Driftwood from “The Sustaining Stream”

Robert Nedelkoff forwards a link to “The Sustaining Stream”, a Time magazine article from February, 1963 that provides “a recommended reading list of American novelists whose first work has appeared within the last few years.” As with any “best of” list from decades past, the names discussed are a mix — those whose works are now accepted into the canon of university curricula, academic studies, and regular reissues, and those whose works merit the dubious distinction of requiring rediscovery and mention on this site.

Among the well-known and established names are Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, and John Updike. But the article also mentions several novelists worth noting here:

  • David Stacton, of whom it writes,

    David Stacton, 37, is a Nevadan who wears cowboy boots, is fond of both Zen and bourbon, and is as nearly unknown as it is possible for a writer to be who has written, and received critical praise for, 13 novels (all have been published in England, five in the US.). His books, most of which have historical themes, are masses of epigrams marinated in a stinging mixture of metaphysics and blood. Mostly they resemble themselves, but something similar might have been the result if the Duc de la Rochefoucauld had written novels with plots suggested by Jack London.

    Stacton’s story is as interesting as any of his books. He managed to produce 28 books in roughly the same number of years, including 22 novels. Most of these were historical novels, but Stacton shared the same kind of arch omniscience that makes Gore Vidal’s historical novels so entertaining. In addition to these, however, he also produced a number of pulp fiction titles such as Muscle Boy aimed at gay readers, using the pseudonym Bud Clifton, and westerns such asNavarro as Carse Boyd. Stacton rated Sir William, an account of the affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton, as his best book. Back in 1992, Thomas Disch picked it as his book of the year in a roundup in The Nation magazine, saying he’d intended to read Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, but read Stacton’s account instead when he found a copy in his shelves. Disch said of the book,

    It’s wonderful, paced and cut like an MTV video, so epigrammatic I could extract an enticing quote from almost any page, and, as Sontag’s readers already know, one of the great Believe-It-Or-Not sex scandals of all time. For those who relish Boito’s “Mefistofele” all the more for having enjoyed Gounod’s “Faust”, Stacton should be the perfect complement to Sontag, not an alternative. Seek him out, or if you’re in the book business, republrsh hrm. He’s too good to be gathering dust.

    I bought a copy of Stacton’s Tom Fool, a 1962 novel about Wendell Wilkie, and read it recently, but I have to confess that it’s in the queue for a post under the justly neglected tag. Stacton was just a bit too clever to be tolerable and Wilkie seemed more a bit of flotsam carried off on the tide of history than an effective protagonist.

  • Richard Dougherty. Dougherty’s 1962 novel, Duggan, was described by Time’s reviewer as a “nasty, low, mean and excellent novel.” The book tells the story the friendship and then the betrayal and mutual cuckolding of an honest politician and his more cynical campaign manager. Dougherty’s later novel, The Commissioner was perhaps the first of a wave of grittily-realistic police nobels that Joseph Wambaugh later surfed to success on, and was made into a fairly good movie, “Madigan”, starring Richard Widmark.

  • Richard Bankowsky. In 1958, Time wrote of his first novel, A Glass Rose, which centers on the wake of the scion of a Polish-American family:

    In unfolding this grim tale, Novelist Bankowsky is thoroughly convincing as he enters successively the minds of a tormented religious fanatic, a furtive, greedy storekeeper, a mentally retarded girl. In each character’s rambling recall, his own weaknesses are laid bare and another’s motivation is made clearer.

    On the other hand, Norman Podhoretz, writing in the New York Times, called it “an embarassingly naked imitation of The Sound and the Fury.” In more recent years, however, Thomas Gladsky called A Glass Rose “perhaps the best novel about Slavic immigration in all of American literature.” Bankowsky has put a number of excerpts from his work on the web under his Cal State Sacramento page, including the first dozen or so pages of A Glass Rose.

The article also mentions several names neither too famous nor too obscure: Richard Condon, who will never fade completely away as long as people watch “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and my favorite, “Winter Kills”; John Knowles, whose A Separate Peace rates its own Cliff Notes; and William Gaddis, who may still have a tough time finding casual readers, but who’ll continue to provide raw material for PhD dissertations for many years to come.

Leave a Comment