Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, March 29, 2008

James Jones -- Information

Yeah, I know, I promised once a week and then I promptly skipped a week. Disclipine! I must learn discipline!

Anyway, before I get to the above. The general plan for this blog is to get up to date on the information. Once that's done -- if you're reading ahead! -- this is what we'll tackle:

Robert Marasco - BURNT OFFERINGS

Fred Exley -- A FAN'S NOTES

Jack Finney -- various, certainly INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS but I'm really interested in the ones that ain't that, like THE NIGHT PEOPLE

Herman Wouk -- THE CAINE MUTINY, MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR, YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE, and probably one more, probably DON'T STOP THE CARNIVAL as the only way you will ever get me to read THE WINDS OF WAR is if you point a gun at my head and keep it there for the duration.

Still, Wouk's just the kind of author this blog was put here to address.

As for what I'm reading right now that's not part of the 'official' blog:

Georges Simenon -- NOVEMBER

I like Simenon, or better I admire him. I think the Maigret books are perfect of their kind, although I find them completely tedious and rather look askance at anyone who wouldn't. (Maigret basically solves his crimes by "being French".) Still, they admirably do what they set out to do.

NOVEMBER is not a Maigret novel, and seems a bit more lively right now, although I wonder if a lot isn't lost in the translation -- the prose here is ridiculously stiff. Alas, one of the things I've decided I won't do in this lifetime is learn to read French.

G.K. Chesterton -- various

An odd duck -- little of his work is truly satisfying, but none of it's truly awful, either. Even the worst of it has it's moments of really terrific insight; wheras even the best has terrible moments of tedium.

He'll be best known for THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, which I reread and which has it's moments, but after steeping myself in the guy's work seems to me more a dramatization of his ideas than anything. It's not bad, mind you -- and it's a beautiful picture of Edwardian England -- but I don't hold it in the high regard that others do. I prefer some of the "Father Brown" stories -- there's good ones sprinkled throughout, actually, a surprisingly consistent performer, Mr. Chesterton -- and HERETICS, which is his commentary on various leading lights of his age and in many respects seems greatly ahead of it's time. I've also read ORTHODOXY, THE BALL AND THE CROSS, THE FLYING INN, and some short fiction; the one I still really need to get is THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL, although I might spring for MANALIVE if I see a copy somewhere.

Anyway, James Jones. A dreadfully self-serious guy in the style of that time, although I do have me a weakness for Hemingway wannabes.

Here's the Paris Review, which I haven't read because I'm not that interested in him:


My take on Jones is that he had talent but was deeply unfocused and undisciplined as a writer -- as heavily edited as rumor had it he was, he wasn't edited enough. One wonders if the success of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY essentially ruined him for serious work.

But anyway, there's a literary society, too. Dig that snazzy droop of the cigarette:


Here's a good brief bio from the esteemable kirjasto website:


Here's an audio interview from 1975. Unfortunately it requires Real Player to run, and I hate Real Player. http://wiredforbooks.org/jamesjones/

That's all the useful stuff I could find off the top of the bat. If you try googling for him yourself, be sure to do "James Jones + writer" or some such thing, as there's fifty kazillion James Jones's out there, including someone who plays basketball in Phoenix and someone who prays in Canterbury.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Walker Percy - Information

One thing I'm gonna do on these "off weeks" is catch up on some of the author's who I didn't do the "information" page for. So, first, off, Percy.

Well, there's the Wiki, of course, a rather bare bones for him, surprisingly. But from that I got to this:

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.htmlres=9F 07E5D81238F937A3575BC0A963948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2

Which is a review of one of Percy's "Conversations" volumes by Roger Kimball, of all people. "Of all people" because I just got through reading his recent column where he says even the typeface of the Times sets him on edge nowadays. Ah, well, we've all changed, huh? Grown, even.

Still, Kimball was making sense even way back in 1985. Here's a good quote:

The pieces collected here vary widely in quality. Some are earnest, thoughtful interviews that attempt to extend our knowledge of Mr. Percy's art, influences and significance; but a good number are hardly more than chatty bagatelles - glib, occasional products meant primarily to boost his most recent book.

