Category Archives: Library of America contenders

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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Even more Library of America contenders

UPTON SINCLAIR (1878-1968) America’s foremost Socialist, writer and activist was a Socialist and activist first and a writer second, as he himself was first to acknowledge. Sinclair defended the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, plowed the money from his most successful book into a short-lived New Jersey commune, and ran for governor of California in the face of blistering attacks from William Randolph Hearst. (One of his campaign workers was future science fiction great Robert A. Heinlein.) Sinclair wrote his 90 or so books with torn-from-the-headlines urgency, with little regard for the niceties of character development and dialogue, and his many novels occupy a space somewhere between narrative outlines and political pamphlets. But throughout his life Upton Sinclair was the model of a publicly engaged intellectual, and his impact on American life was considerable, not least in the way his muckraking 1906 novel The Jungle helped bring about curbs on the meatpacking industry’s vilest practices. In the 1940s, dissatisfied with his own work, Sinclair conceived a massive series of historical novels built around Lanny Budd, the Swiss-born son of an American armaments manufacturers, whose life brings him into contact with every significant historical figure and event of the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with World’s End in 1940 and ending with The Return of Lanny Budd in 1953, the 11-volume Lanny Budd series remains Upton Sinclair’s most attractive and engaging work, with remarkably shrewd judgments and predictions about the influence of oil cartels, corporations and the press that still speak to our times. Though they are available in print-on-demand editions from Simon Publications, the Budd books are prime candidates for the black jacket club, in however many volumes are necessary. Another volume would suffice for the best of the muckraking novels: The Jungle, which every high school student knows; The Flivver King, a novel about Henry Ford that every high school student ought to know; Oil, about the early days of the California oil boom; The Wet Parade, the abstemious author’s denunciation of alcohol and its degradation of an American family; and the rueful story of his gubernatorial campaign: I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked. The videos posted at top and bottom are about Sinclair and his campaign.

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH (1921-1995) Though she was tagged early on as a writer of high quality crime fiction and thrillers, this Texas-born author had no use for the conventions of the genre — the standard tension and release structure of thrillers struck her as “a silly tease of the reader.” Instead, she wrote novels that slowly and steadily tightened their coils around the reader, plumbing the depths of criminal personalities or showing the shaky foundations of straight people. Highsmith’s characters have a tendency to lose, trade or steal their identities, or fall so deeply into fantasy that the real world becomes irrelevant. Though she was successful in her lifetime, Highsmith is an acquired taste. Even though I acquired it early on, I still need a long layover between her books — once I went on a Highsmith tear, reading six novels and two story collections in a month, and spent the next few weeks feeling like I was shaking off a bad acid trip. She’s best known for her 1950 debut novel, Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock turned into one of his best films, and the five novels she called “the Ripliad,” following the career of Tom Ripley, an ingratiating psychopath with a taste for the good life. (There’s a bit of Ripley’s DNA in Hannibal Lecter, though Highsmith’s original is far more believable.) The elegantly vicious Ripley novels deserve a volume of their own: The Talented Mr. Ripley, about how to use an oar as an instrument of social-climbing; Ripley Under Ground, a tale of better living through art forgery; Ripley’s Game, a study of the vulnerability of innocence to calculating, ruthless evil; The Boy Who Followed Ripley, in which the hero gives a younger man a master class in sociopathy; and Ripley Under Water, about why there’s no percentage in being too snoopy when Tom Ripley lives in your neighborhood. A separate volume would serve for the best of her one-off novels: Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt (a lesbian romance, published in 1951, that defied convention by offering a way to happiness for its principals), Deep Water, The Cry of the Owl and Edith’s Diary. Several filmmakers have had a go at the Ripley novels: the ones who got it right were Rene Clement, who adapted the first book as Purple Noon (Plein Soleil), with Alain Delon as young Ripley; and Liliana Cavani, whose 2002 version of Ripley’s Game showcases John Malkovich as the definitive older Ripley.

FREDERICK MANFRED (1912-1994) He spent his career tagged as a Western writer, but there’s no whiff of Zane Grey in the works of Frederick Manfred. He wrote broad-shouldered novels that delved into the souls of the rough, violent people who inhabited the West, and though he evoked whites and Indians alike with great imaginative sympathy, he depicted their conflicts with unflinching realism: the atrocity at the start of Scarlet Plume is one of the most horrifying things I’ve read. Manfred best-known novel is probably Lord Grizzly, based the 1823 ordeal of Hugh Glass, a mountain man left for dead after being ripped open by a grizzly bear, who then literally dragged himself hundreds of miles to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River. The book is a tour de force exploration of the survival instinct, obsession and a quest for revenge that turns unexpectedly absurd. Manfred had no peer in evoking the mental states of men in extreme conditions, and novels like Conquering Horse have passages of almost hallucinatory intensity. The obvious place to start is the five-novel sequence called the Buckskin Man Tales — Conquering Horse, Lord Grizzly, Scarlet Plume, Riders of Judgment and King of Spades — that chronicles life in the high plains region Manfred called “Siouxland.” Starting with the early 19th century, just before the first incursions of white settlers, then moving through the “Mountain Man” era, the 1862 Sioux uprising, the out-and-out exploitation of the land and the Wyoming range wars of 1890, Manfred offers a comprehensive, multi-hued portrait of thew westward expansion. A volume of novels and nonfiction, including The Golden Bowl and Prime Fathers, his prose portraits of Midwestern worthies such as Sinclair Lewis and Hubert Humphrey, would go a long way toward rescuing this forgotten American master from obscurity.

