I always cheat. Not so much in the romantic field, where I
tend to be disgustingly devoted, but in just about everything else: I always exceed the
requested word count; I print out long personal documents on the company LaserJet; if
Im bored with a book, I sometimes skim or even jump over pages of text. My entire
participation in this column for The Cortland Review could be said to be a cheat: when
J.M. Spalding asked Bruce Canwell to write a monthly column, it was Bruce who approached
me to tackle the issues on alternating months, and I gleefully rode in on his coattails.
Well, Bruce would say that gleefully isnt anything like the right word
but then, I always cheat.
As he mentioned last month, Bruce and I agree that good writers must also be good
readers. Its a sentiment we share with the late Robertson Davies, who advises us as
readers to slow down, to take pleasure in the act of reading (as opposed to the conquest
of having read something) and, most of all, to dramatize as we
read. Davies had a background in the theater and his novels play very well, thank you, in
the theater of your own minds eye. Writing may be the ultimate power trip we
not only put words in the characters mouths and shape their destiny, but we
establish the basic parameters of their looks, we design all the sets and costumes, set
the tone, pace and mood, and we play all the parts. But thats a cheat, too, or at
least a half-truth: as Davies knew, the reader is the true leading player, and only by
taking on that role can a writer hope to learn his business.
Here are four writers who will offer you many hours of internal drama:
He is one of my Top Ten Reasons Why Its Good To Be Alive. I first discovered him
with the American edition of his fifth novel, Poor Things, a brilliant construction
made of equal parts Mary Shelley parody, feminist treatise, social history and literary
conceit, where truth and fiction swallow each other whole and nothing is quite as it
The trappings of Poor Things first attracted me, but the layers held my
attention. Its been my great pleasure to have that experience repeated in all of his
books, from Lanark (his first and biggest novel in which a Scottish life is
examined from both sides of death) all the way through his most recent novel, A History
Maker (science fiction grounded in Scotlands bloody history). Gray frequently
augments his words with a filigree of real and imagined critics comments, with
illustration (he was trained as an artist in Glasgow, and designs and illustrates all of
his own work) and anthropological articles that investigate the reality behind the
fiction. It is gamesmanship, but gamesmanship of a very high and self-deprecating order.
Gray, as usual, says it best himself, in a (partially fictional?) postscript to a new
reprinting of Unlikely Stories, Mostly: ... all my writing is about personal
imagination and social power, or (to put it more crudely) freedom and government. Variety
comes from neither side being simply right or wrong. Both are essential. ... freedom and
control are swapped between two individuals.
Caustic humor is a long and noble British tradition. What sets Tom Sharpe ahead of the
pack is not the depth of his perversion (which is deep enough) or the sheer volume of
comic mayhem that he can squeeze into two hundred pages, but that he can make you laugh
out loud at the most appalling things, and keep you coming back for more.
Part of his secret is that the stories are laced with Awful Truth. Its hard to
conceive that a writer who uses penis mutilation as a recurring motif and whose characters
habitually cavort in rubber rooms and sex-toy factories might have something important to
say. Sharpe is driven by a deep-seated anger at the system, and its the anger that
powers the black extremes of his humor.
The other part of his secret is harder to express in a short recommendation: because,
yes, the books are charming in a sick adult sort of way, and this charm of style seldom
fails even when Sharpe is describing (in his South African series Indecent Exposure and
Riotous Assembly) the efforts of white Afrikaners to eliminate black Africans by
raping black women, or (in The Throwback) the efforts of a young man to hang onto
his inheritance by having his dead grandfather stuffed and wired for sound. Look, I
dont expect you to believe me: read the books and find out for yourselves. Reading
Tom Sharpe is a test of character try him and see if you pass.
Almost forgotten now, in his day Joyce Cary was a giant, if not a household name. He
would belong on this list even if his only achievement had been to create Gully Jimson,
painter, anarchist and genius, antihero of The Horses Mouth. But in novel
after novel, Cary wrote from inside his characters, using only subtle technique
never the pyrotechnics of writers like Faulkner and Dos Passos (both of whom are favorites
dont get me wrong). Artists, politicians, army men, children, wives and
lovers all came under his pen with equal conviction, all caught out to one degree or
another at the defining (and frequently the most humiliating) moments of their lives. If
writers are dramatists, directors and actors, then, more than any other writer on this
list, Cary mastered the acting part.
Cary often wrote in the form of literary triptychs, in which the same story is examined
from three different points of view, separate lives touching at a more or less vital
juncture and having impact, consequences, that they could never have anticipated.
Roberston Davies, who under Carys influence produced his famous Cornish and Deptford
Trilogies, wrote the best appreciation of Cary that anyone could hope for in his book A
Voice From The Attic. I wont try to improve on it (couldnt, given
limitations of ability and space), but will only add my approval and recommendation.
Flashier, more visceral novelists abound, but none better.
TOM DE HAVEN
... makes this list on the strength of one novel: he has written others, but Derby
Dugans Depression Funnies is his first to achieve iconic status, while, cleverly
enough, dealing with American icons.
Set in the world of 1930s newspaper comics publishing, Dugan chronicles
three or more affairs of various sorts: platonic/romantic, as hack writer Al Bready
worries about his friendship with a married woman; platonic/creative, as Bready pairs with
disagreeable, lecherous comic strip artist Walter Geebus to produce a work (the
Derby Dugan of the books title) greater than either man could have
accomplished on their own; and the very real love affair that America once had with
newspaper comic strips.
The relationships that he writes about are difficult ones, all bound up in a
four-colored thread of endurance, faith, love and aspiration. Like the relationships
between characters in the best comic strips the Kats and Mice, the orphans and
billionaires, the sailors and old maids they mean something that is not easily
defined. This is not a novel about the funnies, but a novel about the people who made
them, the contradictory nature of the human heart, and the better angels of our
nature that sometimes find fruition in populist art.
Wait a minute, you say. Counting Roberston Davies (who belongs on everyones
reading list) thats five authors, not four.
Well, I always cheat.