Instructions: Insert author name, dig up old letters, attach "A Writer's Life."

The other week I popped into an outlet of major retail bookstore chain just to use the restroom. I walked out with Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts and Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man — biographies of Nathanael West (and Eileen McKinney) and Donald Barthelme respectively. That’s me down $52. In my bag, as my commute read, I already had Misfit, Jonathan Yardley’s bio of Frederick Exley. That morning I’d just returned to the library Literary Life, the second and very gossipy volume of Larry McMurtry’s memoirs. I don’t even read McMurtry, though I did see most of The Last Picture Show and the episode of Lonesome Dove that featured a turn by pro wrestler Bret Hart. Have I mentioned having just returned from Florida? Chester Himes’ My Life of Absurdity was my airplane book. I stuck with it and was greatly rewarded despite the line “For I fell madly in love with her… More…

And Brother Theo, too.

 

The letters of famous persons generally disappoint. Letters, unless specifically written for the public, are personal in essence. It is one human being in contact with another, sharing things that, often, only the two can fully understand. The letters of great persons are no different. At best, they provide a glimpse into secrets, a chance to hear the unguarded thoughts of public figures. There is the potential excitement of revelation. Occasionally, our desires are satisfied and then some. We come across, for instance, James Joyce writing his wife Nora: “Some night when we are somewhere in the dark and talking dirty and you feel your shite ready to fall put your arms round my neck in shame and shit it down softly.”

In such moments of intimacy, dirty or less so, the aura of fame is stripped away… More…

Is the public ready for his jerks?

Certain books are better discovered than sold. On a lonely library shelf, say. Or better yet, pressed into one’s hands by the one clerk at Borders who actually reads. Or, ultimately, recommended by another writer through the power of literary broadcast. Charles Bukowski pushed a few books into the hands of a generation when he told “a little butterball…in heat” who his favorite author was:

“Fante.”

“Who?”

“John F-A-N-T-E. Ask the Dust. Wait Until Spring, Bandini.”

Those lines are from Women, and that was 30 years ago. Fante, already forgotten, had his career resuscitated when Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin asked Bukowski if Fante were real and then brought the writer’s work back into print. He even inspired Fante, blind and diabetic by that time, to dictate one last novel to his wife, Joyce. Now it is 2009 and the centenary of John Fante’s birth. He is dead. Bukowski… More…

attachment-1119

 

There’s a Donald Barthelme revival afoot. These things sometime happen to writers who have the temerity to die. Time moves on. Literary fashions wax and wane. Great writers are inexplicably forgotten. Forgotten writers are suddenly reborn in the literary imagination.

Such is the story with Barthelme. He was never exactly forgotten (he died in 1989), but his name hasn’t been at the forefront of the collective literary mind since then. I suspect that the new biography by Tracy Daugherty, Hiding Man, signals a change in all that. There’s also been a number of prominent “reconsiderations,” including a longish essay by Louis Menand in The New Yorker.

All of this was predicted by Thomas Pynchon, who wrote an introduction to a posthumous collection of Barthelme’s “satires, parodies, fables, illustrated stories, and plays” called The Teachings of Don. B. Pynchon… More…

attachment-1749

 

Kathryn Hughes recently wrote in the Guardian about biography overkill. For a while, the genre was so popular with successes like David McCullough’s John Adams that even the most insignificant of figures — heck, even the sisters of the most insignificant figures — were getting their own books. Every obvious choice for biography, from the founding fathers to the great writers and artists, has multiple volumes devoted to revealing every intimate detail of their lives. In “The Death of Life Writing,” Hughes explains:

The least imaginative response to this lack of good new subjects is simply to go back to the big lives and do them over — and over — again. You can justify this by an appeal to the idea that each decade (actually, every four years might be nearer) needs its own Dickens or Eleanor… More…

His stories are brilliant, devastating. But it's more complicated than that.

Because life is so utterly elusive all the way down to the end, you have two basic choices if you want to say anything about it. You can say a lot, too much even, and be satisfied that at least you’ve dumped as much clutter on the matter as you could. Or you can withhold, take little tiny pecks at the thing, and be satisfied that the gaping silences are doing the job.

Raymond Carver came out with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in 1976 and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981. The stories are a revelation in pecks and silences. Stripped down, punchy sentences did just that: They punched your guts out. The human landscape of his stories was so rich for being so bare. It seems impossible that literature can be this honest, this true. But there it is. If your hands… More…