A novelist named E. Howard Hunt died today. Of course, E. Howard Hunt won't go down in history as a novelist, despite the fact that Amazon lists six (6!) pages of spy thrillers and non-fiction books he wrote, like Maelstrom, a potboiler from 1948. Howard Hunt will be remembered because he, along with G. Gordon Liddy, planned and executed the break-in at the Watergate national democratic headquarters in 1972 that eventually brought down the Nixon Presidency.
E. Howard Hunt, a dapper but dour CIA agent, lived an interesting life. The fight against Communism was his obsession, and in this capacity he holds the remarkable distinction of being involved in not one but two (2) major failures of American politics, having also played a leadership role in the disastrous anti-Castro Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Looking back, it's fairly clear that he should have stuck to writing novels. But history had its way with him, and today we can only reflect on his death.
How were his novels? I've looked at his later ones but none caught my interest; I'd love to look at one of his earlier pulp-style novels but you can't even find a title with a cover image on ALibris's long list of his books. The earliest one appears to be called East of Farewell, published in 1942 -- if anybody out there has read any of these books, please share your observations by posting a comment below.
Only in the ancient Hindu sense of all-universe acceptance can I say that I think E. Howard Hunt was a good man. But he did America a big favor in the summer of 1972: he got caught. As anybody who's read All The President's Men knows, he and Liddy were across the street at the Howard Johnson hotel watching with binoculars as the police burst in on the spies, and one of the men arrested had E. Howard Hunt's name and phone number at the White House listed in the phone book in his pocket. Thus did a President fall.
Coincidentally, Howard Hunt died on a day when Watergate is on many people's minds. If you haven't been paying attention, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis Libby is on trial for obstruction of justice in a case related to the pre-war search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Libby's defense is pointing a finger at President Bush's close advisor Karl Rove, and it's all starting to remind me of those good old days of John Dean, Bob Haldeman and ... E. Howard Hunt.
Farewell to a hard-working American patriot and writer, E. Howard Hunt.
She's reading a story called "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall", which is about her mother, her birth father, her love of symmetry, her knowledge of skin coloring and her skill at strip poker. I had to butcher the original video a bit to get it through YouTube's ten minute time limit, but you can view the full text here.
I got to know Leslie better in 2002 when we spent a year together working on the relaunch of an ambitious fine arts site. Our office was on the sixth-floor of an old Chelsea building with an endlessly broken elevator, and Leslie hated those stairs. I wish I had gotten to know her better; she was the chief designer and I was the chief techie, and we were often too busy to talk about anything but work. Here are a few things I remember:
• I won't say she was always in a good mood, but I will say she was always in a friendly mood. She was a people person, a good listener and a good talker.
• She once showed me a bunch of pictures of where she grew up, somewhere in the Appalachian mountain country. I don't remember if she was offended by the term "hillbilly" or not, but Leslie definitely came from deep country roots.
• As a web designer, she had a fabulous client list, and I always had a feeling the clients she didn't talk about were more interesting than the ones she did. I remember her talking about hanging out with Tony Hawk and Steve Burns (the original Steve from "Blue's Clues", who I later met).
• One day she came in to work raving about the movie Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. I remember her practically commanding me to go out and see it immediately. I felt guilty that I didn't and still haven't, but she raved about it so much that every time I hear of the movie I think of her.
• She was a natural onstage (as you can tell by listening to the crowd reaction in the video above). She also joined me for a post-September-11-themed poetry reading at a deserted theater in the Lower East Side in March 2002; this show had a smaller audience but she was a pleasure to listen to.
If you knew Leslie, the video above may bring back nice memories. If you didn't, I think you might enjoy her short story, "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall".
Enough, enough, enough about this list. This week's entire Book Review is devoted to literary fiction, and Rachel Donadio's endpaper ties everything together with a serious and informative examination of the business outlook for literary fiction today. Her opening paragraph wastes no time:
The pride and joy of publishing, literary fiction has always been wonderfully ill suited to the very industry that sustains it. Like an elegant but impoverished aristocrat married to a nouveau riche spouse, it has long been subsidized by mass-market fiction and by nonfiction ripped from the headlines. One supplies the cachet, the others the cash.
This is a hell of an important topic, and I'm glad Donadio is addressing it. But I start resenting her defeatist conclusions from Sentence One. The inability of book publishers to monetize literary fiction is "wonderful"? No, actually, this represents a major wasted business opportunity and Rachel, you're fired.
I absolutely refuse to believe that book publishers can't find a way to turn larger profits with the great literary fiction that abounds in our time. Are there any innovative thinkers out there? The film industry and music industry manage to adjust to new pricing models constantly, but major book industry executives will stand at their podiums at trade shows and declare that the $25 hardcover is the only format they can possibly use when breaking new authors. And they wonder why they can't sell more than 19,000 copies of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision (have they noticed that young people do not like hardcover books?).
One hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire was known as the "Sick Man of Europe". Today, book publishing is the sick child of mass media, and maybe that's why loyal readers like me feel a bit disgusted when the book industry pats itself on the back too loudly.
All of the above took on a new perspective for me after I put away the Book Review and idly flipped to the Metro Section to find, on page 39, an obituary for novelist Richard P. Brickner. Richard Brickner, a former writing teacher of mine, died at the age of 72 in New York City, where he had lived his entire life.
Richard Brickner was the best writing teacher I ever had and a very big inspiration to me. In fact, I attended his writing workshop at the New School five semesters in a row. He had many repeat students, which is a testament to his skill as a teacher and his popularity with his students.