And here's a better one:

How many times do scholars have to accompany interviewers on a trip to this writer's home in Covington, La.? How many picturesque descriptions of Mr. Percy's picturesque, chateau-style house do they need? And how many glasses of iced tea must they sit through? There is a lot of iced tea in this book.

Here's the website of a 501(c) devoted to Percy:


My take on Percy is basically this. There are two kinds of "idea writers": writers who think they have ideas, and idea men who try to tell stories to popularize their notions. Neither are all that great, but between the two, the second by far is the way to go, and Percy generally falls into this camp. Of course, it also generally means that most of his novels are pretty weak things -- one always feels with Percy that the storytelling is a tiresome chore he's putting himself through to get to the fun ideas. Anyway, if you want to read Percy, it pays to read the nonfiction stuff, THE MESSAGE IN THE BOTTLE and especially LOST IN THE COSMOS.

Here's an early "First Things" that tries to vaguely critical of the guy, but gets all nervous and twittery instead:


And one last one -- for as I said in my first post on this guy, there's a lot of Percy on the web.


Percy, as you might expect, gets a lot of attention from Catholic writers. As is usually the case, though, the focus is on the ideas, not the works considered as fiction, which is why they generallly tend not to be useful. I say unto thee again, there is nothing in Percy you can't get from MESSAGE IN THE BOTTLE or LOST IN THE COSMOS, if all you're interested in is the ideas.

Sunday, March 09, 2008


As you can see by my housekeeping post, I've decided to rejigger things slightly here. Future posts should be a bit closer to the mark regarding when I've actually read the damn thing. So forgive me for this being the last of the old way stuff.

This is the book that was closest to Heller's heart. If you want to read only one Heller novel, by all means read Catch-22 -- that's the great classic he had in him. But if you want to understand Heller as a writer, this is the book to read, because it's purer and clearer than Catch-22, obviously closer to his themes and what he wanted to do.

It's a book about office politics, and the close minded repressive systems they engender. It's also a book about the costs to individuals in them -- how, to succeed in such an environment, one must basically destroy oneself, become an automaton.

It does have humor but it is not the laff riot Catch-22 was. The humor here is very black, very sardonic, and mainly directed at the protagonist himself, uncomfortable jabs which also point up the dying spark of humanity he still has within him. Unlike Catch, too, nothing really happens, which is something of the point: it's a book about dreariness, boredom, the soul-grinding monotony of life in this world. The narrator is unappealing, deliberately so, though not exactly unsympathetic -- a Heller achievement, I think. It is by design a book of stasis -- something indeed does happen in this book, eventually, but the obvious thing is easily missable unless you're looking for it, and the unobvious, more pervasive thing is everywhere but again, easily missable unless you're looking for it (or are sensitive to it.)

I recommend this book highly, it is a great, great novel. It is not an easy read, though -- it is something of a downer, and often a grind, and while that is the point, well. It is the pure unadulterated Heller vision, and I much prefer it to Catch -22, which feels much more compromised to me, but, well. It is a grind, at times, to get through. I don't think it's quite the book Catch-22 is: I think the pleasure principle is important to art and Something Happened is just not as much fun to read as Catch, and yeah, I think that matters.

I think I've just said in that above paragraph four times that the book can be slow and rough going; so be it. It's also extraordinarily insightful, particular about the mixed feelings of the ambitious, and the way that a cubicle society can impose it's own hierarchies. It is also one of the more complicated interior portraits I know of in post WW 2 American lit, and heads and tails above similar efforts by guys like Marquand, say. Heller was not a sentimentalist, and Something Happened is not a sentimental book, it's one of it's great strengths that it's not.

A movie like American Beauty likes to present us with ideas of what could be, or might have been, or alternative choices not taken. No such luck here -- Heller, more realistically in my estimation, shows that this is all there is. (A nightmare vision only hinted at in Marquand's Point of No Return. And one less adulterated than Catch-22.)

