Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Ever since I was a boy, I devoured books, especially novels.

I borrowed popular paperbacks from the guy who owned the cigar store across the street from my father’s home maintenance shop where I worked after school and on weekends from grammar school until I left home. He let me read them as long as I brought them back in the same condition I found them, which is why I cringe every time I see someone bend back the pages of a paperback and crack the spine so it lays flat.

I have paperbacks I bought half a century ago that still look new except for the fading paper. Anyway, novels are what captivated me, unfolding stories that I almost always identified with, read my future in, learned how the world worked, I thought, and what my place in it might be.

Early on, it was mostly Westerns and detective stories, with the occasional literary hallmark dressed up as pulp fiction. But I quickly moved into the more “literary” novels that showed me how writing could be original and still satisfy the basic human need for stories.

But in recent years, I lost interest in novels for the most part. Maybe it’s aging, but I mostly dig reading biographies and autobiographies and memoirs and letters and diaries and journals and history and poetry.

I still love re-reading novels that had a serious impact on me (like I read James Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN every four or five years (I think I made a list a while back of novels or maybe just books I re-read regularly)). But the only novels I read that I haven’t read before are usually ones given to me by friends.

Recently, I received three novels from friends, two loaners and a gift, and discovered I dug them all in one way or another.

First the artist and poet Susan Napack loaned me her copy of Roberto Bolanos novel THE SAVAGE DETECTIVE. I had heard about this Chilean poet’s literary novel that came out in the ‘90s and uses multiple voices to tell the stories of a fictional poetry movement in 1970s Mexico and the quest of its founders to track down a mysterious female poet who was a member of an earlier, 1920s incarnation of the same-named movement.

It’s a totally original, and for me totally satisfying, literary experience. I loved it. It’s the kind of book I’d keep around because I know I’d go back and dip into it and probably re-read it at some point just for the sheer pleasure of its music and insights and entertaining writing.

The title is at once both ironic and literal, as is most of what occurs in the book. You maybe have to be a poet yourself to enjoy it as much as I did (any novel written in Spanish that mentions the poet, and my good friend the late, Ted Berrigan is on my list of great books), with the tons of references to poets from all over the world, alive and deceased, and its many poetry world insider jokes and digs.

But I think anyone could enjoy it just for the lush array of characters, recognizable I’m sure to anyone and not just poets, and for the way it captures the 1970s and the two decades that followed (as more or less a letdown from the frenzied decadence and experimentation of that period as well as the youth of most of the lead characters).

Just the device of speaking in different voices as each character tells his or her version of events is entertaining to anyone who loves great writing. I told my friend and fellow poet Ray DiPalma that it reminded me of the kinds of novels that widened my world and introduced me to ways of writing beyond the pulp paperbacks I grew up on, especially any published by New Directions, like the first time I read Celine’s JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT.

I highly recommend THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES to those who like “literary” novels (a distinction I’ve seen made and usually dismiss, as I hate categories that eliminate the possibilities of high art being found anywhere, but for my purpose here I simply mean a novel that may not satisfy the need for a well-rounded plot but will satisfy the need for an inspiringly original way of writing a story).

The second novel was a gift from Terence Winch (friend and great poet/prose writer/song writer etc.)—Frank Conroy’s BODY & SOUL. It was in response to a list I did a while back on books about music. I hadn’t read this novel (published in ’93) and Terence thought it should have been on my list. And he was right.

It’s a highly contrived story, as many of the novels I read voraciously as a kid were (and yet despite the many coincidental meetings and plot devices that seemed contrived even to me as a young man, life turned out to be as full of inexplicable coincidences and timely occurrences and almost miraculously serendipitous events that when I wrote about them in my own unpublished novels or plays or screenplays, people objected to their contrived aspects even though they were always based on my true experiences).

It’s full of 1940s/50s movie and novel obvious story devices like ethnic stereotypes and romantically fulfilling “chance” meetings etc. But—and it’s a huge overwhelming BUT—the story is so satisfying I succumbed to the old cliché of “not being able to put the book down” and when it was finally over I wanted it to keep going, I wanted to find out the rest of the story and I wanted to see it turned into a movie I could watch anytime.

And on top of all that, the musical aspects of the story are so well written and researched, I felt like I was not only reliving my own experiences as a musician (when I was a teenager and young man playing mostly jazz piano) but getting an education in classical music I always wished I had had more of.

Any artist, or any person who has ever committed a creative act, will be able to identify with at least some of the writing in BODY & SOUL that explicates the emotional and intellectual and physical and spiritual experience of creating art.

I’ve never read a book that did that as well as BODY & SOUL.

Despite the stereotypes (Conroy seems to be settling scores as his fellow Irish take a particularly bad beating in the pages of this novel as vicious petty crooks and worse) reading this book was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of recent years.

The third novel is the most problematic. It was written by a poet I knew when I was at Iowa in the 1960s, Jim Dodge (who was known for his highly successful novel FUP) and was loaned to me by my friend and fellow poet Nance Boylan.

