Stuff I’ve Been Reading: December/January 2018
- Lonesome Dove—Larry McMurtry
- The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking—Olivia Laing
- Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers—Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer
- “High Noon”: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic—Glenn Frankel
- Less—Andrew Sean Greer
- Up the Down Staircase—Bel Kaufman
- A Life of My Own—Claire Tomalin
- Fall on Your Knees—Ann-Marie MacDonald
So, where to start? With Olivia Laing’s brilliant book about writers and booze, The Trip to Echo Spring? Glenn Frankel’s scholarly, frightening High Noon, about the bitterly divisive making of the Gary Cooper movie during a very difficult period in America’s cultural and political history? Satan Is Real, Charlie Louvin’s startling history of his life in country music? Or Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s 843-page novel about cattle, cowboys, Indians, whores, guns, life, death, the American West, and quite a few other chunks of the USA, and just about anything else you can think of, apart from Brexit and iPhones?
There’s no contest, really. I loved everything I read this month, but the sheer scale of Lonesome Dove crushed everything in its path, including, in my case, not one but two family holidays. One always hopes to be transported somewhere else by a novel, even if the world depicted is only up the end of your street: it’s still a world populated by the novelist’s imagination, with a geography that has been mapped out by someone with a different vantage point from your own. I don’t know, obviously, what it would feel like to read McMurtry’s magnificent epic if you were an American; perhaps if you live in New York City or LA or in a suburb of Cleveland, surrounded by Starbucks and concrete, it might not seem so very different. I am an Englishman who set off on the novel’s journey from Texas next to a swimming pool in France, and arrived in Montana while sitting by a pond in Dorset (another swimming pool, actually, albeit one designed to look like a pond, but I didn’t want to repeat the words swimming pool, for various reasons). And I can say only that I was transported somewhere else so completely that if I’d had to shoot a couple of children in order to get my lunch, I would have done so, without really thinking about it. Hour after hour after hour, I was taken to places I had never really thought about, or at least not since I was very young, and I became lost in them.
Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive, and if you’re all like, “No, I don’t want to read about a cattle drive. I want to read about 1970s campus adultery,” I would ask you to rethink your position, because the first thing to say about Lonesome Dove is that there are enormous narrative events on a regular basis. People are killed by snakes. There are sandstorms. There are bad men who shoot people, then hang them, then burn them, mostly for the hell of it. It’s all a bit of a shock to the system, if your normal literary diet consists of the sort of novel in which a narrator spends thirty years thinking about something enigmatic that happened to him in his teens. I read these books, too, and while chomping through Lonesome Dove, I spent half the time wondering whether one was allowed to write about snakes and dismemberment in literary fiction. Isn’t it too easy, describing a landscape and a time in which shit not only happens, but never stops happening? Doesn’t the real skill of the contemporary novelist’s craft lie in our ability to bang on for fifty pages about interiors—not just wallpaper and furniture, but the psyche and the state of the soul?
The price that McMurtry has to pay for this kind of cheating, surely, is that he loses everything that proper literary fiction, the ruminative kind, does so well: characterization, deft shifts of tone, depth, heart, humor, empathy, pain. Inexplicably, they are all there. I regret to inform you that the characters are unforgettable, that Lonesome Dove is properly funny, and that it will both stop and break your heart. OK, the sentences are not Jamesian. But Jamesian sentences would be as much use out on the trail as an ice cream maker, and in any case McMurtry’s sentences are sturdily built. And some of the minor characters are Dickensian, an adjective that’s unavoidable in describing a novel as rich, as teeming with life, and as ambitious as this one. Deets and July Johnson, Lori and Elmira, Frog Lip and Blue Duck, Jake Spoon and Dish Boggett… There are scores of people in this book, all lovingly delineated, most of them complicated, all of them existentially tough, damaged by the lives they have had to live. It’s not even as if the narrative goes in a straight line, even though a straight line would plot the course that most of the characters take. There are subplots, characters peel off and settle somewhere along the trail, traumatized and brutalized by their experiences along the way. And there are deaths, of course, all of them violent, some of them startlingly so. They are not random, in the sense that there is a rhythm to them, and the saddest death is saved for last. (If you intend to read the book, don’t make the mistake I made, which was to search online for a map of the route. The first thing I saw was the location of the grave of… Well, never mind whose grave it was. But learning that he was dead was devastating in several ways: I was overwhelmed by grief, because I loved him, and I was extremely upset that I had to root for him over hundreds of pages with the unwanted knowledge that my support and concern were going to prove fruitless.)
Lonesome Dove is a major American novel, and yet it’s proving to be a hard sell, especially to British women. There are female characters in this book, and they are drawn with love and sympathy, but they are pretty much all either whores or wives, frequently both, with the first calling preceding the second. One of them is raped repeatedly, after being abducted, and she is rendered almost mute by the experience; McMurtry treats her painfully slow recovery with a suitable weight and sobriety. But there simply isn’t an awful lot of leaning in to be done, and if it’s any consolation, the lives of the men are just as cheap.
But part of the resistance I am meeting is that Lonesome Dove is a cowboy book: John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Trigger, Bonanza, B movies, and 1930s serials—none of which have survived to compete with, say, Louis Armstrong or Buster Keaton as serious pillars of early American pop culture— don’t help my cause. Kids don’t even pretend to be cowboys anymore, not round my way. But McMurtry begins with a quote from T. K. Whipple’s Study Out the Land: “All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within the US the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” What better time to read this magnificent book than now, when America is once again trying to decide what it wants to dream, and what it wants to live?
