The first sentences in Dog Soldiers:
“There was only one bench in the shade and Converse went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversize briefcase he’d been carrying; it’s handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street, resting one hand across the case and raising the other to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.”
Robert Stone, the award-winning novelist known for “A Flag for Sunrise” and “Dog Soldiers,” has died. He was 77. Stone’s literary agent said Stone died Saturday at his home in Key West, Florida. The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Thomas McGuane has never received anything less than the highest praise as a novelist, short story writer and essayist. I’ve read him since his first novel, picked up at a remainder bin. For me, his essays shine brightest. With an essay, you can’t leave the writer’s side. In a novel or story, you trail along with the characters with an ear cocked for the pyrotechnics of the writer’s voice. The essays spotlight McGuane’s unique voice, his sensibility, in a way fiction cannot allow. A Sporting Chance, his first collection, and his other nonfiction books The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing and Some Horses are examples of the most personal art. My hand reaches out for them often.
An essay in Some Horses, titled On The Road Again, takes on one of the most anti-intuitive subjects imaginable for a first-class writer who has been called an heir to Hemingway. The topic? A long drive with his wife in a pickup truck, pulling a just-bought 38-foot horse trailer with special built-in, mini-living quarters, around a great circle of the West. In this quintessential American home-on-wheels, christened a “Horseabago,” he writes, “We simply pictured ourselves at one end, and Delta, Sassy, Zip and Lena, in the other, and wheels underneath.” After a few pages, you’re assured of his mastery to take on this tale, and carry it to sublime heights. His sensibility, or whatever it is that frees words to rise above themselves into something approximating quotidian reality, is on full display.
A Girl In Winter is British poet Philip Larkin’s second novel. The book is the story of a 16-year-old European girl, her country is never named, who is prematurely mature and intellectual. She accepts an invitation to visit a young English boy and his family. She falls in love with the boy, but they lose touch. Six years later, she returns to Britain as a war refugee.
It’s a remarkable psychological portrait, in the vein of Larkin’s poetry, which is nihilistic, in almost stoic celebration of the ordinary, unexceptional, ultimately disappointing bits that give life its bitter taste.
What’s most interesting to me is Larkin’s very deep minutia describing the meeting of Katherine and Robin, in which he uses the sort of details that belie someone – meaning Larkin – who runs away from life, from the desire to understand others’ in hope to better understand themselves. Larkin’s austere poetry, even in its most gorgeous sensibility, keeps life at bay, at a safe distance that cannot disappoint, while this novel shows Katherine as a person who is probing and open to understanding, or trying to understand, the complexities of other souls. That she and Robin are ultimately unable to capture any of the romantic shavings that surround all lives, even if ungrasped, is all the more tragic. Larkin’s poems couldn’t display such depth of tragedy because he wrapped them in a polished shell of art, singular gems that, no matter their content, bespoke excellence even in the face of tragedy. The novel shows whereof the poems arose.
Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne is the best novel about Bangkok ever written. But, for clarification, it’s written and marketed as a nonfiction account of the author’s life in the city. The book reeks of novelization with the first-person author surrounded by a cast of fiction-like foils (and at least one real person) who capture the spirit and ambiance of the most sensuous, textured, layered city in the world.
Osborn, the author of the recent Ballad of a Small Player, which is set in the casinos of Macau, excels at romantic, slightly desperate characters and settings full of people who recognize each other for their individual élan in the face of life’s fragility. They are people who are unwilling to give up the fight for life and feeling. That such people in unusual numbers are drawn to Bangkok is no accident. Osborn’s tale of living in Bangkok displays a colorful subset of people of the city who refuse to forsake the quixotic in return for sleek, cosmetic urban wallpaper. The book serves equally well as a novel or one man’s guide to Bangkok, suggesting how to absorb and live within its refreshing disparities.
The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Early Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China by E. Zurcher.
This work of high scholarship looks at the social and cultural factors that led to the eventual adoption of Buddhist principles and practice in Chinese culture. It brilliantly captures the chaotic nature of how Buddhist principles were scattered piecemeal over two centuries by Buddhist monks and lay parties that included foreigners, the Chinese gentry, the court, and the intelligentsia. The beauty is the thousands of details it shares about monks and others from late 300AD through the fourth century. It was a perilous time of ferment, and it would be 200 years, in the Tang Dynasty, before Buddhism took on a more recognisable, coherent form eventually leading to the distinct Chinese Buddhist doctrine that we know today. It underscores the cultural fragmentation and difficulties a foreign doctrine of religion has in finding a place in a totally separate and distinct culture, with a different language and already established theories of religion, cosmology and metaphysics. Not surprisingly, the difficulty of transplanting a “foreign” religion, even one with obvious parallels in Chinese religious writings, is manifest throughout this work. It helps put in context the subsequent official elimination of Buddhist temples and practice in revolutionary China, when viewed from the rocky path that Buddhism walked in medieval times.
