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Paul Wilner

Last Man in the West: ‘A Texas Trilogy’ by Larry McMurtry

A Texas TrilogyI once talked to Larry McMurtry on the telephone.

I was doing a piece for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, pegged to Terms of Endearment, on why his works were so compulsively suitable for adaptation to the big (and little) screen – this was after Hud and The Last Picture Show, but before Lonesome Dove or Brokeback Mountain.

I was getting nowhere trying to reach him, until a friend tipped me off that he was staying at the Beverly Wilshire with his son, on a stopover before a skiing trip.

When I got connected to McMurtry’s room, and explained what I was up to, he was a little surprised, and polite enough – but direct. “I don’t do interviews,” he said. “I just don’t see the point.”

It’s that kind of understated honesty that, after decamping from the desolate Archer City ranch he was brought up in, helped him survive the wilds of the Stanford writing program, where, as a Stegner Fellow, he hung out with Ken Kesey and other latter-day Merry Pranksters, but kept his hands on the wheel, like fellow classmate Robert Stone.

At 81, and approaching the end of a distinguished literary career, amid (apparently premature) rumors of retirement, his early work is being celebrated with A Texas Trilogy (722 pages; Liveright), the re-issue of his first three novels, Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; and The Last Picture Show.

In a fresh introduction to the new volume, McMurtry humble brags Horseman, Pass By – the title came from Yeats, but was discarded by the filmmakers for the simpler sobriquet Hud – but allows it some credit for “occasionally pleasing lyricism.’’

Well, more than that.

 New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously dissed the movie (and the book) for its sanctimonious portrayal of Homer Bannon, the cattleman who unhappily agrees to let government regulators inspect his herd for mad cow disease – and allows them to be slaughtered once it is confirmed. As usual, Kael far preferred the antihero, Hud (as the movie billboard campaign memorably put it, Paul Newman is Hud), for his virility and lack of pretension, in comparison to Homer or Hud’s younger, more sensitive and idealistic half-brother, Lonnie.

But her real critique seemed to boil down to a less subtle form of social snobbery: at the end of the day, these people were…hicks.

It’s the kind of assault being leveled these days on “Trump country” – even as pictures flooded the news recently of burly boaters rescuing older hurricane refugees, many of them African-American, from roofs and car tops. This is not to discount the myriad ways in which our current President is awful – a gargoylish caricature of our worst collective prejudices – but an acknowledgement that there is a deeper reality than what we see on screens (let alone tweets). To be rooted in the country is advantageous, as well as alarming.

Ask Elvis.

Towards the end of Horseman, Lonnie articulates some of this as he tries to escape his troubles at a dance after a rodeo in which a friend was crushed by a bull:

“The band was playing one of those songs of Hank Williams’, the one about the wild side of life, and the music floated over the car tops and touched me…Only the tune of the song reached me, but the tune was enough. It fit the night and the country and the way I was feeling, and fit them better than anything I knew. What few stories the dancing people had to tell were already told in the worn-out words of songs like that one, and their kind of living, the few things they knew and lived to a fare-thee-well in the sad high tune. City people probably wouldn’t believe there were folks simple enough to live their lives out in sentiments like those – but they didn’t know.”

It is a complex fate being an American, indeed.

“This was the small-town West I and so many of my friends came out of – escaping from the swaggering small-town hotshots like Hud,’’ writes Kael, who was born in Petaluma. “But I didn’t remember any boys like Brandon DeWilde’s Lon: he wasn’t born in the West or in anyone’s imagination; that seventeen-year-old blank sheet of paper has been handed down from generations of lazy hack writers.’’

Although McMurtry admitted, with typical modesty, that the polarities between Homer and no-good Hud were overdrawn, clearly there must have been some sensitive souls on the range – how else to account for McMurtry’s own prodigious output, and his famously good ear for women characters? Maybe Kael was just looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song would have it.

Trust the tale, not the teller.

