Five Literary Loves of 2015

Elizabeth Harrower

A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories is a book that almost never happened.

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If not for the efforts of Text publisher Michael Heyward (a much-admired individual around these parts*), Harrower’s stories would’ve stayed scattered in forgotten – sometimes defunct – literary magazines from the ’60s and ’70s for years to come. Heyward and Text brought Harrower’s novels back into print, and followed that with her final, long-delayed novel, the magnificent In Certain Circles. Harrower had long since moved on from her life as a writer, but Heyward’s commitment and this late flood of attention convinced her to go ahead with the publication of these stories.

Harrower isn’t known primarily as a short story writer. In fairness, she is a more accomplished novelist, and there are instances here when it’s hard not to wish she’d followed a character or a scenario at greater length. The title story, for instance, carries echoes of In Certain Circles with its undercurrent of suicidal ideation. “The two tall girls” from “The City at Night” might’ve stepped out of Madeline St. John’s The Women in Black with their callowness and insecurities. Harrower writes that they “talked and talked, each the best friend of the other,” but knowing the rest of Harrower’s work, the prospect of seeing them away from the table, seeing how they interact under different circumstances, is irresistible.

We do get to see Sophie, who comes to visit an acquaintance in “A Few Days in the Country,” in some of these other situations. Harrower doesn’t disappoint, as in the case of this odd interlude between visitor and pet: “Glancing again at the cat, who was still awaiting command, Sophie said, ‘Be independent,’ and feeling itself without instruction the cat prowled in a circle, curled up, and slept.”

Sophie spends much of her visit contemplating suicide. She finds a way through that thicket, though the how and why are subtle and best discovered by reading the story.

Harrower’s own story is one of careful elisions. It’s tempting to squint a little and picture her doppelgänger in the midst of “A Few Days in the Country,” when Sophie’s host says she’s arranged a piano she can practice on during her visit.

Sophie shook her head. “Truly it doesn’t matter. Music’s not the most important thing in the world.” She gazed down the grassy slope and up to the hills in the distance.

“The most important thing in the world!” Scornful, roused, Caroline asked, “What is?”

“Ah, well…” Sophie’s voice had no expression. She did know.

These stories are far more than shavings from the master’s workbench. They’re a fitting coda to a brilliant, interrupted career, one  I feel fortunate has overlapped a bit with my reading life.

* Heyward and Text also brought Randolph Stow’s novels back into print (Tourmaline! Much more on him later, elsewhere) and published Gerald Murnane’s new memoir, Something for the Pain (ditto). Find more Harrower, including stories from this collection, here, here, here and here

John Andrew FredrickThe King of Good Intentions II

2015 was some year for Fredrick, who’s offered consistent output for years with his band, The Black Watch and as a writer of fiction (2008’s The Knucklehead Chronicles, 2013’s The King of Good Intentions). He released two albums with The Black Watch (Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy and Highs & Lows), and good as those were, if you read The King of Good Intentions, The King II was the highlight among his offerings this year. If you didn’t read it yet, now’s as good a time as any to rectify that oversight.

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Both novels follow a literary-minded frontman named John and his band, The Weird Sisters, through the early ‘90s indie rock scene. In the first novel, that’s mostly an LA-based proposition. The King II finds them on the road, shambling from one set of indignities to the next. This means the band has to deal with fans, label execs and publicity people, media members, club owners and, perhaps most significantly, one another.

They’re in the van on an endless drive when they hear Kurt Cobain has died. Only one of the group’s four members is a fan, and it’s not John, who sets the tone for their travels. He handles the situation clumsily, there are minor recriminations, and we’re off and running with his hyper-analytical, often funny take on life on the road, as an ambitious, highly educated musician. There’s energy aplenty, verbal pyrotechnics, debauchery (but also admirable use of Jane Austen and George Eliot as conversational/pickup fodder).

“Every band, at any level, believes they should be one level up,” John says at one point, and it’s easy to want that for The Weird Sisters. It’s easy to want that for John Andrew Fredrick, novelist and rock star (don’t split hairs with me – he’s more rock star than you or I will ever be). This one may have slipped under your radar, but the road to forgiveness is painless. That was a hint about buying the book. 

Later, our fearless leader/narrator quotes the English novelist Elizabeth Bowen on dialogue – it’s “what characters do to each other” – and adds, “Speech is action. Isn’t that wonderful?” It is in the hands of a writer who understands the corollary in more than a theoretical way, and Fredrick does. The King II is something like one of those land-speed vehicles, hurtling across the desert floor, propelled by talk. The driver keeps turning to you and talking at high speed, and you think, “We’ve veered off course,” only you don’t say anything. You give in to the scenic route, as narrated by a man whose synapses fire at very high speed, and who somehow manages to relay that endless series of connections and asides in real time. You might agree with him or not, but about the time you’ve formulated a response, he’s on to something else, not by way of squashing dissent, but because he’s the pilot, by God, and whatever else, his intentions are good (get it? have you been paying attention at all?).

