I was in a creative writing class in college when one of my fellow students asked the professor if it was acceptable for him to write his stories about sports. When the professor was reluctant to agree, my classmate added that his desire was to writer a series of loosely interconnected stories about baseball. As I recall it, the professor settled immediately in the affirmative given the additional information. Baseball, he said, was the one sport that actually merited literary attention.

If I weren’t already inclined in that direction, I’d have to accede the point every time I read one of Roger Angell’s essays on the Grand Old Game. Now in his nineties, Angell is five years older than the magazine that has practically been his lifelong home. His mother, Katherine Sergeant Angell White, was the first fiction editor for The New Yorker, a position she held for thirty-five years. Angell himself first wrote for the publication in 1944. His true path was set in 1962, when legendary editor dispatched him to Florida to write about spring training. Angell says says he was a hockey fan prior to that (he occasionally wrote about that sport, too), but something about the National Pastime clearly engaged him. Though Angell might have a certain amount of reluctance about it–with good reason, as he’s written on a multitude of topics over the years–he is as entwined with baseball as any other observer of the past half century. Reading his collected works might not thoroughly cover the history, but it certainly captures the character of the sport, including the way it’s shifted over the decades.

Angell captures the character of the sport precisely because he doesn’t fall into the all too common trap of romanticizing it. He does see the romance that is inherently nestled within it, and taps into it better than most, but he also sees the foolishness, the humor, the weariness (it is a long season), and the mundane, workmanlike quality of it, all of it encapsulated in precise, elegant prose and conveyed with the eye of a born pragmatist. When he wrote about, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks upsetting the hometown Yankees in the 2001 World Series, Angell was able to make me see games that I had watched intently in a new way. He does what all good writers do: he illuminates the familiar with creative insights stated so clearly and plainly that it’s immediately remarkable that they weren’t a completely obvious foregone conclusion. To read Angell on baseball is to see anew a game that is stitched into the fabric of the nation.

Angell still writes for The New Yorker, one the enduring figures on the masthead. Most recently, he turned his attention to the process of aging, elaborating on his deteriorating physicality and spiritual wanderings with clarity and honesty. It wasn’t maudlin, nor wistful. It was simply reporting, just like his recounts of favorite ballgames or even his own past. It was also piercing like few other things I’ve ever read. Best of all, it offered the promise, perhaps somewhat misleading, the born storytellers never lose their capacity to formulate ideas, to capture emotions, to relate tales.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow
Steve Martin
John Updike

Sometimes I don’t feel worthy as a reader, as if I haven’t earned the right to turn the pages. That’s admittedly entirely at odds with the impact that any writer would ever hope to have, making me feel guilty for even expressing it. Certainly, John Updike, a deeply devoted reader who contributed effusive, informed book reviews to The New Yorker for years, would probably be dismayed by me–by anyone–applying that sentiment to his work. And yet that’s exactly how I felt. It’s not that the language was too dense or flowery, curlicues of off-putting eloquence. Instead, it was the clean, vivacious command of language that always left me humbled. I had a sense that Updike was putting together words the way they were meant to be put together, as if centuries of clumsy language usage led up to the only guy who’d actually read the instruction manual before putting typewriter keys to paper.

Perversely, I started with an ending, maybe the ending. Of all of Updike’s acclaimed writing, none was more celebrated than the novels centered on Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, two of the four works earning the author Pulitzer Prizes (he remains one of the only writers to claim the fiction prize twice). I bought Rabbit at Rest, the final novel featuring the character, used and left on my shelf for ages, circling it like uncertain prey from time to time. I knew its reputation well and had a wariness about testing my English degree against it. When I finally brave the book, reading it wasn’t a test. It was a pleasure. The writing was pungent, direct, strident, nuanced, and commanding. If I didn’t necessary embrace every bit of plot (Updike had that common ailment of older authors that I think of as Roth’s Disease: the helpless need to project sexual prowess and irresistibility on characters of the same age, no matter how implausible it may be), I recognized a unencumbered spirt transferred to the page with urgency and commitment. Like many of his peers, Updike wrote as if it were incumbent on him to capture the moment–of his country, his people, his self–with an honest clarity meant to endure. This is an example of fiction as a calling.