Even as a first effort, Horseman, Pass By, published in 1961 when the author was all of 25, stands up to re-reading. There’s a touch of Twain in Lon’s lonesome laments, and of Dreiser (and Tom Buchanan) in the depiction of Hud’s rough romancing.

McMurtry, who clearly knows his way around a High Concept pitch, describes his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, as “the bittersweet story of a longtime love triangle among a rancher, his cowboy, and an appealing countrywoman who loves them both.’’

It was adapted into a ludicrous film, Lovin’ Molly, starring the amazingly miscast Anthony Perkins as one of the ranch hands and Beau Bridges, doing as best possible under the circumstances, as Johnny McCloud, his sidekick and romantic rival. But the book’s real achievement is McMurtry’s portrait of Molly. Part of his unending curiosity into the mysteries and unreachability of women in general, and the woman his protagonist is obsessed with in particular, it prefigured the development of more mature characters like Patsy Carpenter in Moving On, Emma Greenway-Horton and her mom, Aurora, in Terms of Endearment, and Jill Peel in Somebody’s Darling.

Molly Taylor, the liberated lady of the prairies, has her overly serious suitor, Gideon Fry’s number about the difference between wanting to be in in love, and the actual experience. As she tells him, “You’re always thinking about Johnny or Eddie or your ranch or your dad or what people will think, or what’s right and wrong, something like that…. Or else you just like to think about having me for a girl. That ain’t loving nobody much. I can tell you that.” Busted.

Huck Finn’s ghost pops up as Gid comes to grips with the fact, that, unlike Johnny, he can’t just walk away from his roots.

“I didn’t mind the company; I didn’t mind the country, or even the cold weather,’’ McMurtry writes, of an interlude in which McCloud has talked Fry into taking off into the wilds. “I just minded feeling like I wasn’t where I belonged…I couldn’t get over thinking about Dad and Molly and the country and the ranch, the things I knew. The things that were mine. It wasn’t that I liked being in Archer Country so much – sometimes I hated it. But I was just tied up with it; whatever happened there was happening to me, even if I wasn’t there to see it. The country might not be very nice and the people might be ornery; but it was my country and my people, and no other country was; no other people, either. You do better staying with your own, even if it’s hard.”

Hard times are what define the fictional terrain of The Last Picture Show (1966), the coda of the “new” collection and the most formally accomplished of the trio. As in Peter Bogdanovich’s film adaptation, the sharp-eyed characterizations of small town football buddies Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, the town tease Lacy Farrow, her mutinously adulterous mom Lois, and Sam the Lion, the local pool hall proprietor, are precisely etched, as is the subplot involving Sonny’s callous affair with Ruth Popper, the wife of the (closeted) high school football coach.

As the saga draws to an end, the Thalia picture show closes, with a whimper, not a bang – showing an Audie Murphy vehicle called The Kid From Texas in lieu of a John Ford classic. It’s second-rate, but the novel is not.

“While writing these three novels, it was clear to me that I was witnessing the dying of a way of life, too – the rural, pastoral way of life,” McMurtry writes. “And in many of the books that I’ve produced, it has taken thousands of words to attend to the passing of the cowboy as well: the myth of my country, and of my people, too.”

This was country he would not return to until the publication, thousands of words later, of Lonesome Dove. Intended as an anti-Western, it of course had the opposite effect, bringing the author his first Pulitzer and a massive audience for the mini-series that was based on it.

The irony was not lost on McMurtry, a writer so keenly aware of regional marginalization that he used to wear a sweatshirt with the logo: “Minor regional novelist.’’ (His bemused account, in Literary Life, of his tenure as president of PEN America, and failed attempts to broaden its scope beyond Manhattan, is instructive.)

His portraits of contemporary life have been no less telling. The next re-release of his work, one hopes, will be the “Houston trilogy’’ – Moving On, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment – which deal with clearly autobiographical material, especially in Strangers, the tale of Danny Deck, a young Texas novelist whose success brings unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences. And Somebody’s Darling, a picaresque tale of the adventures of rising director Jill Peel, sardonic screenwriter Joe Percy, and Owen Oarson, a Texas stud along for the unlikely ride, is as good a Hollywood novel as I’ve read.

