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Tag: charles mcgrath


If you’ve never read John O’Hara’s first novel, do yourself a favor. Penguin Classics has published a new edition of the book with an introduction by Charles McGrath, excerpted over at The New York Review of Books:

Originally published in 1934, John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra is still the only American novel I know that begins with a scene of a married couple—Luther and Irma Fliegler—having sex and on Christmas morning, no less. Later in the book, another married couple—Julian English, the novel’s protagonist, and his wife, Caroline—make love in the middle of Christmas afternoon. Julian has been dispatched on a disagreeable errand, and Caroline rewards him by waiting in their bedroom in a black lace negligee she calls her “whoring gown.” About their lovemaking, the novel says, “she was as passionate and as curious, as experimental and joyful as ever he was.”

Before O’Hara, sex in American novels—polite novels, anyway—was mostly adulterous, not something that proper married women engaged in, or if they did, they weren’t known to enjoy it. Appointment is a genuine love story, charged with eros but stripped of sentimentality, and the relationship between the Englishes is more convincing and more satisfying than that of, say, Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, or Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Though unfaithful to her, Julian can’t stop loving Caroline, and after O’Hara devotes a whole chapter to her intimate thoughts and sexual explorations before marriage, the reader can’t help falling a little in love with her, too. Caroline, for her part, reflects at the end of the book: “He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was.”

The speed with which the book was written may account for the urgency of its storytelling. O’Hara began it in December 1933, when he was just twenty-eight, and wrote it in something like white heat, finishing in a little under four months. Set in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a lightly disguised version of Pottsville, where O’Hara grew up, the entire action of Appointment in Samarra—Julian English’s whirlwind of self-destruction—takes place in just thirty-six hours, and its breakneck pace is startling and exciting. Even on a second reading, when you know what’s going to happen, you tear through it still not quite believing in what’s just ahead and what’s already been established by the novel’s epigraph, taken from W. Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppey (in which Death speaks of meeting a merchant in Samarra): an appointment in Samarra, we know from the beginning, is an appointment with death itself.

The Power and the Glory

Today is a good day.

Charles McGrath has a feature on the great Robert Caro for the New York Times Magazine:

Robert Caro probably knows more about power, political power especially, than anyone who has never had some. He has never run for any sort of office himself and would probably have lost if he had. He’s a shy, soft-spoken man with old–fashioned manners and an old-fashioned New York accent (he says “toime” instead of “time” and “foine” instead of fine), so self-conscious that talking about himself makes him squint a little. The idea of power, or of powerful people, seems to repel him as much as it fascinates. And yet Caro has spent virtually his whole adult life studying power and what can be done with it, first in the case of Robert Moses, the great developer and urban planner, and then in the case of Lyndon Johnson, whose biography he has been writing for close to 40 years. Caro can tell you exactly how Moses heedlessly rammed the Cross Bronx Expressway through a middle-class neighborhood, displacing thousands of families, and exactly how Johnson stole the Texas Senate election of 1948, winning by 87 spurious votes. These stories still fill him with outrage but also with something like wonder, the two emotions that sustain him in what amounts to a solitary, Dickensian occupation with long hours and few holidays.

…Caro is the last of the 19th-century biographers, the kind who believe that the life of a great or powerful man deserves not just a slim volume, or even a fat one, but a whole shelf full. He dresses every day in a jacket and tie and reports to a 22nd-floor office in a nondescript building near Columbus Circle, where his neighbors are lawyers or investment firms. His office looks as if it belongs to the kind of C.P.A. who still uses ledgers and a hand-cranked adding machine. There are an old wooden desk, wooden file cabinets and a maroon leather couch that never gets sat on. Here Caro writes the old-fashioned way: in longhand, on large legal pads.

While Chris Jones has a long profile on Caro in the latest issue of Esquire:

On the twenty-second floor of the Fisk Building in New York — an elegant brick giant built in 1921, stretching an entire block of West Fifty-seventh Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue — the hallways are lined with doors bearing gold plaques. The plaques reveal the professions of the people at work behind them: lawyers, accountants, financial advisors. But one plaque displays only a name, with no mention of the man’s business: ROBERT A. CARO.

Behind that door on this February morning, as on most mornings for the twenty-two years he has occupied this office, Caro is hunched over his desk. His tie is still carefully knotted; his hair is slicked back. But his fingers are black with pencil. In front of him is a pile of white paper: the galleys for The Passage of Power, the fourth book in his enormous biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The seventy-six-year-old Caro has worked on this project nearly every day since 1974; he has been working on this particular volume for ten years. In most cases, once a book reaches galleys — once it has been designed and typeset and a few preliminary copies printed, unbound — it is finished, or close to it. All that remains is one last pass. This is not true for Caro. For him, the galleys are simply another stage of construction. Less than three months before three hundred thousand copies of his book are due to be in stores on May 1, Caro has torn down and rebuilt the fifth paragraph on the 452nd page — and torn it down again. (It is, in fact, the fifth paragraph on the 2,672nd page of his work, factoring in the first three volumes of the series: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, and Master of the Senate.) Now nearly every word of it sits dismantled in front of him like the pieces of a watch. He starts fresh. “The defeat had repercussions beyond the Court,” he writes.

