About a week ago I published the first installment of my annotated list of Steven’s Favorite Books, compiled at the behest of poet and editor Nick DiGiovanni. That’s “favorite” books, not “best” or “most important,” but the books that I return to most often, whether for information or for pleasure, or for both.
There are at least two more installment’s worth left to go. You’ll find the master list at the end of the first installment. And so . . .
FLASH FOR FREEDOM! George MacDonald Fraser
I’m a sucker for good historical fiction, and Fraser’s books are some of the best. Harry Flashman, lifted whole from Tom Brown’s School Days and given a commission in Queen Victoria’s army, is one of the great antiheroes in literature: bluff and hearty looking but a coward at heart; a backstabbing poltroon who wins military honors and a heroic reputation through blind luck and chance; an endlessly cynical joker who runs from fights but is ready to acknowledge real heroism when he sees it. Through deft plotting, Fraser has thus far managed to tangle Flashman in just about every one of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” and then some: the first Afghan campaign, the revolutions of 1848, the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebelllion in China, the India Mutiny, and the Crimean War. Though he has dropped plenty of hints that Flashman was involved in the Civil War on both sides, Fraser has yet to publish that installment of the saga, though Flashman and the Angel of the Lord puts Harry in the middle of the standoff at Harper’s Ferry. Unfortunately, Angel of the Lord and the last two Flashman titles have been pretty weak tea — if Fraser has taken too many trips to the well, maybe we’d all be better off if the Civil War novel goes unrealized.
Angel of the Lord was the third book to bring Flashman to America. For my money, the first two American books — Flash for Freedom! and Flashman and the Redskins — are the twin peaks of the series. Flash for Freedom! gets off to a relatively slow start for the series: a cameo appearance by the Chartist Rebellion, followed by a card game with Disraeli that turns into an incident of near-manslaughter. Ready to skip the country until things cool down, Flashman is gulled into shipping out on one of his father-in-law’s merchant ships: only after the ship sets sail does Flashman realize he’s signed aboard a slave ship bound for the Guinea coast. What follows is a tour de force: a panoramic view of the mid-nineteenth century slave trade that takes a clear-eyed look at every side, from the African potentates who eagerly sold off their brethren, to the merchants whose finery cannot quite conceal the moral degeneracy that comes with the buying and selling of human beings. Marooned in New Orleans with stolen identity papers, Flashman assumes various roles at every level of society in the pre-bellum South as a slave owner, a slave overseer, an operative for the Underground Railroad and finally as a slave himself, sold into bondage by a plantation owner Flashman has cuckolded. The sequence in which Flashman escapes and flees north with a fellow captive is bravura action, full of twists and close calls, climaxing with a chase across a frozen river and a stand-down between some brutal slave-catchers and a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln.
The book also offers some of Fraser’s most finely drawn characters, the most inspired being John Charity Spring, a homicidal Latin scholar and defrocked Oxford don who captains the slave ship Balliol College and crops up as a recurring nemesis in other Flashman books. The Flashman books are often referred to as comic novels, but Flash for Freedom! goes well beyond laughs with the character Cassy, a slave woman who burns with hatred for all whites but finds an unlikely savior in the gutless, womanizing Flashman. Magnificent stuff.
FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS/ George MacDonald Fraser
The second American novel in the Flashman series picks up right where Flash for Freedom left off, with Flashman once more on the lam, signing on as a bodyguard for a New Orleans brothel that’s relocating to San Francisco via wagon train. The narrative carries Flashman through the thick of the Indian wars, with circumstances once again landing him in various roles: bounty hunter, Indian fighter, Apache captive, and lover of an Apache chief’s daughter. The second half brings Flashman back to the West years later, and by various twists and turns puts him alongside George Armstrong Custer just as he takes it into his head to go after a bunch of Indians at the Little Bighorn. Every once in a while Frader senses that Flashman is about to become too loveable a rogue, a problem he remedies by making Flashman do something bone-jellying callous and brutal. That’s what happens here, and it paves the way for a dynamite plot twist that neatly yanks the rug out from under the reader’s expectations.