McMurtry is always accessible and humane as the latest trilogy reminds us. Although a former Stegner Fellow, his voice is never as portentous as that of the late Western writer, and less apocalyptic than his classmate Kesey.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours, and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,’’ J.D. Salinger famously wrote (and lived to regret).

But I don’t mind that my talk with Larry McMurtry was so brief. It left him more time to keep writing. The conversation continued.

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Frost Bit

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say Vanilla Ice
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I’m thinking of a funeral pyre.
But if you had to ask me twice,
I’d throw the dice.
Bring Kid Rock over for a round or two,
Burn one or two or three or four,
Look out for lice. Watch the backyard
Barbecue glow. Orange in the night.
Let’s do it twice.

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Experience and the Writer: Q&A with ‘River Under the Road’ Author Scott Spencer

(photo by Plain Picture)

(photo by Plain Picture)

Over the course of eleven novels, Scott Spencer has earned an incontestable place as one of the major novelists of our time. Best known as the author of Endless Love, an incandescent narrative of youthful passion and obsession that became the subject of two unfortunate film adaptations, Spencer has chosen to stay out of the limelight since its publication in 1979.

In works such as Waking The Dead (1986), also adapted into a (more credible) film, A Ship Made of Paper (2003), The Rich Man’s Table (1998), and Willing (2008), he has covered fictional territory ranging from an American activist gone missing in Chile, to the illegitimate son of a cult music icon’s search for his absent parent—even the seriocomic adventures of a freelance writer who takes an all-expenses paid trip to a sex tour to get over a bad break-up.

Love, and its complicated consequences, is at the heart of his fictional explorations, but he has an uncanny ability to switch gears, from hopelessly romantic to high (and sometimes low) comedy, without seeming to break a sweat or lose the reader in the process.

His new novel, River Under the Road (384 pages; Ecco), is Spencer’s strongest achievement yet, the work of a mature artist who understands his craft and how to control his narrative. With an epigraph from Lincoln—“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…’’—he turns his lens on a wide cast of characters as seen through thirteen scene-setting parties, from 1976 to 1990, and from Chicago, where his protagonist, Thaddeus Kaufman, was raised in the fulcrum of leftie parenting, to New York and then the Hudson Valley, (where Thaddeus repairs to after surprise success as a screenwriter), with pit stops in Hollywood and even Plato’s Retreat (or “Nero’s Fiddle,’’ as it is called here).

The demands of keeping his marriage together with Grace Cornell, the struggling artist who has accompanied him on the ride from the Midwest to what is laughingly called “success,’’ are chronicled here, along with the class struggle between the townies of Leyden (the fictional town he has moved to) and the couple’s nouveau riche friends. The temptations of La-La Land—the real thing, not the movie—are shown in living color, as Kaufman tries to fend off the blandishments, and the bullshit, that goes with the territory.

It’s a rich emotional landscape that is about as far from modish post-modernism as you can travel. These are real people, not poster children for a post-irony age. Literary comparisons are probably a mug’s game, but, for my part, the author’s seriousness about the wayward ways of the human heart puts him far beyond perennial Nobel Prize-bridesmaid Philip Roth’s often cartoonish depictions of sexual politics (or politics, period).

We talked to Spencer about River Under the Road. Our electronic conversation follows:

ZYZZYVA: River Under the Road feels like a “big’’ novel—large in scope, ambition and range—a portrait of class conflict and the never-ending war between the sexes over time and geography. Although very different in some ways, in others it seems like a return to the emotional roller coaster of Endless Love, with the distance of life experience and artistic maturity. Do you see any parallels—or significant differences—between the two books?