For a PDF copy of Zurcher’s book, go here.
John Updike’s literary stock, amazingly, fluctuates up and down. He was our disguised, suburban Henry Miller. He wasn’t interested in becoming a persona in his work, but he opened up the eroticism of the 60s and 70s. Some critics and writers rate him below his peers, usually citing his lack of angst, the jewel-like prose, and the ease with which his massive body of 26 novels, 18 short story collections, 12 collections of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction flowed from his pen. His fictional landscape has no peer, covering as it does detailed reports of American, white middle-class consciousness. His public persona and mild manners were camouflage for a deeply romantic, sexually aroused soul, which Adam Begley captures in a new biography, Updike. Also, here’s an interview with Begley, whose book has received tremendous reviews. I can’t wait for a volume of Updike letters. Updike clearly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, but, alas, for many people in the literary game it takes decades to see the true meaning of a writer’s work. Unfortunately, he, Mailer and Roth were not honoured, but their work, along with Bellow’s, will stand with the books of the earlier American greats: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald… The last century of American literature overflowed with great writers who showed us America.
Begley is good on Updike’s prose style: “Aside from his enormous talents and Protestant work ethic, Updike’s defining characteristic is his signature style, which he owes to his desire to be a graphic artist, and to his stunningly visual memory. Like Proust, like Nabokov and like Henry Green, all of whom influenced him, Updike wrote sentences that work through the precise meeting of visual detail and verbal accuracy.”
See also this essential review of Begley’s biography, and Updike’s persona, by Louis Menand in The New Yorker here.
“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.
“Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fisherman in western Montana, where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
—A River Runs Through It
Philip Roth may be enjoying his days more now, since it’s going on five years since he said he had decided to still his pen as a novelist. But that doesn’t mean he’s not still making literature, this time in the form of a literary interview conducted by a Swedish journalist, which has just appeared in The New York Times Book Review.
The interview sheds light on his own work and his methods, and also the current golden age of American novels. He spins off a list of American novelists, a paean to the uniqueness of American literature that captures as it does the modern and the universal world, writ large through America’s novelists’ eyes. Even in the face of America’s overpowering popular culture, he says, literature lives:
“What has the aesthetic of popular culture to do with formidable postwar writers of such enormous variety as Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Stone, Evan Connell, Louis Auchincloss, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, John Barth, Louis Begley, William Gaddis, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman, David Plante, Richard Ford, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Raymond Carver, Edmund White, Oscar Hijuelos, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Reynolds Price, James Salter, Denis Johnson, J. F. Powers, Paul Auster, William Vollmann, Alison Lurie, Flannery O’Connor, Paula Fox, Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Hortense Calisher, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gordon, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty (and I have by no means exhausted the list) or with serious younger writers as wonderfully gifted as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Nicole Krauss, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Nathan Englander, Claire Messud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer (to name but a handful)?”
I haven’t returned to posting anything lately because I’m still rewriting my travel book, after helpful advice from several friends. However, to break the grind of copyediting, rewriting and adding new material, I’ve been reading again and before long I’ll catch up on my Bedside Books post.
Lately, between daily bouts with the travel book, I’ve read There and Then by James Salter, a classy travel book by a beautiful writer who I hadn’t read before. I was attracted to his writing by a review of All That Is, his latest novel. I ordered his autobiography, Burning the Days, which I’m reading now.
In the unread stack of books are Love Songs from the Grave, the ninth in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri crime series set in Laos, and The Great Leader by Jim Harrison.
The Shorter Science and Civilization of China: 1 by Ronan and Needham: This is the condensed version of Needham’s classic history of China, starting at the beginning and focusing on the foundations of China’s developing religions.