TALES OF SOLDIERS AND CIVILIANS/ Ambrose Bierce
Ernest Hemingway said a great many foolish things, none more ridiculous than: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” What utter balls. Modern American literature was created by Twain’s contemporary, Ambrose Bierce, a San Francisco newspaperman whose penchant for viciously funny satire earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, the young Bierce served on the Union side during the Civil War and fought in some of its most appalling battles, namely Shiloh and Kennesaw Mountain. The experiences he endured during the war cast long shadows through his life and work. Those shadows gather here in “Chickamauga” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the former a hallucinatory vignette that reads like something from Goya’s Disasters of War; the latter a tale ending in a twist so brilliantly brutal that successive generations of writers have copped from it. (Check out the Sopranos episode in which Adrianna is murdered, and tell me the writers weren’t paying tribute.) Bierce scorned novels as overly padded stories; to prove his point, he made his short stories into marvels of compression and forceful writing, and his depictions of mind-altering twists of fate in the midst of battle (“One of the Missing”) could have been written last week. This collection also includes some of his horror stories, which pale in comparison with the war stories – after seeing what the little boy encounters in the woods in “Chickamauga,” a Lovecraftian trifle like “The Damned Thing” seems downright comforting. There are also a couple of “Parenticide Club” stories that showcase Bierce’s utterly pitch-black sense of humor. Bierce was a man of the nineteenth century, but his work forecast what was to come, and showed everyone how to write about it.
BEHIND THE SHADES REVISITED/ Clinton Heylin
As I’ve written before, Bob Dylan stands with Duke Ellington and Aaron Copeland as a crucial figure in any appreciation of twentieth century American music, and this is the most up to date, comprehensive and critically informed biography of him that money can buy. Alone of all Dylan’s chroniclers, Heylin has come to grips not only with Dylan’s huge body of officially recorded works, but also with the immense corpus of bootleg recordings that allows one to trace virtually every phase of Dylan’s artistic development, from those first strummed songs in Bonnie Beecher’s apartment to the last outtakes from Time Out of Mind. And for all his appreciation of Dylan’s artistry, Heylin is no dazzled fanboy: he can be brutally dismissive of sacred cows like Dylan’s early ‘90s return to folk music, or the blowhard arena shows from his 1974 “comeback” tour. Too much writing about Dylan veers between the embarrassingly worshipful gushing of Paul Williams and the deep-dish arcana of Greil Marcus, whose musings are often as puzzling, and much less rewarding, than some of the trickier verses on Highway 61 Revisited. This book stands with Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man (and his recent Bob Dylan Encyclopedia) as one of the very few essential books written about a most essential American artist. Of all the books I own, this may be the one I return to most often, for its depth of detail, its critical shrewdness and its flavorful style.
AGAINST THE AMERICAN GRAIN/ Dwight Macdonald
I came to this book for “By Cozzens Possessed,” the long, witheringly funny essay that effectively ended the career of pretentious middlebrow writer James Gould Cozzens – to paraphrase Martin Amis, when Macdonald reviewed Cozzens, he stayed reviewed. But I kept it because Macdonald, like all the best critics, brought so much wit, learning, and observation to his task that the essay grew beyond one bad writer to become a merry hunting trip to bag and tag all the blowhard authors who are hailed as saviors of literature one week and forgotten beyond all recall the next. There is a fine appreciation of James Joyce, an equally fine evisceration of Ernest Hemingway, and a long polemic about the purpose of dictionaries that needs to be dealt with by anyone who sides with “descriptive” over the “proscriptive” approach. For all his political radicalism, Macdonald was culturally rather conservative – a “rebel in defense of tradition,” as his biographer called him. He appreciated the innovations of a James Joyce all the more because he also continued to treasure the more earthbound predecessors that Joyce soared past. The wit and economy of his writing are so bracing that the subjects of his essays: like George Orwell, whom he writes about here, Macdonald mastered the art of artlessness, and it makes these pieces irresistably readable.