SCOTT SPENCER: Like everyone else, writers grow older and we have more opportunities to measure what we somehow believe to be true and important against what our experience has taught us. Don’t we sometimes feel that life is continually trying to grab us by the shoulders and give us a vigorous shake, imploring us to revise or abandon altogether half of our assumptions? I don’t write novels as a means to self-improvement or self-analysis, but if you work as I do, and create narratives in which characters deal with the consequences of their actions, you cannot escape continual confrontation with your own thoughts and feelings. Endless Love was the third novel I had published, and it is not a book that I would or could write now. Because it was more successful than my other novels, it is used often as a benchmark in discussing a new book I have written. This is probably useful to someone attempting to evaluate a writer’s oeuvre, but I don’t believe many writers think too much about previous work when they are engaged in the labor of creating a new fictional universe. Aside from never using the word “endless” again, I don’t write into or away from what I have already written.

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Door of the Soul: ‘The Accomplished Guest’ by Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie’s career began, auspiciously, 40 years ago with the joint publication of her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Distortions, a short story collection. It was an almost unheard of debut for a writer whose career had previously consisted The Accomplished Guestlargely of short stories in The New Yorker and a few other publications.

But she immediately captured critical attention with her pitch-perfect depiction of the lives of her contemporaries, shellshocked by political changes, struggling with the problems of dysfunctional relationships and trying to find a way to make sense of the senseless.

It didn’t hurt that she was also hip, strewing pop and drug culture references through her work like bread crumbs leading to an imaginary cottage. The startling directness and present-tense presence of her voice did not escape the attention of her peers, either.

“You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story,’’ John Updike told her, at their first meeting.

Well, maybe.

Although Beattie’s formidable formal innovations are remarkable, it’s no disservice to her work, which now encompasses 19 books, to say she is working in the same arena as such contemporaries as Alice Munro, and predecessors from Mavis Gallant to Chekhov, or Maupassant.

She may not be squarely in their fictional lane – her style is uniquely her own – but they populate the same neighborhood of experience, and no doubt would find a way to successfully communicate over the garden fence. There has recently been an outpouring of work from Beattie, including the publication last year of The State We’re In: Maine Stories. (She and her husband, the painter Lincoln Perry, divide their time between Maine and Key West). Her newest, just-released collection, The Accomplished Guest (288 pages; Scribner), is stunningly successful – reading it is like being hit by successive waves of emotion recalled – not so much in tranquility as in the vertiginous heat of a summer afternoon. The title pays homage to Emily Dickinson’s poem, which she chooses as an epigraph:

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Lost Addresses, Found Poems: Collections from Diann Blakely & Hélène Cardona

Lost Addresses“My fear is the common one, that her poetry should be lost,’’ Rodney Jones writes in the introduction to Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems (100 pages; Salmon Poetry), a posthumously released collection by his friend and fellow Southerner, Diann Blakely.

“There are ample reasons for a poet to be neglected, temporarily submerged in a trend, or permanently effaced, for poetry is a cold media and the music that the claim of poetry rests on may not always be acknowledged,’’ he adds. “This book is proof against forgetting.”

Indeed. Blakely, who died in 2014, had a light that burned brightly, but the questionable benefits of self-promotion, let alone branding, were alien to her spirit. (In addition to this volume, her longstanding project, Rain In Our Door: Duets With Robert Johnson, is to be published by White Pine Press and another collection, Each Fugitive Moment; Essays, Memoirs and Elegies on Lynda Hull, is forthcoming from MadHat Press.)

Her verse unites respect for form and for precursors like Eliot and Plath with down-home tributes to high and low culture, from Sid Vicious to Foucault. She gives us imagined renderings of the real life meetings between Helen Keller and Mark Twain. In “The Story of Their Lives,’’ she writes:

Dear Reader, spellbound
Or bored with cryptic addresses, bored

With other lives and voices, it’s time to loose
This story, to let Helen float away
From Westport, childhood, Los Angeles: you choose

Her resting place.

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Hanging in the Balance, Like a Puppet on a Hand: Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

“This is really a drag—and a bore,’’ the doomed jazzster Chet Baker tells director Bruce Weber in Let’s Get Lost, in response to (sympathetic) inquiries about his drug habits. The same could be said of the recent controversy over the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.