Needham is a story in himself. Wikipedia says: “Under the Royal Society‘s direction, Needham was the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing from 1942 to 1946. During this time he made several long journeys through war-torn China and many smaller ones, visiting scientific and educational establishments and obtaining for them much needed supplies. His longest trip ended in far west in Xinjiang at the caves in Dunhuang at the end of the Great Wall where the first printed copy of the Diamond Sutra was found. The other long trip reached Fuzhou on the east coast, returning across the Xiang River just two days before the Japanese blew up the bridge at Hengyang and cut off that part of China. In 1944 he visited Yunnan in an attempt to reach the Burmese border. Everywhere he went he purchased and was given old historical and scientific books, which he shipped back to England through diplomatic channels and were to form the foundation of his later research. He got to know Zhou Enlai and met numerous Chinese scholars, including the painter Wu Zuoren, and the meteorologist Zhu Kezhen who later sent crates of books to him in Cambridge, including the 2,000 volumes of the Gujin Tushu Jicheng encyclopedia, a comprehensive record of China’s past.” The personal side: he remained married to his wife but had a Chinese “second wife” who lived on the same road in Cambridge as his wife for decades, with her knowledge, and whom he married after the death of his wife.
The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder: I’m now a dedicated Thornton Wilder fan. This historical novel is an imaginative recreation of the period before Caesar’s assassination told through the eyes of Caesar, his rivals, Cleopatra, Catullus, Cicero, conniving aristocratic women, famous actresses, Anthony and others. Wilder was a lifelong student of Classical Rome, and he inhabits the voices of his characters, weaving their stories, letters, diary entries and experiences together to recreate the life of Rome as effectively as we’re ever likely to experience it. I ordered his two other novels of the period, The Cabbala, and The Woman of Andros, plus his selected letters. A nice side story: Wilder spent a year and half in Douglas, Arizona, living anonymously, savoring the life of the local people, especially the nightlife and bar crowd that would cross the border to Agua Prieta at closing hour to continue the fun. It was a roisterous version of Our Town.
The Rum Diary by Hunter Thompson: His first novel, written at age 22, but delayed publication until not long before his suicide, is a revealing look at the well-spring of his talent. The novel is a solid piece of work and depending on the extent of later revision, a mystery as to why it wasn’t published earlier. Had it been published earlier, it might have done what he predicted at the time in a letter to a friend: it would, “in a twisted way,” do for the Caribbean what The Sun Also Rises did for Europe. Paul Kemp, age 35, is a vagabond journalist looking for a place to settle in, who sees the odd assortment of journalist has beens at the Puerto Rican newspaper that’s hired him sight unseen as what he secretly feared: a near crazy house mirroring the pretense, posing and fakery in the island’s culture at large. But, he can do his own good work anywhere, and he finds the odd misfits help keep his interests alive. A love triangle is handled realistically. The writing shows off his exuberant, tabloid-comic book adjectives, and his later trademark joy in exaggeration, satire and humor leavened by sharply outlined characters and scenes with a relentless pace.
The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane: This is vintage McGuane essays on fishing, while framing his well-known descriptive talents. His personal and family life slowly unfold as the essays pile up, revealing a man at a slight remove from his children, who see his obsessions to know and to master his various interests with risible disinterest. If McGuane has a religion, it’s fishing and horses. He invests his fishing quest (South America, Iceland, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Michigan, Montana and other locales) with all the hyper-sensory mystery surrounding Nature and the self, especially the mandatory attainment of accepting the outcome – win, lose or draw. It’s fishing as a source of the sublime, the unexpected, the inability to know anything concrete or take away anything that gives anyone an edge during the next roll of the dice. Nothing to take away to use again, except the relish to continue the quest and savor the experience. That’s a lot.
Some Horses by Thomas McGuane: I followed up with more essays by McGuane on his other passion: horses and competitive quarter horse roping. He says some years he won more prize money at roping competitions than he earned through his novels. His essay on Buster Welch, a West Texas quarter horse trainer, is worth the price of admission. The kernel of McGuane’s talent has always rested on his untouchable American traits.
The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis: This is the best description of old age I’ve ever read. It could as well be called The Old Friends. Really brilliant. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Martin Amis’s father. Wonderful dialogue and roguishness, with women characters fully the equal of his men characters. In fact, compared to the women, the men remain rather vague, except for Alun Weaver, an ex-TV celebrity who’s retired and become a professional Welshman eager to rejoin a group of old chums soaked in afternoon cocktails and sodden binges. His wife, Rhiannon, is the strongest – and most mysterious – character in the book. Death hangs over it all. Kingsley understands how to let the mask of humor slip to reveal desperate pathos, but life goes on thanks to the guise of British manners. The book celebrates the wear and the endurance that long friendships demand, and as death encircles everyone, why a momentary solace counts for all.