Brief Housekeeping Post

First of all, I wanted to direct people to http://www.quidplura.com/, which is all about medevial writing and thought and the like. The first time I ever noticed anyone putting me on a blog roll. Since I created this thing really mainly for myself, the idea that anyone else at all would take any kind of interest is odd and kind of flattering.

One of these days I'll do a blogroll of my own; for now, go check that out.

But the main reason I interrupt your normal scheduled programming is to talk about how I plan on rejiggering this blog from here on out. This blog was primarily created as a way for me to talk about books that don't get a lot of discussion elsewhere online -- that's still going to be it's main function. But the length of time it takes me to read through an "abandoned" author's oeuvre takes time -- especially with some of the guys I want to talk about. Herman Wouk is looming on the horizon and have patience with me, dear reader. This conflicts with my desire to try to get this thing on a regular schedule and to try to build some kind of readership outside of people looking to cheat on their college papers. (Yeah, you know who you are.)

So I plan on varying things up a bit. I'm gonna try to post every Sunday. When it comes to an actual author, I'll talk about the books as I read them -- when I do the last one I'll also try to assess his/her career as a whole, try to tie the whole thing together. But I'll intersperse things with general looks at the author's availiability online (I'll catch up on that), on notes on what else I'm reading (not anything deep, and right now a lot of G.K. Chesterton, thank you for asking), and general observations on the literary scene based on what I've read online (something I haven't exactly wanted to do, but feel I really should.)

And maybe occasional housekeeping posts like this. Next up, brief thoughts on SOMETHING HAPPENED. The next book on the list for you guys reading along -- Robert Marasco's BURNT OFFERINGS.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Joseph Heller Part One - Catch-22

Well, this is part one of two -- I'm gonna try to get on a schedule with this blog, and Something Happened should appear next week (which is all you need to concern yourself with re Heller, incidentally.) I would like post more, but I gotta read the damn things, you know, and that takes time.


Me and Catch-22 go a long way back. It was, in many respects, the first “adult” book I ever read -- I had 11th Grade AP English and the teacher wanted us to do five book reports. I had been fascinated by the adult section of my local library (the Rebecca M. Arthurs Memorial Library in Brookville, PA) but had not grabbed anything from there. I took a deep breath, screwed up my courage, and got it.

Yeah, I know. Scared to get a book? I was a strange kid. But anyway, I loved it. The teenage years are a good time to hit Catch-22 -- the humor will go over well, if you haven’t been inundated with the hippy-dippy nostrums that came afterwards by way of imitation it will seem very fresh and exciting, and dangerously edgy in a kind of way. I have subsequently reread it several times -- this is probably the last time. I have come to the more sober conclusion that it is a great book, a genuine modern American classic written during a time when there wasn’t a lot of them -- but that it will never be a favorite of mine.

Let me digress a second. This is one of the great epiphanies of art appreciation, and it’s a stage that a lot of people never get to -- or don’t even seem to understand. It is quite possible to love something dearly, even while admitting it’s flaws. I bow to no one in my love for John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, to take the first thing that pops into my head, even though the books, to be kind about it, vary in quality. I think a lot of people understand this idea -- witness the notion of the “guilty pleasure” and all that.

But what a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that the converse is equally true -- the work of art you can appreciate, but simply doesn’t relate to you. And yes, I guess it follows from this that I think there’s such a thing as objective quality in art, although one generally has to be quite attuned to the form in order to sense it.

(I suppose a true realization of this necessarily diminishes art's power -- it puts it in it's proper place, makes it important but not IMPORTANT, not something that can be subsituted for worship. Odd and interesting, that.)

But anyway.