The novel that drove home Updike’s unique skill to me was a slightly later work, 1996′s In the Beauty of the Lilies. Tracing the 20th Century journey of the United States through the multi-generational experiences of a northeastern family. Updike was encroaching on traditional retirement age, and the book has the feel of someone who decided it was time to sit down and crank out The Great American Novel. It doesn’t have a sense of obligation to it, though. It’s lithe and smart, burning with the intellectual energy of a guy who has nothing left to prove, but wants to go ahead and prove it anyway. Simply because he can. And he left behind piles of books that often plenty more proof, for anyone who feels worthy to dive into them. I’m getting there.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow
Steve Martin

I owned two copies of Cruel Shoes when I was nine years old. It was the late nineteen-seventies and Steve Martin was approaching the peak of his significant, practically unprecedented stardom as a stand-up comic. Absolutely everyone within my pint-sized orbit knew he was someone who I considered an absolute favorite, largely thanks to his multitude of appearances on daytime talk shows, where he routinely indulged in goofy, absurdist, highly creative comedy bits that worked swell for someone still able to convey his age with nothing more than the fingers of two hands. There may have been a touch of irony to Martin’s appropriation of joke shop schtick, but he also prospered from the genuine giggles that could be elicited from a grown man (old enough to have white hair, for heaven’s sake) with a phony arrow through his head. By this time, hoary gags trailing a vaudevillian aura took on an nonthreatening audaciousness, a welcome sense of unabashed silliness that served as its own brand of counterculture celebration. Like all the finest practitioners of the comedy of cognitive chaos, Martin undergirded his material with a sneaky amount of control. The bits that seemed like extemporaneous frivolity were instead honed into shape, the words and syntax developed to artfully meld the perfectly logical with the zippily unexpected. Wild and crazy like a fox.

My fandom was pronounced enough (and tirelessly promoted by me) that both sides of my fractured family made sure that a copy of Cruel Shoes, Martin’s first book, was under their respective Christmas trees. Instead of feeling that the double gifting wasted a precious present in the cold childhood calculus of my holiday bounty, I was overjoyed to get two copies, as if my redundancy offered proof of greater devotion to Martin. In a way, I guess it did. One copy stayed at my usual home, and the other resided at my grandparents’ house, where I spent most weekends and school breaks. Before long, both copies were worn and battered, like they’d been used to pave a driveway instead of serve the needs of a kid anxious to give himself regular doses of comedy in the days before YouTube could deliver whatever a funny bone desired at the speed of a few successive clicks.

I remained completely committed to Martin for a long time, especially appreciating it whenever his sensibility was clearly coming through, as with his various collaborations with Carl Reiner. And the first time he took a sole screenwriter credit, it was arguable his finest representation onscreen. In some ways, the most unfiltered expression of his whirring mind seemed to manifest in his late night talk show appearances, with Martin largely refusing to treat them as bland promotional vehicles when he could instead experiment with mocking the form, pretending he was too busy to stay on panel with Johnny Carson only to tearfully admit the ruse moments later or unfolding the previously unknown hide-a-bed in the studio couch to watch a clip from his movie. Martin had given up stand-up by this point, correctly judging that he had nowhere to go but down once he was filling stadiums, and these little vignettes of network time became his one avenue to still play with that part of his creativity.

