) with the best sellers in hand.
Nicastro is a treasure of a writer that simply hasn’t yet been able to manage a hold on the fabled brass ring of fame. Perhaps that’s all to the good, though. He’s had the time to write at least five books in the time that Frazier has written his two.

The Sunset Limited

Cormac McCarthy’s progression from novel to drama currently culminates with his most recently published work, “The Sunset Limited.” His displayed tendency toward baring dramatic bones is no more obvious than here. I’ve commented on his spare prose more than once, but with Sunset, the abstractness of it likely reaches its literary limit.
Sunset is written unabashedly as a play, with two no-name characters on stage, White and Black. White has just attempted suicide by trying to leap in front of a subway train, and Black has saved him. The story begins with White in Black’s shabby apartment, Black trying to find out why White wants to commit suicide, apparently hoping to prevent a recurrent attempt. White is a fairly well-to-do college professor, Black an impoverished ex-con. Their conversation quickly leads to the gist of the play, an gestalt attempt to explain why life is worth living, or more grandly, whether life has any intrinsic vector of meaning.
McCarthy spins his Spartan tale well, making the opposing dialogue work across Black’s apartment table. Neither man is a fool – in fact, both are equally able to put forth their perspectives on life. Clearly McCarthy’s intent here isn’t to resolve such a philosophic conundrum – he purposefully leaves the question open at the end. His intent seems rather to give readers a good shake, to make us wonder at the complex intricacies of human fate and how we view life as a result. To this end, he succeeds with newfound brilliance. If, as I suspect, he’s played his hand out novel-wise, this piece marks a turning point toward a successful stab at drama. If so, I will lament the loss to his readers, a new generation of drama fans the richer for it.
Were one to unearth one weakness to this piece, it’s in his willingness to create on too spare a stage. Any such exchange between equally matched participants quickly tends toward stasis for readers or watchers. A third character, perhaps a relative, even a policeman, would unbalance this duel of equals at critical points and enliven it. But this isn’t McCarthy’s current bent. Perhaps the spare nature of his creativity of late has been necessary for this transition from page to stage. Given his talent, we can only expect greater things from him on stage.