In a certain sense, it all makes sense: the high-minded indignation from select members of the literary Establishment (though, some, like Salman Rushdie and Joyce Carol Oates, welcomed the decision), and disgusted repudiation of boomer nostalgia (we get it, Irvine Welsh) in other quarters. It’s of a piece with the kind of responses the hillbilly from Hibbing has received—and invited—throughout his career, amid his dizzying changes from folk prophet to insolent rocker, country crooner to Christian preacher, callow courtier to spurned lover and husband.

But it’s a category error—ironic for someone who’s made a career out of blowing up categories. Like Whitman, Dylan is large, and his work contains multitudes, including a multitude of complaints about his creative choices. Since fanboy prose famously comprises so much of the writing about Dylan, let’s dispose of the objections first.

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“The Long Views Are Terrific”: Some Words for Bill Berkson

bill-berkson-and-frank

Bill Berkson (left) and Frank O’Hara (photo by John Button, 1961)

I was sad when I heard Bill Berkson died in June. I knew he’d been ill but didn’t know the details. But he always seemed to be the picture of a gentleman poet—by that, I don’t mean the stuffy, overly courtly, bow-tie beclad figure of an academic measuring his words in coffee spoons, of course. Or even exuding the quieter scent of class, though Bill clearly knew his way around the world of high society: His mother, Eleanor Lambert, was regarded as the doyenne of fashion publicity, and his father, Seymour Berkson, had been a high-ranking Hearst executive and for a time, publisher of the New York Journal-American.

From his early days, Bill was closely tied in with the New York School of Poetry, and his close friends and deep poetic influences included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara (he edited a posthumous collection of O’Hara’s work, In Memory of My Feelings, reprinted in 2005.)

But somehow he found himself moving out to the West Coast in 1970, living in Bolinas for a good while before returning to San Francisco and settling in Noe Valley. He taught in the California Poets in the Schools program and was also lecturer for many years at the San Francisco Institute of Art—he was ridiculously well versed in modern art, and knew most of the players personally. His gentle presence struck a notable contrast to the Beat and post-Beat decorum of the time. Bill was always an avant-gardist, who appreciated excessive expression, and behavior, but he walked his own road.

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The Opportunity to Understand What’s Different: Q&A with Christine Sneed

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Over the course of a relatively short but extremely productive literary career, Christine Sneed has already achieved a substantial, and enviable, body of work. Her first story collection, 2009’s Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, was awarded the AWP Grace Paley Prize and long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize.

Both for its attention to detail, and its close, caring, but unsentimental attention to the complicated lives of women (and men), Portraits is in Paley’s spirit at the same time as it honors the tradition of what O’Connor called “the lonely voice’’ that characterizes the under-respected story form.

Sneed, who is the faculty director of the MA/MFA in Creative Writing Program at Northwestern, followed that success with an ambitious novel in 2013, Little Known Facts, about the hidden costs, and familial complications, of Hollywood fame. In a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote, “Christine Sneed has written a novel just for us: Little Known Facts is just juicy enough to appeal to our prurience but smart enough not to make us feel dirty afterward.”

Nothing daunted, Sneed next spread her wings further with Paris, He Said, a novel about a struggling artist who moves to Europe at the urging of an older gallery owner who sets her up in his apartment. Robin Black’s notice for the Times said,With clever and graceful prose, Sneed deftly guides a story that explores whether satisfaction follows when one’s deepest wishes come true.’’

In her newest book, the just-published The Virginity of Famous Men (320 pages; Bloomsbury), she returns to her favored form of the short story, with deepening psychological explorations and a commitment to sympathetic, knowing understanding of the spaces between us—how we punish each other, and often ourselves, because of these missed connections.

Sneed took time to talk with us via email about the new collection, and her career:

ZYZZYVA: In a sense, The Virginity of Famous Men seems like a coda to Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. Apart from the fact that they both have great titles, what similarities—or differences—do you see in the two works?

