Last time out, we considered Chester Himes, Charles Portis, Iceberg Slim, Robert Silverberg and Walter Tevis as potential candidates for Library of America collections. I had been hoping to hear a lot more suggestions from commenters, but I’m an optimist — maybe this second batch of nominees for the Black Jacket Club will stir up some arguments, or at least additional suggestions.
CHARLES BUKOWSKI: To cop a line from Robert Christgau (who used it to describe early Tom Waits), when Bukowski really worked his “Poet Laureate of Skid Row” persona, he could be so full of shit Port-o-San should have named a model after him. But in his tales of Los Angeles lowlife (hear one of them in the clip above) he could also be uproariously funny, astonishingly tough and brilliantly observant. Bukowski left a lot of material in his wake, but I’m betting you could get a damn good read from a volume of novels (Post Office, Factotum, Women, Ham on Rye, Hollywood), another of selected poems (he literally wrote thousands) and a separate collection of short stories and columns, particularly the bits from Notes of a Dirty Old Man. It adds up to a portrait of the soft white underbelly of postwar America, populated by odd characters and criminals who fell through the cracks of the middle and working classes.
JOHN D. MacDONALD: The natural successor of Raymond Chandler took another sun-drenched fake paradise — in this case, Florida — and turned it into a social laboratory for everything that was starting to turn sour, ugly and mean in mid-20th century America. MacDonald’s Marlowe was Travis McGee, a houseboat-dwelling “salvage consultant” whose cases brought him up against some of the most realistically drawn villains in American crime fiction, all the more terrifying for their workaday believability: con men with land development schemes, backwoods cops with dirty secrets to hide, hustlers who resort to murder to keep their get-rich-quick schemes afloat. MacDonald’s career bridged the pulp era and the rise of mass-market paperback fiction (many of his novels were paperback originals), and he personified the kind of no-nonsense craftsmanship that defines the best popular American writing. Combine four of the best McGees — The Long Lavender Look, Bright Orange for the Shroud, The Dreadful Lemon Sky and The Empty Copper Sea — with the stand-alone novels The Executioners (filmed twice as Cape Fear) and A Flash of Green and you will have a compact, manageable look at the work of a classic American journeyman who sometimes journeyed within sight of genius.
KURT VONNEGUT: Like Mark Twain (whom he revered), Vonnegut’s ironies seldom pierced as deeply as he liked to think, and his tendency to fall into babytalk prose and coy cynicism was frequently exasperating. But (again like Twain) Vonnegut was an inimitable American voice, and his works are peppered with great observations. Ice-Nine — a substance so dangerous that its mere existence puts the world at risk, created simply because it was possible to do so — remains a superb metaphor for out-of-control technology, decades after Vonnegut used it in Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s best novels could be grouped into a single, gem-studded volume: God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Cat’s Cradle (his masterpiece), Slaughterhouse-Five (overrated, but his best-known work) and the underrated Jailbird, rounded out with a judicious sampling of short stories, which aside from the middlebrow classic “Harrison Bergeron” have not aged terribly well and in at least one case (the science fictional rape fantasy “Welcome to the Monkey House”) become disgusting. The plays, essays and articles deserve their own companion volume — Vonnegut’s nonfiction often delivered the bite missing from his later novels and short stories.
ROBERT E. HOWARD: This Texas pulp maestro combined the strengths and weaknesses of Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs into a unique, roiling mix that was still developing when he took his own life at the age of thirty. From his first professional sales in the late 1920s to his death in 1936, Howard churned out an extraordinary volume of stories in a range of styles and markets. Like Burroughs, Howard is inextricably linked with one iconic character — in Howard’s case, Conan — but produced other story-cycles of more than passing interest: the tall-tale Western hero Breckenridge Elkins, the brooding Puritan wanderer Solomon Kane, the doomed Pict chieftain Bran Mak Morn and his losing battle against the encroaching Celts and Romans. All were informed by Howard’s doomy temperament and his Spengler-influenced notions about barbarism being the natural state of mankind. (The mix also included Howard’s racism, which was virulent but eccentricly expressed: he scorned blacks but sympathized with Mexicans and romanticized Indians.) At the time of his suicide, Howard’s interests were leading him away from the pulps and toward the folklore and history of the American southwest, and there is every reason to think he would have developed into a significant regional writer and possibly something more. Though this development was cut short, Howard remains a seminal figure of the pulp era, that disreputable hothouse of American literature.
SUSAN SONTAG: She was everything an American intellectual should be: contentious, energetic, demanding and omnivorous. She is also becoming terminally unfashionable, thanks to her loud radicalism during the Vietnam War, which is why an LoA reclamation project would be timely as well as valuable. Sontag was so versatile that rewarding separate volumes could be created from each area of interest: novels and short stories (The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, The Way We Live Now, In America); essays (Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, Under the Sign of Saturn, Where the Stress Falls); monographs and plays (On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, A Parsifal, Lady from the Sea, Alice in Bed).