“Neglected Recent American Novels,” by Roger Sale, The American Scholar, Winter, 1979

Roger Sale, long-time professor of English at the University of Washington, whose Fairy Tales and After remains one of the finest surveys of childrens’ literature, was an active reviewer of current novels for over two decades. In this 1979 article for The American Scholar, he went back through the hundreds of books he’d reviewed as picked out fifteen titles he’d been particularly impressed by that had been lost by the wayside of mainstream reading.

Ironically, the article was an isolated answer to Henri Peyre’s request, in his response to The American Scholar’s 1956 survey of neglected books:

… a magazine like The American Scholar might do well, every five or ten years, to publish articles in which a critic would go over the novels, plays, poems, essays of the last few years, would point out what was extravagant or unjust or simply blind in the reviews which greeted a certain book, and note what books appear in the perspective of a decade or so to have been neglected.

The comments below are excerpted from the article.


7½ Cents, Richard Bissell

High Water, Richard Bissell

Stretch on the River, Richard Bissell

Sale called these books “wonderfully durable books, funny, sweet, touching.”

Action, James Guetti

“… the best novel I know about gambling, and indeed is so much better than most that the others cease to count. Furthermore, it has a grand opening sequence that is, by itself, a first-rate short story, and, to boot, a wonderful indicator for any wary reader of what is in store.” This novel was the basis of the 1974 Karel Reisz film of the same name, starrting James Caan.

And Walk in Love, Henrietta Buckmaster

This novel of the life of Saint Paul “shows Saul persecuting the Nazarenes out of torment and the need to believe in some absolute truth. He is, thus, quite read for the vision on the road to Damascus when it cmes. It does not turn his life around, only clarifies it, sets it on its true path, the one he had long been seeking. No one believes in either visions or conversions who does not want so to believe, that is Buckmaster’s assurance, and it gives her her strength, he sense of the kind of love this forbidding man could feel….”

Bridgeport Bus, Maureen Howard

“… a very sad and funny novel about a smart, dowdy single woman who discovers admirable ways to accept life as she busily tells us how it ought to be better than it is.”

The Car Thief, Theodore Weesner

“The best novel I have read since, say, Herzog.”

The Night of the Hunter, Davis Grubb

Shadow of My Brother, Davis Grubb

The Voices of Glory, Davis Grubb
“Grubb can be both pretentious and wearyingly sentimental, but he can also be haunting and exciting…. The major reason is Grubb’s wonderful sense of the dreariness of the West Virginia landscape; … Grubb invents a place, and a way of living to fit it, that is all his own, and unique.”

The Party, Rudolph Abele

“[This novel] can quickly be described as being about Hermann Göring and by Henry James. It is a wonderful tour de force, and if it doesn’t reread so well as it reads, that is in part due simply to one’s amazement the first time that such a book could exist. It takes 400 pages to describe the events of one evening with, obviously, great slowness and concentration.”

The Power of the Dog, Thomas Savage

“… a Western about two ranching brothers that does not falter once in a tremendous evocation of details and their power to articulate whole lives…. We have five major characters, and for each there are telling characteristic objects and habits of life, so that when they clash in some grand climaxes, the objects all become supercharged with a marvelous sense of inevitability.” The Power of the Dog was reissued by Back Bay Books in 2001, with an afterword by Annie Proulx.

Rembrandt, Gladys Schmitt

“The book is best on Rembrandt at work, Rembrandt taking the people around him and making them St. Peter and Aristotle and Danaë, Rembrandt’s rapacity in being able throughout a long career to do just that, to see everything as the subjects of his works. He emerges as a great bear, insolent, warm, sensual, often naïve, convinced of his greatness, never capable of or interested in removing that greatness from the world he moved in. It is a book to read with a book of reproductions open at all time right alongside.”

Shadow on the Waters, Jack Thomas Leahy

“… in its best moments, achieves a wonderful harmony of a Huck Finn story of a lad coming to learn of the corruption and ineffectuality of his elders…. Since Leahy, writing in the late fifties, had no Third World or environmental fashions to buttress him, had to invent for himself a method that would bring the boy and the Indians into a single focus, he sometimes stumbled. By the same token, since the fashions weren’t there, he could bring real freshness to his details and sense of place. Shadow on the Waters is a fine little book, one that needs no regionalist, no fashionable perspective….”

Tattoo the Wicked Cross, Floyd Salas

“Salas is so completely inside his experience that what in many other novels is treated as sensational lore is here only the setting for the boy’s experience…. He has trusted the truth of his experience to give him the truth of his novel, and it has not failed him. Salas has, so far as I know, written nothing after Tattoo the Wicked Cross; perhaps he has nothing else to write, but this book should not have been allowed to disappear.”