I acknowledge Catch-22’s greatness. You could write a whole essay -- a long one, with footnotes and the like -- on the structure of the thing alone: a swirling vortex, a nightmare with the evocative image of Snowden freezing to death in the plane, with the paper scraps billowing about him. Books tend to be reportorial in nature -- the more I read the more I’m convinced the old “show, not tell” adage is simply wrong, writing by it’s very nature cannot help but report, that’s what it does, and so any attempt to convey visual images is problematic at best. But Heller’s book really does have some of the trippy effects of an art house movie, with it’s diffracted timeline and it’s editorial tricks to prove a point. The fact that this was all written before our age of media saturation makes the achievement even more remarkable. Years later I saw part of Mike Nichol’s movie version on tv, and it was remarkable to me how much of the structure of the book was lifted intact. But again, Catch-22 is almost cinematic before cinematic, if that makes any sense.

And there’s the schtick, which is often very funny -- Catch-22 is one of the few “comedy” novels that will genuinely make you laugh -- and which, by counterposing it with scenes of unendurable blackness and bleakness (the terror of men in war; the death of Snowden; the bombing of the men by their own men) really created a kind of American black comedy that I’m not sure had been seen before. I’m no expert on the subject, but it seems to me this idea of pairing borscht belt vaudeville with some of the grimmest themes on record (we’ll get back to this, but mark, this is a book suffused with despair) was I think something genuinely new. Which accounts for the many many imitators of it through the years. (The hippies loved it, of course. You can blame "M*A*S*H" on Catch-22.)

So I do admire it. I think Catch-22 is a legitimate classic, a genuinely great American novel and one of the must reads from the second half of the Twentieth Century.

That doesn’t mean I actually like it.

It’s a cold book, for all that. I think the humor attracts a lot of readers, which get surprised when they progress to Something Happened and see something more straightforwardly bleaker and less funny. This was simultaneous Heller’s great strength and weakness -- he did something genuinely new here in Catch-22, but it’s clear to me that people didn’t understand what exactly he did. This isn’t a “war book” -- ironically the best American novel about WW 2, maybe, has very little to do with the war at all. This is a much deeper critique of Western society itself, the war is merely a microcosm -- ultimately a deadly but pointless exercise, something of a charade.
This is a book that attempts to criticize all of Western civilization itself -- at least modern Western Civilization -- as essentially a soul-destroying monstrosity. This isn’t a variant of The Caine Mutiny, this is 1984 played for laughs. This isn’t From Here to Eternity, it’s more Brazil. The only choices are to be bowed under by it or opt out, ala Yossarian. No heroes here -- just victims.

And that’s just cold. One can respect such a thing without admiring it. Does anyone, for example, really “love” 1984? Once you’ve read it, are you really wantin’ to dive back into that world? No matter what you thought of the book

I thought so.

My other problem with Catch-22 is that, though it’s set in WW 2, it’s not really about WW 2. Not really. It’s about systemic problems in Western civilization, which sounds more boring than it actually plays out in the narrative, but the point is the war is just sort of a pretext. Heller could’ve easily done it on Kiwanis memberships, or Hospital auxiliary money raisers, or fundraising for the high school band. Or on office politics (which he did in Something Happened, a very interesting book, I hope to get to that next week). And that’s fine -- except I can’t help but feel disquieted about it, because of course WW 2 wasn’t just “something that happened” it was an extremely important event in which a bunch of people fought and bled and died for things that meant something. This seems rather obvious, but somehow it gets lost in the shuffle whenever discussion of this book come up. The logical inference from Catch-22, after all, is that WW 2 wasn’t worth fighting. I don’t think Heller really agrees with that, I think, assuming we could dig him up and shock him back to life he’d say that WW 2 isn’t the point of the book at all, but yet there it is, the fat girl in frilly underthings, stuck in the corner trying not to be recognized. Another way to say it is that by tying his vision to WW 2, he ends up undercutting it, because no matter what one thinks about Western society, the only ones who think WW 2 wasn’t worth fighting are surnamed Hitler and Mussolini, and well, who cares what they think, eh?

This is the fundamental flaw of Catch-22 -- the setting jars with the narrative. This is why the hippies fell all over this and made sure to transplant into Vietnam or Vietnam surrogates -- it just made more sense there.

Next Sunday -- gonna try to get on something of a regular schedule for these -- Something Happened, or “where did all my fans go?”