As Martin’s movie choices–perhaps by the necessity of the business–have largely gotten less interesting, he’s managed to tap into the best of himself in other ways: as a skilled playwright, as a crack songwriter, even as an inspired Twitter wielder, responding artfully to the inherent limitations of the form (I’m especially find of his series of tweets that imagined turning over his account to monkeys in a modern follow-up on the old infinite typewriters and Shakespeare theory). He’s also been a novelist of some acclaim, though I’ll confess that I never did crack one of those books. It wasn’t until he delivered a memoir that I reacquainted myself with Martin the author. Interesting enough, memoir isn’t usually a form I care for, but something about Martin’s Born Standing Up drew me in. Maybe it was because the book so clearly focused on the era when he was my unquestioned favorite, or maybe I simply trusted him to deliver something that was true and unsentimental. Whatever the motivation, it was a wonderful read. It will never be as dog-eared as my old copies of Cruel Shoes, but satisfaction isn’t always measured by the gradual tattering of pages.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow

When I first saw Simon Callow’s biography on Orson Welles on the Borders new releases shelf, I was skeptical about my need to read it. At the time, I’d recently completed Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles. While I have a deep, abiding fascination for the iconoclastic cinematic genius, I also reasonably thought I’d had my fill for a while. If anything, I could wait until it showed up–undoubtedly in abundance–at the used booksellers in a few years. Then I made a rookie mistake. I picked it up and turned to the opening page. Past the preface, the first line of the first chapter hooked me completely: “The road to Xanadu begins in Kenosha, Wisconsin.” If that didn’t already win over this boy born and bred in America’s Dairyland, then the elaboration a couple sentences later locked in my devotion: “Every country has its joke towns, good for an easy laugh, and if Kenosha is not quite in the league of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, or Normal, Illinois, it is still sufficiently redolent of bookdockery to seem to mock the very idea of aspiration in its sons and daughters.” I bought it then and there. The dust jacket tells me it cost as much as $32.95, an almost inconceivable sum for me to drop on a single acquisition in 1995. It didn’t matter. I needed it.

Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu is a hefty tome, pushing 600 pages before it reaches its appendices. My recollection is that I raced through it, somewhat atypically, completely caught up in Callow’s meticulous, constantly questioning appraisal of the storied history of Welles. In the preface, Callow calls attention to the great filmmaker’s propensity for indulging in embellishment and downright deceit in interviews over the years, using it as an opportunity to openly ruminate on the shortcomings of biography in the first place. Nothing can be taken at face value, according to Callow, though the temptation to do is great, given that it is much easier to lean on the contemporaneous reporting of Welles’s varied exploits than to scratch away at hidden truths. Welles was a shrewd maker of his own myth, especially in the early days, and there was a fleet of eager, pliant reporters ready to serve as his conduit to the masses. On the unique pleasures of Road to Xanadu is the ways in which Callow openly struggles with the veracity of the story as he’s putting it down on the page, occasionally second-guessing his own suppositions. There could be no finer methodology employed for the director who’s finest late career achievement was the deconstructionist documentary F for Fake.

The other notably unique aspect to Callow’s work stemmed from his main gig as an actor. When the book came out, he was in fact still flush with the success of his showy, entertaining supporting performance in the previous year’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. He brings his own study of the craft of acting, writing and filmmaking to the consideration of Welles’s achievements, and, in the later volume, his many setbacks. At times, Callow even switches from biographer to full-blown critic, breaking down the good and bad of what Welles created, going to so far as to level complaints against the actors occasional propensity for hamminess and overreliance on heavy makeup to create character, a remnant of his stage days that he never quite gave up when working in comparatively intimate world of film. If the goal of any biographer is to develop a deep understanding of their subject, then Callow strives for that in the way that it makes the most sense: as a peer separated by generations.