This was meant to be the last of the Johnson books, but it is not. The Passage of Power spans barely four years in 605 pages. It picks up Johnson’s story with the 1960 Democratic nomination, won by a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, and it ends with President Lyndon Johnson passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. There is an assassination in between. On two large rectangular bulletin boards, Caro has carefully pinned up his outline for his next volume, the fifth book, the rest of the story: Vietnam, resignation, defeat. The pages of that outline overlap the lighter rectangles where the outline for the fourth book had been pinned for so many years. “I don’t feel my age,” Caro says, “so it’s hard for me to believe so much time has passed.” He knows the last sentence of the fifth book, he says — the very last sentence. He knows what stands between him and those final few words, most immediately the fifth paragraph on page 2,672. He digs his pencil back into the paper.

This room is almost a temple to timelessness. Caro has worked with the same set of tools since 1966, when he began his first book, The Power Broker, his definitive 1,162-page biography of Robert Moses, the controversial New York planner and builder. For so many writers, for most of them, The Power Broker, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, would represent their crowning achievement; for Caro, it was just the beginning. Back then, he and his wife, Ina, lived in a pretty little house in Roslyn, Long Island — he was a reporter at Newsday — and one of the great crumbling neighboring estates had a fire sale. Caro went. He bought a chess set, and he bought a lamp. The lamp was bronze and heavy and sculpted, a chariot rider pulled along by two rearing horses. “It cost seventy-five dollars,” Caro remembers. The chess set is hidden away under a couch in their apartment on Central Park West. The lamp is here on his desk, spilling light onto his galleys. Except for a brief period when he couldn’t afford an office, when Caro worked instead in the Allen Room at the New York Public Library, he has written every word of every one of his books in the same warm lamplight, millions of words under the watch of that chariot rider and his two horses.

“Nobody believes this, but I write very fast,” he says.

Check out this wonderful photo gallery of Caro at work.

[Photo Credit: Ethan Hill for Esquire]

Deadpan Funny

More on Charles Portis. Here’s Charles McGrath, writing in the New York Times:

“True Grit,” Mr. Portis’s second novel, which was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks, is actually a divisive matter among Portis admirers. There are some, like the novelist Donna Tartt, who consider it his masterpiece, a work comparable to “Huckleberry Finn.” Others, like Mr. Rosenbaum, resent “True Grit” a little for detracting attention from Mr. Portis’s lesser-known but arguably funnier books: “Norwood” (1966), “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991). The writer Roy Blount Jr., an old friend of Mr. Portis’s, suggested recently that Mr. Portis himself was a little embarrassed by the success of “True Grit.”

…What the other novels have in common with “True Grit” is their deadpan quality. Most comic novels — think of anything by P. G. Wodehouse, say, or Ring Lardner — are fairly transparent: they unabashedly try to be funny and let the reader in on the joke. The trick of Mr. Portis’s books, especially the ones told in the first person, is that they pretend to be serious.

…Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.

Man, is there anything harder than writing funny? Look at sports writing, for example. How many humorists do we have? Hell, forget humorists, how many funny writers are there? Charles Pierce has a sense of humor and so does Pat Jordan. Richard Hoffer has a sly and subtle wit but he’s not around much these days. Closer to home, Emma has the rare gift of being funny without seeming to strain to get a laugh. Jay Jaffe and Steve Goldman can come up with some choice zingers, ditto for Repoz over at the Think Factory. Not easy, though.

Tattoo You

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of those runaway best-sellers you see everywhere–on the street, in the subway, in airports. It was the first of three books–the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, has just been released here in the States–by Stieg Larsson, a Swedish left-winged journalist-turned-novelist. The Millennium Triology have been an international sensation but the story behind the books may be equally as compelling. Larsson died before the books were published and his long-time companion has been in a painful fight against Larsson’s father and younger brother.

Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s partner, has been portrayed sympathetically in all the accounts I’ve read of the story; she doesn’t come across as the villain in Charles McGrath’s fine–and fair–piece in yesterday’s Magazine, but Larson’s father and brother are not demonized either:

The Larssons do not strike me as greedy people. They drive small, inexpensive cars and live in modest apartments, and if they wanted to change their lifestyle they would probably have to do it somewhere other than Umea, where conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. I got the impression, in fact, that Stieg’s estate was a burden, a weighty responsibility they weren’t prepared for, perhaps didn’t feel quite up to and are still trying to figure out. Joakim gave me a long explanation, which I couldn’t quite follow, of why the Swedish tax laws make it hard to give money away, and yet slowly they have begun to do so, recently donating five million kronor, or $660,000, to Expo, the magazine Stieg co-founded.

…But ultimately the dispute is really about Stieg Larsson himself, an exceptional young man, idealistic and artistic, who in classic fashion left the boondocks and made something of himself in the wider world. Who was he, really — a Norrlander or a Stockholmer? And who gets to claim him now? The emotional stakes on both sides are huge. No matter how close he was or wasn’t to his family, he was clearly a central figure to them — someone to be admired and cherished — as he was to Gabrielsson. The tragedy is that they can’t figure out a way to share him.

[Photo Credit: Lars Tunbjork for The New York Times]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver