I never met Theodore Solotaroff, who died last week at the age of 80, but I will always remember him fondly as one of the people who helped usher me into the realms of Quality Lit, Contemporary Division. He did it with a publication called New American Review, which is why I feel a personal connection with a guy I never met.
I was a wee suburban lad making his weekly pilgrimmage to Schiller’s Books at the Garden State Plaza, and after years of trooping through the front door, passing to the right of the island with the cash registers and to the left of the new fiction and nonfiction tables, past the remainder counter and then directly to the science fiction and fantasy racks, I had started exploring the other areas of the store. I wandered into the academic section, the classics section, the revolving display of paperback art books (including a display of palm-sized books offering miniature reproductions of works by Daumier, Van Gogh and the like — somebody’s strange idea of bringing art to the masses) great art devoted) and the wall of deep-dish fiction where I found Hemingway, Faulkner and the like. There I came across New American Review, a literary magazine published in paperback book format, and I bought Number 14 because its enigmatic cover (a psychedelic painting of a naked woman hugging herself) promised a nice combination of high-mindedness and smut. Number 15 came out soon thereafter, and I bought that too because it had an intriguing cover painting by the great Roger Hane, whose work I knew and loved from Carlos Castenada’s books and my boxed set of Narnia titles. As you can see, I was using some pretty lofty standards back then.
And so, in my bumbling overreaching young teen way, did I have my first encounters with the works of Brian Moore, Philip Roth, William Gass, Robert Coover, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Robert Stone, Leonard Michaels, Russell Banks, Ellen Willis and Lore Seagal. Among others. Oh, and I got my smut, too — the cover story of No. 14 was “Detritus,” a groaningly pretentious novella about the sunset years of a compulsive womanizer — imagine Bob Guccione imagining himself as Leonard Cohen and you’ll get the idea — and an outrageous Coover story called “Lucky Pierre and the Music Lesson” that is still one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. But the good stuff stuck to my ribs, and my brain, and riffling through the set on my shelves I can tell you there was plenty of good stuff indeed.
New American Review (later American Review) really was an amazing thing, and Solotaroff guided it from its launch in 1967 to its final issue in 1977, winning the patronage of three different publishers and consistently publishing top-notch writers. Solotaroff’s intellectual fingerprints are all over the current incarnations of Paris Review and Granta, places where the mix of quality fiction and nonfiction is never predictable but always reliable.
After his paperback magazine ran its course, Solotaroff went on to a high-flying career as a book editor and essayist. He published two volumes of memoirs, and his harrowing recollections of Depression-era life in Elizabeth, N.J., under a father who had crushed his mother’s spirit and was ready to do the same for him, made his later accomplishments all the more remarkable.
I gather that Solotaroff was a pretty lousy golfer, but that’s fine — I don’t play golf. But I do read, and when I was at an impressionable age he reached across the Hudson River and into Bergen County and messed with my mind, and for that I am grateful.