A third novel in the trilogy (The Hollow Crown) awaits us, somewhere down the road. It may mean a reckoning for John, but if we know one thing, it’s that he’ll make an endearing guide.

Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 1950s

It’s well established by now that I’m a fan of the omnibus editions Library of America puts together. Their reissue of five David Goodis novels was brilliant. Ditto their edition of Lynd Ward’s Six Novels in Woodcuts. This newish undertaking – I say “newish” because they stay busy – collects suspense novels by eight women from the 1940s and 1950s. That means a welcome dose of Patricia Highsmith (The Blunderer) and one of Dorothy B. Hughes (In a Lonely Place). Vera Caspary’s Laura, better known now as rendered on film by Otto Preminger, is included as well. Even more welcome are offerings like Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Millar crossed my reading path earlier in the year via her husband Ken Millar/Ross MacDonald’s correspondence with Eudora Welty.

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And with all those highlights, the most pleasant surprise was Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man. It’s a tightly controlled, cinematic short novel, centered on a murder on a college campus. A young coed ends up locked away, under suspicion, and though there are significant doubts she committed the crime, she’s wracked with guilt and frequently comes nearer incriminating herself than clearing herself. There’s also witty dialogue and some eccentric figures knocking about. Eustis passed away in February. My curiosity about her life and work were great enough that I turned up this wonderful memoriam her son wrote after her passing. How could you consider skipping the horizontal man after reading this about its author: “[S]he dropped out of a graduate attempt to get a Ph.D. in English after she realized that the love she felt for tale-telling was being segmented and bagged and … well, it was sort of like trying to explain laughter and she was a person who preferred to laugh.”

You’ll also find a worthwhile interview with the very discerning Sarah Weinman, who edited the two volumes, at the LA Review of Books.

Literary Letters

This one holds true most every year. I wrote about the Eudora Welty/Ross Macdonald letters a few months ago, but this year I also read collections of letters by D.H. Lawrence and William Styron. I’m in the pro-D.H. Lawrence camp. The Lawrence letters are open and thorny and so often searching. In short,  they’re a beautiful confirmation of the Lawrence portrait from the great John Worthen’s biographies.

Styron is irreverent, pithy, the kind of writer you wish had sent you letters. Here he is, writing to James and Gloria Jones in March of 1964: “Swinging on the West Coast with Terry Southern. Have done some rather impossible things such as having dinner in San Francisco with Shirly Temple.” When Frederick Exley invites him to visit his class at the University of Iowa but can’t promise funds for his trouble, Styron writes,

I am not a particularly venal person but I feel that we writers deserve honest pay for honest work (and that includes appearing at classes) as much as do doctors or lawyers and certainly more than politicians. Actually with me the amount of money is really immaterial (my father-in-law was a clever scoundrel who in 1934 bought 9,000 shares of IBM at $8.00 a share and left them to my wife), it is – to be trite – the principle of the thing. In other words, I’d feel more comfortable about it if John Leggett could squeeze one of those hog’s tits and get me, say, as little as $250, but in any case I will come out there for expenses if those cheap bastards can’t cough up anything. Let me know when this deal takes place.

There’s plenty more where that came from in both cases, though Styron is the subject of just one volume, as opposed to the 8 volumes of Lawrence letters from Cambridge.

The List of Books

The List of Books is a brilliant curiosity, one I happened across while wandering through the public library earlier in December. It hails from 1980, and the idea behind it was, “to furnish an imaginary library of some three-thousand volumes in which a reasonably literate person can hope to find both instruction and inspiration, art and amusement.” The book covers more than a dozen categories, taking in fiction, feminism and much else. There’s author and title information, as well as a brief summary of each selected title. 

The novel listings include two titles each by Nathanael West and Sinclair Lewis (worthy choices, I think), but but also Lionel Trilling’s lone novel. King, Queen, Knave appears as Nabokov’s signal achievement. Food for thought, and better still, for dispute. There’s also a section devoted to Diaries and Letters, one on Art and Design, and still another devoted to Food and Drink. Whoever they are (were?) Frederic Raphael and Kenneth Macleish set themselves an impossible task, produced a necessarily flawed  volume in response to that task, and provided me with a lot of enjoyment, three and a half decades after the book’s original publication.

– John McIntyre

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