November 25th, 2014

“Elegy Before the Time,” by William Dickey, from The Interpreter’s House

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kansascitymotel

Elegy Before the Time

From Kansas City, the
last bleeding station-stop
of mother’s cancer, goes
west and then south, writes
“Having become myself
my fiction’s hero, will
pause at tonight’s hotel,
called (letterhead translates)
Inn of the Last Resort,
(amused) tomorrow will
taken sudden steps to go
into Mexico, write
nothing to anyone.”

Like a cheap dog thereafter
in grey timorousness
will his hallucinations
attend his heel
to lick at the least call?
Heroic, in the bar
back of the best streets,
he, in a diamond vest,
gold pieces in his ears,
muscles like a hoopsnake,
cheerfully will impart
his daddy’s wisdom with
new lies in a new night.

Or if that keepsake fails,
the coin in his hand turns
to a useless penny, he
cursed for a male witch,
eyes superstitiously full,
flesh softer than human,
“having become himself
his fiction’s hero” may
dance to a smart blaze,
staccato feet bound
fast to the fire’s end,
his clumsy hands told
gestures of departure.

Why worry, lovey? He,
mother in her fat tomb,
auntie on her pension,
Kansas City an act done
in an indecent story,
now suffers his own air,
breathes himself wholly.
And if he takes off
all clothes, smarts
in another country’s love, if
he takes off his heart, bleeds
untranslated blood, still
it is his fiction.

But I agree, I
cannot leave it there, and
wait the improbable card
postmarked Champs Elysees:
“Everything dandy, death
easily managed. Find
fine company; Ambrose Bierce,
all others who disappeared
stopping by for a drink.
Having become themselves
their fictions, are
spoken with new tongues.
Write to me. Love me. Yours.”

from The Interpreter’s House, by William Dickey
Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1963

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).


 

November 23rd, 2014

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider (1956)

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Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones'I first mentioned The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, back in 2010, in a post about “Classics Lost and Found,” a feature in the Independent. In that post, I wrote that it was only book mentioned in the article that could be considered truly neglected.

It’s really quite remarkable, in fact, that such a good book could be so easily forgotten. In a short review on Amazon, record producer Russ Titelman wrote, “As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the great unsung American masterpieces on a par with A Death in the Family and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It is spare, poetic and honest.” In the Independent piece, Clive Sinclair called it “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.” And in his introduction to the 1972 Harrow Books paperback reissue, Wirt Williams wrote that it “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written”:

Why? Well, certainly, it offers so many of those elements indispensable to the form as popular fiction: a supergunfighter as hero, a powerful story, a colorful background, great authenticity of detail. But Hendry Jones has more than these and is much greater than their sum. It is, quite simply, a first-rate work of literature.

Neider started out with the intent of writing a fictional account of the life of Billy the Kid, and his title pays tribute to Sheriff Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. But despite a long visit to New Mexico, during which he tracked down and interviewed a few of the surviving witnesses from Billy’s time, Neider was stuck until he decided to shift the setting to the central California coast and Baja Mexico, and cut any strong ties to the historical Billy.

Williams argues that what distinguishes the novel is “its mythic quality.” Neider certainly made a deliberate choice to make the story somewhat timeless. His hero has no name other than “the Kid.” His narrator, “Doc” Baker, a former member of the Kid’s gang, does say that his account is set “in that summer of 1883,” but he refuses to offer any biographical information:

Some people had told me I ought to tell about the Kid’s early life, who was his mother who his father, where he went to school, how he killed his first man, how he got to be so good with the gun, the great fighters he met and knew, the women he had, the men he killed, the way he cleaned out the faro bank in the Angels that time. But I see no point in going into all that.

But I have to differ with Williams. I think it’s the book’s specificity that makes it great. Every page shines with prose that’s clean, precise and poetic:

It was good to sit in that town after the hills and Punta, to sit in a plaza and listen. Cries on the bay; bark of a dog; rattle of carts’ clopping of hooves; voices laughing and shouting. It made us wonder how it would be to live in a place like that, with all the houses and faces and business and all the smells–grapes being pressed, eucalyptus trees, pine smoke, roses, meat curing, cheese drying, and the perfume you caught as you passed a lady on the street.

The book is told entirely in “Doc” Baker’s voice, and much of the reason the book works so well is due to Neider’s success in finding just the right tone, a combination of dry, matter-of-fact, life-hardened realism, a casual familiarity with violence, and a subtle touch of the poetic–enough to be effectively atmospheric, not so much as to become intrusive.