Christine Sneed: I suppose most writers would have to say this, but I’m most interested in relationships—whether they’re between spouses, siblings, parents and children, friends. The tensions that arise in everyday life have always been a source of inspiration, and I suppose that even with the stories that are a little more out there (with on-the-verge characters who count a ghost as a close friend, or another who is applying for a job in a manner that probably won’t get her too many offers), I’m most interested in how people connect with each other, or else the opposite—how we alienate each other. That dominant theme is the same here as it was in Portraits.

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Legendary Frontier Days Told for These Times: ‘Paul Bunyan’ by Larry Beckett

51MF2m8+EVL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Poet and songwriter Larry Beckett has been embarked on a quixotic project, retelling the legend of the famed, semi-fictional logger Paul Bunyan (not to mention his “blue-eyed ox,’’ Babe) in ways that capture the barbaric yawp of olden times in a voice that speaks to our current culture, and implicitly, paralysis of spirit.

Bypassing empty debates about the pros and cons of “American exceptionalism,” Beckett flat out launches into the introduction of this hero of a thousand faces:

Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones,
An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake,
A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree,
A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian,
A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling,
Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw,
Paul Bunyan lumbered and belly-laughed at the stars.

Admirers of, say, John Ashbery, may stop here, but the rest of us can stick around for the ride of Beckett’s Paul Bunyan (96 pages; Smokestack Press), a roiling picaresque, described by the publisher as a “modern epic in ‘longwinded’ blank verse.”

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The ‘Swamp-Rat Rimbaud’: ‘What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford’

What About ThisWhat About This, the title of the massive new edition of the Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (747 pages, Copperhead Press) announces, a cover picture of the late poet (dubbed the “swamp-rat Rimbaud’’ by Lorenzo Thomas) glaring at you.

Well, what about it?

First things first: If the romantic ideal of the poet is to live fast, love hard, and leave a good-looking corpse, Stanford did all of the above, and then some.

It’s impossible to ignore the biography. Born August 1, 1948, in Richton, Mississippi, Stanford shot himself, after reportedly being confronted about multiple infidelities by his wife, Ginny, and his girlfriend, C.D. Wright, who were both in his Fayetteville, Arkansas, house at the time—June 3, 1978, a couple of months shy of his 30th birthday.

That’s about the only thing you could say was shy about Stanford.

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Reminders About What Was Fine (and Forgettable) About Norman Mailer

Mind of an OutlawThere’s a great moment in Lou Reed’s “Take No Prisoners’’ album in which Reed, after taking aim at the rock critic Establishment of the day, decides to go after the literary elite, too. “I met (Norman) Mailer at a party, and he tries to punch me in the stomach to show me he’s a tough guy,” Reed riffs. “The guy’s pathetic, you know. I said, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got to be kidding. Go write a Bible.’ ”

Well, Mailer tried.

The publication of two new books on Mailer’s life and legacy serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come from the days in which he appeared to be a central literary figure and of the limits of hagiography.

Mind of An Outlaw (Random House; 656 pages), a collection of selected essays edited by Phillip Sipiora, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem (perhaps to appeal to the younger demographic; if so, the next edition should include an appreciation from Tao Lin), seemed the more promising, if only because of Mailer’s journalistic verve.

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Big Two-Hearted River Still Runs: Donald Lystra’s ‘Something That Feels Like Truth’

SomethingThe recent award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Alice Munro was one of those cultural events which seemed uniquely well-deserved, if just because of the Canadian author’s modest attention to the little disturbances of men—and women— that give life meaning and shape. It may mean—I hope it means—a rebirth of interest in the short story, a form that while notoriously hard to “brand” in the publishing world, is uniquely qualified to communicate such particularities.

Donald Lystra explores this territory with tact and precision in his new collection, Something That Feels Like Truth (Switchgrass Books/Northern Illinois University Press). A Michigan native and retired engineer who came to writing late in life (his first novel was Season of Water and Ice), Lystra’s quiet stories recall the rhythms of Raymond Carver’s and the unhappy angst of (early) Beattie, although Hemingway’s Nick Adams tales are the more obvious antecedents.

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