It’s called NOT FADE AWAY and came out in the late 1980s but is mostly set in the period when the 1950s became “the ‘sixties”—with a lot of emphasis on the frantic fervor of that decade and the unparalleled speed of change(s) taking place.

You know it’s written by a poet because of the caliber of the writing, especially the metaphors (speaking of a Corvette the narrator says: “The engine had belly, and it was dialed to the dot.”). It’s a leap forward from the kind of novels written in the earlier decades of the 20th Century, more hectic and “gonzo” and seemingly drug inspired or influenced.

Which means the typical stereotypes of those older novels are dispatched with and new ones emerge, the soulful black men, the sexually generous but free spirited young women, the anti-heroic hero, etc. and the story is more fantastical, more freefalling.

Some of these devices, though expertly deployed, made me put the book down now and then, maybe just from the overload of so much poetic detail coupled with the sometimes sardonic perspective of a post-‘60s disillusionment.

Don’t get me wrong, if you like novels, it’s well worth reading and better than most. But for this reader—maybe generationaly too close to the author and to the experiences of his hero (which created the occasional quarrel in my head about interpretations of those times and experiences)—I sometimes felt like I wanted more of the poet I knew and remember liking a lot and a little less of the freewheeling imaginative interpretation of those times we shared in our separate ways.

In the end, I was glad I read NOT FADE AWAY and felt satisfied by the quality of the writing and the imagination employed.

So hey, for a guy who doesn’t like to read novels that much anymore, it was a pretty good score: one totally original novel that is now on my all-time favorite list of unique reading experiences—THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES; one highly conventional novel, plot and language-wise, but an intensely original and deep take on the creative experience, in this case creating music—BODY & SOUL—which I wanted to go on forever; and one sometimes funny sometimes poignant imaginative poetic riff on the ‘50s and ‘60s and beyond that contains a lot of great writing (especially if you dig the fantastical strain that entered novels in the ‘60s in ways that made reality even more crazy than it was becoming then)—NOT FADE AWAY.


w said...

If you loved The Savage Detectives, then you will adore the forthcoming novel 2666! Enjoy...

harryn said...

not bad at all for a guy that doesn't like to read novels anymore - i'll be putting "body & soul" on my hit list ...
wonder what would happen if you enjoyed reading novels ...
inspiring ...

douglang said...

Michael, I love Roberto Bolano, especially The Savage Detectives. As you know, I started out writing novels (as well as reading them). I used to have massive knowledge of American fiction in particular, from the beginnings through to the present. And I did a pretty good job of keeping up for many years. About ten years ago, I realized that I was buying a lot of contemporary fiction, but not reading much of it anymore. At that point I was especially interested in people like Mary Gaitskill and David Foster Wallace and Lydia Davis, but, like you, I found that my attention was mainly directed elsewhere – to poetry and so-called “non-faction” in my case. I haven’t figured that out, yet, but one factor that is in play now (as opposed to ten years ago), is that my short term memory sucks, so that if I pick up a novel I’m reading after a couple of days have passed, I need to reread what I’ve read already. That doesn’t help a bit. I still love fiction, esp. “experimental” fiction. I just don’t read much of it anymore.

Just like you, I’ve always taken obsessive care of my books. When I was in my teens in Wales, my wages didn’t leave me much disposable income (I was making about $10.00 - $12.00 a week (for a 50+ hour week, as a matter of fact), and the paperbacks I would buy were precious to me. Even to this day, you can’t tell which of the books on my shelves I’ve read (very many of them, actually).

One thing I’ve always admired about your work is its consistency -- in poetry, fiction. memoir, prose, whatever, your presence is always manifest, in parallel to Kerouac’s presence in his work, I think. It’s what used to be called “style” or “voice” or something like that – none of those terms worked well for me, ever. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but “poetry” and “fiction” are two different mindsets for me. From my teens in the 1950s through to the 1970s, I experienced the world as a fiction writer, noticing perhaps a single gesture that might reveal an entire life, or absorbing stories that came my way, and so on. Since then, I’ve experienced the world as a poet, always attentive to language, its limitations, its contradictions, its music, its sociopolitical relevance, etc. You seem to suffer no such duality. Like Terry (Winch), you bring a huge amount of narrative energy to poetry, and maybe that’s why the shift to fiction isn’t such a radical change. My fiction was always about structure. John Dos Passos was always my primary inspiration. (My novel Freaks was an anomaly in that regard, which is one of the reasons I have little regard for it.) One of the things I absolutely loved about The Savage Detectives was its brilliant conception. I was very happy to read what you wrote about it.

I could go on, but I won’t. This was a really good post, very thought provoking. Thank you.

Lally said...

Doug, your comment makes not just this post but my entire blogging experience worth it. Thanks brother (and you too Paul).

Toby Thompson said...

I was hiking with a journalist/philosopher yesterday, whose speciality is the history of science. He said the greatest innovations in scientific theory come at the intersection between disciplines. The same might be said of art, particularly literature. Bolano is the favorite writer of my new-found Chilean friends.