Richard Brickner spent his life on the fringe of literary fame and fortune. Fiction was his passion (Henry James and Isaac Babel were his heroes), but ironically his most successful book, My Second Twenty Years was a factual memoir of his struggle to live a normal life in New York City (and maintain romantic relationships with women) after being massively injured in a car accident at the age of twenty. It's a powerful book, but I like his operatic-themed love story Tickets (life imitates Puccini) better.
Brickner wrote novels the way he got into taxicabs -- slowly and with great difficulty -- and during the two and a half years I studied with him he was working on his magnum opus, After She Left, about a brilliant but naive young woman who is pursued by many men and ends up making the worst possible choice. The book was designed to be a modern retelling of Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which Brickner considered the best novel ever written. In fact, understanding the parallel with the James novel was key to understanding this book, but in the end Brickner was a victim of his own subtlety, because, unlike the authors of Ahab's Wife or March or The Hours, Brickner did not make the literary parallel obvious. The book got tepid reviews in the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, and it did not seem that any of the reviewers caught on to the Henry James connection at all.
After She Left was Richard Brickner's last novel, and a disappointing ending to a once-promising literary career. But this writer's greatest legacy must be the thousands and thousands of students he inspired at the New School and City College of New York. If I had to put his writing advice into a single sentence, it would be this: "Come on, you can do better than that." I was very lucky to have learned from this man.
Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was known for a cool and unpretentious lyrical style with a soft-spoken speculative touch.
The Long Boat
by Stanley Kunitz
When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn't matter
which way was home;
as if he didn't know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.
The satirical and philosophical science fiction writer -- to whom the future had always been suspect -- had foreseen many technological achievements in his utopias. His stories tell of the difficulties of communication between humans and other civilizations and of the limitation of human understanding. They portray the human indecision between curiosity and xenophobia, and the tragedy and comedy of future machines, human intellect and emotion and their relation to each other.
1) His grandfather was Robert Benchley, a great humor writer from the sophisticated Algonquin circle of the 1920's and 30's. Peter Benchley wasn't funny like his grandfather, even though his book made a lot more money than any of Robert's ever did. The easiest way to get familiar with the distinctive satirical stylings of Robert Benchley is to watch the actor Campbell Scott's superb rendition of Benchley's amazing "Treasurer's Report" stage comedy bit in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
2. I read Jaws as a kid -- one of the first grownup books I ever read, in fact -- and I enjoyed it. One thing that stuck out in my then pre-adolescent mind and still does today: the film left out the book's only steamy sex scene, in which the police chief's wife has a quickie affair with the marine biologist. Yes, that's right, Roy Schieder's wife slept with Richard Dreyfuss -- in the book. Why do you think George Costanza wanted to be a marine biologist? I don't usually second guess Steven Spielberg, but I think this sex scene was part of the subtext behind the police chief's rivalry with the scientist, and I think Spielberg made a mistake in not filming that scene.
3. As a kid in the seventies, I thought it was very cool that Jaws took place on Long Island, where I lived. I was never scared of sharks when we went to Jones Beach -- exciting things like getting bit by a shark never happened to kids like me. Now that I am a father, though, I see it differently. I remember yelling at my 14-year-old son to get closer to shore this summer, and I believe he informed me that there were no sharks on Long Island, to which I loudly responded "Have you ever heard of a freaking film called Jaws?!"
Goodbye to Peter Benchley, author of one really good book.
As a friend to many of the Beat Generation authors and characters, Graham was always willing to share a story or a bit of knowledge whenever anyone had a question. He was also an adept storyteller in his own right, recounting many events, such as this one about the famed "Beat Hotel" in Paris. These great stories are not only a pleasure to read, but provide a link to that piece of literary history. Graham was also integral in helping LitKicks to present one of our best features -- a 1970 original recording of Corso reading BOMB. Graham was generous in helping us put this together with his audio and images and we feel it's a great testament to not only his spirit, but also his desire to keep art and poetry alive.
As did a few others here, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Graham in person, and he was just as kind and friendly as in his postings or email. He will be missed as not only a resource on Beat history, but also as a friend.
We'll pass along any memorial information if/when it becomes available. In the meantime, consider checking out the Jazz Foundation of America, a cause that Graham was involved in recently through this site. Please share any thoughts or memories of Graham Seidman, his art or stories here.
The Dean parallels end there, though; the Vermont governor became famous for uttering loud pirate-like noises at televised campaign rallies, whereas the Minnesota senator (whose death was reported this weekend) preferred quietly quoting the likes of Plutarch, Shelley and Whitman, as well as reciting his own poems at political events. You can check out some of his verses here ... he was no John Ashbery, as far as I can see, but there's an appealing Ted Kooser kind of vibe to the stuff, and it's clear his heart was in the right place. Thanks to Syntax for the tipoff.
Speaking of hearts that no longer beat ... I don't know if Richard Pryor considered himself a writer, but he was certainly poetry in motion. "That's right ... we bad ..."
British novelist John Fowles died this weekend at his home in Lyme Regis, England at the age of 79.
The Magus was Fowles' definitive work, a tour de force in every sense. An earnest but vapid young man accepts an invitation for what appears to be a conventional teaching job on a small Greek island where an eccentric wealthy landowner holds court. Once there, the young man discovers himself imprisoned within an elaborate constructed world in which Greek myths come frighteningly alive and philosophical theories about mankind's Dionysian and Appolonian impulses are put to test.