More Library of America contenders

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).

Library of America contenders

Since the Library of America has shown a laudable willingness to surprise with its choice of authors to induct into the Black Jacket Club — H.P. Lovecraft! Philip K. Dick! — I’ve been pondering other out-of-left-field writers to add to the LoA’s catalogue.

I say “out of left field” for lack of a better phrase: these writers have at least as much claim on our attention as William Dean Howells or Nathanael West, both of whom have gotten the LoA treatment. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions, particularly disreputable ones. American literature is a scruffy place at its best, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Here are some initial nominations:

CHESTER HIMES (1909-1984) If the creators of Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op are entitled to membership in the Black Jacket Club, then the man who gave us Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones and the “Harlem Detective” series is overdue for the same recognition. A peer of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Himes launched his career with dense, socially observant novels rooted in the exodus of African Americans to Los Angeles during the 1940s. Cast the First Stone (1952), based on his prison time, was ahead of its time in depicting a homosexual relationship. In 1957 Himes turned to hardboiled crime fiction with For Love of Imabelle (aka A Rage in Harlem), the first of nine novels featuring Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones — black NYPD detectives who went about their work with a combination of appalling brutality and macabre wit. Prime Himes could easily fill two volumes, starting with If He Hollers, Let Him Go and the other early novels, with another volume of crime fiction and short stories. Any collection should also include his incidental but valuable nonfiction, such as the analysis of the Zoot Suit Riots Himes wrote for the NAACP.

CHARLES PORTIS (1933) The cult writer’s cult writer. Yes, he’s still alive, but so’s Philip Roth, and he’s got a boatload of LoA volumes, so there you go. The success of Portis’ second novel, True Grit, and the subsequent film version (which bagged John Wayne his only Oscar) ensured that at least one of his books will always be in print, but hardcore Portisheads maintain that the man’s true career peak is Masters of Atlantis, a trip through America’s subculture of pseudoscience and weird religion that Thomas Pynchon would have been proud to have written. Portis is one of the great comic writers of all time: laconic, subtly witty, with a gift for giving his characters quirky and distinctive voices. Beneath the off-kilter dialogue and low-key comedy there’s a core of real toughness: the explosion of violence at the end of Gringos startles but does not feel unearned, and for all its rustic chuckles True Grit is about a mission of blood vengeance that ends up costing its heroine more than she realizes. Norwood, True Grit, Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis and Gringos would fit quite comfortably into one of those easy-to-hold volumes. The man is so infuriatingly unprolific that at this late date any collection is apt to be definitive. Alas.

ROBERT SILVERBERG (1935) After years of writing proficient hackwork science fiction (as well as dozens of softcore porn novels tossed off for the cash), Silverberg decided it was time to lift the SF genre out of the space opera ghetto by writing novels and short stories distinguished by conceptual daring and high literary ambition. He wasn’t the only one doing it, but his relentless productivity and astonishing consistency made him the standard bearer for SF authors aiming to produce work that could stand tall with the best mainstream writing. Thorns, Nightwings, Up the Line, Hawksbill Station, The Book of Skulls and Dying Inside would make a great first volume, covering the initial period when Silverberg was setting precedents and shattering them on a yearly basis. The later period, with its mix of fantasies and historical novels, could be covered in a separate volume, as could the short stories. An unappreciated American artist, overdue for serious consideration.

ICEBERG SLIM (1918-1992) Robert Beck’s novels of black street life in mid-twentieth century America, drawn from his decades as a pimp, hustler and convict, are as harsh and uncompromising as anything you’ll read, and the better gangsta rappers — notably Ice Cube and Ice-T — often cite him as an influence. The autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life, Trick Baby, Mama Black Widow, Airtight Willie & Me and The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim are horrifying, pornographic and sometimes outrageously funny time capsules of gutter life in America.

WALTER TEVIS (1928-1984) I hate to use words like “iconic” but Tevis created two iconic figures right out of the box: Fast Eddie Felson, the pool shark hero of Tevis’ 1959 debut novel, The Hustler; and Thomas Jerome Newton, the tormented extraterrestrial visitor in Tevis’ second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963). He also created Beth Harmon, the tranquilizer-addicted chess prodigy of The Queen’s Gambit (1983). The further adventures of Fast Eddie, chronicled in The Color of Money (1984), and the dystopian novel Mockingbird (1980) will round out a portrait of an American journeyman who ought to be better known.