In fact, re-reading the novel recently, I suddenly realized why this prose seemed so familiar. Compare these two passages:

Jackson fired. He simply passed his left hand over the top of the revolver he was holding in a gesture brief as a flintspark and tripped the hammer. The big pistol jumped and a double handful of Owen’s brains went out the back of his skill and plopped in the floor behind him. He sank without a sound and lay crumpled up with his face in the floor and one eye open and the blood welling up out of the destruction at the back of his head. Jackson sat down. Brown rose and retrieved his pistol and let the hammer back down and put it in his belt. Most terrible nigger I ever seen, he said. Find some plates, Charlie.

and

It was at this point that Shotgun Smith fired a barrel into Modesto’s head. The boy dropped and Curly Bill dismounted and kicked his face with the high heel of his boot. Cal dismounted too, got a large rock and laid it under Modesto’s head for a pillow. Then Curly Bill, spotting Modesto’s piebald in the corral, roped her, led her close to the boy and shot her in the head. When she lay dead, steaming, the urine running out of her and the blood staining the ground, he got Modesto’s hat, which had fallen near the body, and put it under the mare’s head.

“You go and tell the Kid about this,” said Curly Bill to Modesto’s boss. “Tell him this is what he’s going to get too.”


The first is from Blood Meridian, the second from Hendry Jones. I don’t think I’m entirely off the mark in noting an awful lot of similarity between Cormac McCarthy’s Western voice and Charles Neider’s. Which is another reason why it’s hard to understand why The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones has fallen into neglect.

oneyedjacks

Finally, there is the reason why the book is most often mentioned these days–namely, that it was the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s one and only credit as a director, the 1961 film, One-Eyed Jacks. As you can read in more detail in the Wikipedia article, the screenplay took a tortuous path from source to screen and, other than being shot on the California coast and retaining some of the characters’ names, the film bares little resemblance to Neider’s book. If you wish to see it, though, there are several copies of the film available on YouTube.

hendryjonesreissues

There have been several reissues since the book was first published by Harper in 1956. It was released as Crest paperback (1960) aimed squarely at traditional readers of Westerns. In 1972, it was issued in the U. S. as a Harrow Books paperback and in the U.K. by Pan Books. Finally, University of Nevada Press issued it in 1993 as part of its “Western Literature Classic.”

Given that Cormac McCarthy’s books are the closest thing to the gold standard when it comes to best-selling serious fiction these days, I can only hope that some bright editor catches a clue and ushers a new release of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones into print. Maybe even with an introduction by McCarthy … although that may be coming too close to home.


The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956


 

November 18th, 2014

“The Drought,” by Edwin Ford Piper, from Barbed Wire and other poems

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drought

The Drought

The light of noon comes reddened from a sky
A-blur with dust; the irritable wind
Burns on your cheek, and leans against your garments
Like a hot iron. Cloud after cloud, the dust
Sweeps the road, rattles on the dirty canvas
Of the schooner so dispiritedly drawn
By drooping horses. On the whitening grass,
With bright and helpless eyes, a meadow-lark
Sits open-beaked, and desperately mute.
The thin, brown wheat that was too short to cut
Stands in the field; the feeble corn, breast high,
Shows yellowed leaf and tassel. With slack line
The bearded, gaunt, stoop-shouldered driver sits
As if in sleep some mounting wave of sorrow
Had overpassed him, and he still dreamed on.
Within the schooner children’s voices wail;
A mother’s tones bring quiet. The sun glares,
The wind drones and makes dirty all the sky.
The horses scarcely fight the vicious flies.

This is departure, but there are who stay.

from Barbed Wire and Other Poems, by Edwin Ford Piper
Chicago: The Midland Press

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).


 

November 14th, 2014

A Sample of Lost Sixties Fiction

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In its 1981 tribute to R. V. Cassill, whose pulp fiction I’ve covered over the last year, December magazine included an extensive bibliography of Cassill’s works. I was intrigued by the list of titles reviewed by Cassill, primarily for the New York Times and Book World, between 1961 and 1974, as it provides a wide survey of the fiction of that time. There are now-well-established titles such as William Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck, Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, and Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari, along with others from Kingsley Amis, Gore Vidal, Iris Murdoch, and Thomas Berger.

But there are also a fair number of books that have since been swepted under the rug and forgotten, and I wanted to take a few minutes to mention some of these, in hopes that one or more will catch the interest of a by-passer and be rediscovered.
sixtiesfiction

A Married Man, by Benjamin DeMott

DeMott was best known during his lifetime as a cultural critic and prolific book-reviewer, but this, his second novel, was well-received when it came out. Writing in Saturday Review, James McConkey saw it as proof of the value of fiction in a time when its purpose was widely being questioned: “In A Married Man, DeMott takes as a fictional premise all the arguments that have been raised to prove that the novel as a genre has lost its relevance. Accepting that there may be no such thing as a clear human identity, he agrees with the view that human relationships are likely to be without point. The author raises no argument against the banality of middle-class activities, and emphasizes the degree to which words themselves can become but a series of cliches established by a person as protection against communication with self or another. He creates a character who is haunted by all the contemporary threats to human meaning, puts him into the most stereo-typed situation possible–and proceeds to demonstrate that his dilemma is the stuff of fiction.”

Racers to the Sun and Us He Devours, by James B. Hall

Somewhat like Cassill, James B. Hall’s influence was perhaps greater as a teacher than a writer himself. Ken Kesey once said that a comment by Hall about single line in a Hemingway short story, “unlocked for me the door to the resounding hall of real literature.” Us He Devours, a collection of short stories, was kept in print for decades by the New Directions press. Racers was Hall’s first novel, about a day in the life of a motorcycle mechanic and racer. The late D. G. Myers mentioned it earlier this year in his A Commonplace Blog, in words that speak to my heart: “Will … Racers to the Sun repay your time, or only waste it? Are you willing to accept the risk of recommending either of them to a friend? If you take seriously the adventure of reading you must involve yourself, sooner or later, in the romance of certain old books.” Amen.

Negatives, by Peter Everett

Written in the space of three weeks, Negatives received enthusiastic reviews in the U. K. and won Everett the 1965 Somerset Maugham Award. Depending upon your viewpoint, the book, which told about a couple whose peculiar fetish is to re-enact Dr. Crippen’s murder of his wife, was either black comedy or just plain gruesome. U. S. reviewers tended to the latter. Writing in Saturday Review (and obviously enjoying himself), Nicholas Samstag described Everett’s technique: “Mix in plenty of sex and squalor, and stir sluggishly. Then simmer in a prose thickly manured with unwashed old clothing from a sort of London Thrift Shop. Drench with whiskey, sprinkle heavily with vomit, and serve.” The novel was made into a film, directed by Peter Medak, which you can watch online on YouTube.

The Three Suitors, by Richard Jones

Originally published in the U. K. under the title, The Age of Wonder, The Three Suitors was the first of four novels published by Jones over the space of about ten years. As Jane Barnes wrote in a 1982 Virginia Quarterly Review article, “There is not enough sense in the rise and fall of commercial reputations to dwell on Jones” lack of reception. Suffice it to say, he has had a lot of bad luck, culminating in the publication of his most recent book, Living in the 25th Hour, during the 1978 newspaper strike in New York City. If there is no real way to account for the success of some authors and the frustration of others, there is still a special poignancy in the absence of a properly intelligent response to Jones” work.”

John Wain wrote of The Three Suitors in The New York Review of Books,

Mr. Jones writes out of a sense of the richness and variety of human beings and their history, and since this involves him in seeing every character and every incident in their full perspective, it would be difficult to say in one phrase what his book is “about.” In one sense, it is about Wales; in another, it is about old age; in another, about the nature of family life; in another, about the impact of the modern world with its formless emptiness on the last remains of a more ordered existence. But to say that it was “about” any one of these things, or all of them, would be to put too cramping a limit on one’s pleasure in the book’s vitality.

Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, calling it, “a novel with presence, and a perfect collaboration between sympathy and intelligence.” Ironically, it may have been just such restraint that caused Jones’ work to be underappreciated when published and largely forgotten ever since. Jones himself, according to his Guardian obituary, was devastated by the death of his 12 year-old daughter in a road accident, and “came to see fiction writing as an irrelevance.”

Time Out, by David Ely

This is a collection of short stories, mostly on macabre themes, by a writer best known for his 1963 novel, Seconds, which was filmed by John Frankenheimer in 1966 and featured Rock Hudson’s best performance. Ely’s fiction deserves a serious re-look, as it’s very much about taking various aspects of conventional life in the 1960s and twisting it to a revealing extreme.

Farragan’s Retreat, by Tom McHale

When his first novel, Principato came out in 1971, followed within months by Farragan’s Retreat, Tom McHale became the hottest new name in American fiction. “Tom McHale has so much going for him it’s scary,” began a review in Life magazine; “McHale writes as if born to the craft.” Farragan’s Retreat was nominated for a National Book Award and for years thereafter, you saw the Bantam paperback editions of Principato and Farragan’s Retreat in every bookstore. Farragan’s Retreat, in particular, was a timely work, telling the story of a conservative Catholic so enraged with his son’s draft dodging that he undertakes to have him assassinated. McHale went on to write four more novels, earning a Guggenheim fellowship for Alinsky’s Diamond (1974), but, that first blast of critical acclaim faded and with it, so, apparently, did the notion that his work was something of lasting value. When McHale took his own life in 1982, the event received scarce notice. A few sites here and there pay tribute to his work, and one can safely argue that time has come for a serious reconsideration.

When the War is Over, by Stephen Becker

This, the sixth of Becker’s eleven novels, relates a small episode, just days after the surrender at Appomattox, in which a group of Northern soldiers execute a young Kentuckian who might or might not have been an actual member of a Confederate raiding party. Subtle, measured and nuanced in its perspectives, it “demonstrates beautifully,” in the words of the Saturday Review, “demonstrates just what the business of fiction is all about.” David Madden later told a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel, “I agree with George Garrett (novelist and critic) and many others that When the War is Over deserves its underground reputation as a distinctive, original Civil War novel.” All the same, it’s been out of print since 1970, and hardly anyone mentions Becker’s name as one of the better American writers of the sixties.

If you’re interested in other recommendations of lost Sixties fiction, I recommend taking time to read D. G. Myers’ post on “Fiction of the ‘sixties,”, which will quickly give you at least a dozen other titles to locate.


 

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