In one of those magical reading moments that happen sometimes, I traveled with Augustus McCrae and W. F. Call from Texas to Montana, put down Lonesome Dove with a full and heavy heart, picked up High Noon, and read this, the first sentence of the first chapter: “In 1914, when Frank Cooper was thirteen years old, his father took him to the state capitol building in Helena, Montana, to see a stunning new mural created by Charles M. Russell, one of the great artist-mythmakers of the Old West.” What are the odds? They are considerably shortened, I suppose, if you move from one book featuring a man in a cowboy hat on the front cover to another book featuring a man in a cowboy hat on the front cover. But even so! Spooky, no? Oh, suit yourself. “High Noon”: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic seems simultaneously timely and quaint—quaint because whatever else we’re afraid of at the moment, communism no longer keeps us awake at night; timely because then, like now, the political climate was ugly, paranoid, and bitterly divisive.
The three central characters in Frankel’s study are Frank (later Gary) Cooper, who changed his name to the Indiana town of his agent’s birth; Carl Foreman, the screenwriter of the movie; and Stanley Kramer, the producer. Of the three, it was Foreman who suffered most from the blacklist: he was forced to move to England to work while High Noon was still in production, and ended up never really going home. Impressively, he ended up involved in some iconic British films, after writing an iconic piece of Americana: he was an uncredited writer on The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean’s beloved epic, although his credit was eventually restored, and he was awarded a posthumous Oscar. (The Oscar was originally awarded to the author of the novel that the film is based on, Frenchman Pierre Boulle, who not only didn’t write the screenplay but couldn’t speak English.) (Oh, and Boulle’s other major novel was— wait for it—Planet of the Apes.) (I’m sorry about all the parentheses, but when writing about books like this, full of delightful but thematically unconnected trivia, they are unavoidable.) It seems only right that High Noon is full of heroes and villains. John Wayne, the man who wouldn’t fight the Nazis, was instrumental in driving Foreman out of Hollywood; Stanley Kramer, Foreman’s friend and business partner, never spoke to him again after Foreman’s use of the Fifth Amendment in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, in order to avoid naming names. Gary Cooper, a staunch Republican and a deeply flawed husband, but a kind man, was human enough to try and help Foreman out, but Wayne and his bullying soon put a stop to that. High Noon, the screenwriter explained during his testimony, was “the story of a town that died because it lacked the moral fiber to withstand aggression.” Perhaps the timeliness is much more significant than the quaintness.
I haven’t read anyone quite like Olivia Laing. The Trip to Echo Spring is a work of literary criticism, I suppose, but it’s also a travel book, and it contains fragments of memoir and potted biographies, but there’s an ache to it, too, a deep sadness, which comes partly from the author’s love for and helpless frustration with the writers she studies, but also simply because the book is about success and failure, life and death, parents and children, relationships and betrayals. And, yes, these were the subjects of the drunk writers she discusses here—Berryman, Carver, Tennessee Wiliams, Cheever, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald—but the affecting tone of Laing’s book isn’t arrived at vicariously, if you see what I mean. The damaged lives become the fabric of the author’s own purposes, and The Trip to Echo Spring thus becomes, emphatically, a work of art, with a voice and a mood all its own. You learn things, of course. You learn not just about the books and plays and poems, the sometimes difficult-conditions in which they were produced, but also about alcohol itself, what it does to people. Laing quotes a report on the impossible conundrums of alcoholism: “This hyperactivity in the brain produces an intense need to calm down and to use more alcohol,” before remarking, wearily, “What a mess. What a bloody mess.” It’s a lovely, characteristic moment in a beautiful book.
The Louvin Brothers, or one of them, anyway, could hold their own in any book about the baleful effects of drink on a career. Ira Louvin was the problem, according to his brother Charlie’s book about their career in country music. Drink cost Ira his career, a relationship with his brother, and several wives, but despite the chaos it engendered, it’s dealt with matterof-factly here: there are eye-widening accounts of fistfights and binges (poor old Charlie even gets clonked on the head with a skillet, rather like a country-music Homer Simpson), and of course Charlie regrets the ruinous path that his brother chose. But mostly this book is about what it was like to grow up dirt-poor, talented, and ambitious, and even though you may think there are no surprises left in this kind of story, Louvin’s gleeful details are fresh and, sometimes, sad and funny at the same time. How do you listen to music late at night when your father is likely to give you a severe beating if he hears the record player being used? Charlie Louvin had the answer. You sneak downstairs, take a couple of broom straws, put them between your teeth, and use them as styli, and the music goes straight into your skull. The desperate artist’s need for art will always find a way, however unpromising the circumstances.
Four books, all about the best that America has to offer: movies, vernacular music, writers who meant and continue to mean something the world over, an implacable landscape, and an extraordinary history. It occurred to me that I would happily read novels and biographies about America and Americans for the rest of my life, so important has the United States been to me both professionally and as a cultural consumer, but maybe it’s time to turn my attention to my own benighted, lonely island. The summer is over now, America has gone mad anyway, and I am hoping that one of my countrymen can explain to me, in some form of writing, what the hell is going on here. It is somewhat startling to realize that if I were to embark on a two-thousand-mile cattle drive from London—and I haven’t ruled it out completely—I’d end up somewhere near Marrakech if I went south, or near Moscow if I went east. That’s a lot of paperwork, especially now that we have torn up all the livestock agreements with EEC countries. We don’t have the room to dream in the same way as America does, which is why we need you to dream for us. Please don’t stop.