Still more Library of America contenders

The list so far: Chester Himes, Charles Portis, Iceberg Slim, Walter Tevis and Robert Silverberg. Charles Bukowski, John D. MacDonald, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert E. Howard and Susan Sontag. Upton Sinclair, Patricia Highsmith and Frederick Manfred. All of them great American writers worthy of the Library of America. And now . . .

HARLAN ELLISON (1934) A unique American voice, half Borscht Belt and half Borges, and a writer who straddles genres and storytelling modes without letting them define him, often pushing their boundaries beyond recognition in the process. Though often classified as a science fiction writer, Ellison has grown from his start in the SF and crime genres to develop an instantly recognizable, inimitable form he calls “dark, twisted fantasy,” one that parallels (without imitating) the best of Carlos Fuentes and other magic realists even while boiling with Ellison’s idiosyncratic, combative manner. Though he was feverishly productive as a writer, essayist, scriptwriter and editor from the mid-1950s onward, Ellison’s defining work began in the mid-1970s with “The Deathbird,” a tour de force novella that took off from later Mark Twain works like “The Mysterious Stranger,” mixing autobiographical and fictional elements to create a tragic, wrathful vision of man’s place in the universe. Subsequent stories like “Coatoan” and “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” have continued in this vein, and while Ellison has gained a measure of critical approval over the years, it’s pretty clear that a writer of similar accomplishments, but not burdened with the SF association, would have long ago been hailed as a literary giant. There have been several attempts to bring Ellison’s unwieldy, hugely varied body of work back into print, but the LoA is in a position to bring scholarly precision and credibility to the project.

An initial volume would combine his early novels Web of the City and Spider Kiss — the latter a scathing, knowledgeable look at the early years of rock and roll — with the numerous short stories from the decade when Ellison’s work mingled pulpy crime tales with increasingly outre fantasies such as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” The latter stories, starting with “The Deathbird,” could easily support a second volume. Ellison’s combative essays and reviews also merit a volume: Ellison’s abrasive shtick can overwhelm individual essay collections like The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, Harlan Ellison’s Watching and Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, but they could be boiled down to a single, gem-studded collection, rounded out by Memos From Purgatory, his account of a brief sojourn in a teen gang. A fourth volume of screenplays for The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek, all of them classics of the form, combined with unrealized but published scripts for films such as I, Robot and The Starlost would be a stretch, but an appropriate one: no other writer has accumulated so many honors for work that ended up distorted or sidelined. As an anthologist and editor — notably on the landmark Dangerous Visions (1967) and its successor, Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) — Ellison served as a kind of literary tummler, giving each story a brief introduction that spotlighted its author while suffusing the collection with Ellison’s inimitable voice: a sampling of these distinctive pieces belongs in the nonfiction volume. Ellison’s combativeness with publishers and film studios has produced a body of litigation equal to his other work, but I doubt LoA would spring for a collection of legal briefs. More’s the pity. Surely the story of how he brought James Cameron to heel over The Terminator should be preserved for future generations.

JOHN O’HARA (1905-1970) In the American novel of manners, John O’Hara is Henry James with a highball in one hand and a set of brass knuckles in the other; Edith Wharton with an attitude and a haymaker; F. Scott Fitzgerald drained of sentimentality and fortified with a talent for dialogue. Starting in 1934, O’Hara wrote a core of novels — Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8, Hope of Heaven, Pal Joey, A Rage to Live, Ten North Frederick and From the Terrace — that studied Depression- and World War II-era America with a piercing eye. His blunt language and frank sexuality scared Hollywood away from his work for a couple of decades; when film versions were finally produced, the results were often unwatchably campy — Hollywood has ever been comically incapable of dealing with class and caste. Nevertheless, the 1960 film version of BUtterfield 8 bagged Elizabeth Taylor her first Oscar and led O’Hara to joke that in writing Gloria Wandrous he “created Elizabeth Taylor before there was an Elizabeth Taylor.” (One could say O’Hara did the same favor for Frank Sinatra by writing Pal Joey, the film of which is the definitive Sinatra vehicle.) O’Hara called one of his nonfiction collections Sweet and Sour, but there was never much sweetness in him and the little that was there curdled with age. Even as his novels dimmed, O’Hara continued to produce short stories, and many admirers maintain that the shorter works allowed O’Hara’s gifts their proper scope. O’Hara was an aggressive social-climber and career snob, with a mile-wide nasty streak, a habit of getting into brawls and a penchant for harboring slights that existed only in his mind. By the Sixties his conservative politics had turned acrid and nasty, and he brought sulfurous rancor and a long memory to a series of literary feuds. But rather than let this nonsense overshadow O’Hara’s body of work, go read the virtuoso opening chapter of his 1934 debut novel Appointment in Samarra, which carries the reader through several viewpoints from every social level of a small Pennsylvania town, from a Cadillac-dealer’s employee to country-clubbers at a Christmas Eve party to a gangster’s flunky making a late-night liquor delivery, telling us everything we need to know about the mores of this inbred coalfield burg while following the ripples from an impulsive act that seals the doom of the main character. The act itself is never shown directly, but refracted through different eyes and viewpoints, it shows us a man sabotaging himself even as he struggles to survive. Separate volumes for the early novels and the short stories belong in the LoA catalogue. Brought up in the Pennsylvania coal country, O’Hara remained a small-town snob at heart, but he was a mercilessly observant one, and he had a knack for arranging small, mean truths into big, revealing murals. 

GEORGE V. HIGGINS (1939-1999) Often cited as the successor of John O’Hara for the artful realism of his dialogue, Higgins quickly mapped out his own artistic terrain as a keen observer of lowlifes, crooks, politicians and police (usually Irish-American) in and around Boston and New England. Drawing on his background as a former newspaperman, district attorney and defense lawyer (he numbered Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy among his clients), Higgins wrote what could be called drawing-room dramas about unredeemed scumbags. “Dialogue is character and character is plot” was one of his maxims, and he demonstrated it in his work. Early Higgins novels such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Cogan’s Trade include brief interludes of action, described with cinematic precision, but the mature and later works subordinate action and plot to load-bearing dialogue, which remains salty and flavorful — so much so that crucial events can slip past the reader and force him to backtrack. This is not a problem in the early novels, with their straightforward crime plots, but in the later books, which widen to include political skullduggery and complex relationships, it makes considerable demands on the reader, and it’s not surprising that Higgins’ audience shrank to a hard core of admirers by the early 1980s. Higgins was relentlessly productive, publishing 27 novels and countless nonfiction pieces from 1972, when The Friends of Eddie Coyle was a critical and commercial success, to his sudden death from cancer in 1999. Not all of it was brilliant, but a lot of it came close. In a perfect world, I would mandate a volume for the best early novels (Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game, Cogan’s Trade, The Judgment of Deke Hunter, Dreamland) and another for the later standouts: A Choice of Enemies, Imposters, Trust, Bomber’s Law and At End of Day.

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5 thoughts on “Still more Library of America contenders

  1. robot rage says:

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  2. Dorman T. Shindler says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Although Ellison’s continually evolving prose style now reads something like Jorge Luis Borges by way of Donald Westlake (which is a compliment, because the short story, in it’s purest form — as practiced by Borges, Ellison, Luisa Valenzuela and Westlake, for a very few — is as close to poetry as prose will ever get). And while I have seen and own a Modern Library edition of John O’hara stories, Harlan Ellison has yet to be given the full treatment from those folks or the editors at Library of America. And anyone who’s read his work knows that, at the very least, collections like DEATHBIRD STORIES and/or THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON deserve a spot on the bookshelf of all well-read bibliophiles, and every library — not to mention a place within the distinguished rolls of the books published by LOA.

  3. Dorman T. Shindler says:

    Whoops: Meant to write (above) that although his prose style has evolved, it would be nice for LOA to publish one of Ellison’s well-known collections — preferably THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON, but DEATHBIRD STORIES would be a good choice too — so readers can witness the evolution of a master of the short story for themselves. And be entertained and enlilghtened in the process!

  4. Steven Hart says:

    Ellison’s penchant for rearranging previously published stories alongside new works makes the collections problematic for any LoA editions. I agree that “Deathbird Stories” is the one Ellison to have if you’re only having one. But who can stop at just one?

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