It would be ten years before Callow completed and published the second volume in the biography, a slightly thinner book entitled Orson Welles: Hello Americans. Where the first book (as the title implied) only got Welles up to his debut film, Citizen Kane, made when he was only twenty-five-years-old, the follow-up pushes through the next several years, many of them fairly troubled. All the attributes are still in place, although it does sometimes seem as though Callow mildly regrets the mammoth undertaking he’s chosen. In particular, the last few chapters of the book read like the effort of a man who’s determined he won’t miss yet another deadline. I recognized this, but it didn’t bother me. I appreciated returning to this towering figure with Callow again as my guide, and if the writer had a wholly evident cantankerousness, it at least suited the material. Welles had his own creative impatience as he pushed on in life. The book mirrored that, certainly unintentionally.

A third volume looms, with Callow announcing a couple years ago his intention to get underway with the writing of it. This is presumed to be the last, but it’s easy to conceive of the project overwhelming Callow’s creative life, in much the same way that Robert Caro has been bound to Lyndon Johnson for so long that they’ve gone well past their silver anniversary, with the biographer constantly claiming that he’s just one more volume away from finishing. If that’s the case, I’m determined to stick with Callow for as long as it takes. If I committed upon reading his first sentence, I should damn well see it through to his last one.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko

When I was a kid, I had a strong affection for Chicago, despite the small detail that I’d never actually been there. My fondness for the City of Big Shoulders probably had its origins in my devoted viewing of channel WGN, back before it tagged “America” onto the end, all the better to make it appealing to cable subscribers. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, it was a local television station without a network affiliation that earned a spot in cable packages across the country in large part because it was one of the few stations that was uplinked to satellites, helping providers with great need to fill out the ten or twelve channels they were trying to provide to their customers. Since their primary market remained Chicago and they had F.C.C. requirements to provide community, public service programming, they still took a highly local approach to their broadcast day. I’d watch Ray Rayner in the mornings for the cartoons, but he’d provide news updates, sports scores and traffic info for the parents who had some investment is what was going on in town as the swirled around their rapt children while preparing for the day. So I’d hear about exotic places like Lake Shore Drive. That’s where my interest began, but it was locked into permanent place by Mike Royko.

Royko was a Chicago columnist who was syndicated, showing up in the Madison, Wisconsin newspaper The Capital Times, which arrived at my grandfather’s house every afternoon. Especially when I stayed with him over the summers, with an overabundance of time on my hands, I devoured the newspaper, even spending a stretch building up my own weird little clipping files so I could keep track of the news over time. I was a weird kid. Anyway, my inclination towards Chicago drew me to the columns of Royko, dropped into the paper with seemingly little concern for the pertinence of the topics to Madison readership. National issues were touched upon, by Royko was committed to writing about his own city, sprightly waltzes with the bruised and bruising personality of the place of his birth. He railed against the corruption of local officials and the bawdy balderdash of the citizenry with a backwards pride in the raggedness of it all. There was a beautiful bluntness to his writing that joined common man vernacular with a skilled craftsman’s command of language.

And then there was one of his most tragicomic recurring topics: the Cubs. I was a fan of the Chicago National League Ball Club, which is a scar I still bear from my many hours in front of WGN. Royko was a fan, too. And he showed it with withering annual quizzes in which he cataloged the decades-long futility of the franchise with excavations of the most telling and embarrassing trivia from a baseball history that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) seen a World Series appearance since 1945 and winning trip to the same tourney since 1908. Oh. Eight. I’d barely endured the misery of Cub fandom, but reading Royko’s columns gave me long-suffering credibility by association, or so I allowed myself to believe. Now that I can affix long-suffering to my fandom with some accuracy, I have to say that I preferred pretending.

When I started reading Royko, he was a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. That changed in 1984, when Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper. Years before Fox News made the villainy of Murdoch widely famous, Royko noted that “his goal is not quality journalism. His goal is vast power for Rupert Murdoch, political power.” Royko quit the paper and went to crosstown rival The Chicago Tribune, a publication he’d previously vowed would never be home to his words. Even with complete confidence that he’d find gainful employment in short order, it was still a heroic move, a principled rejection of exactly the sort of owner–not just willing to bend the news to his own preferences, but also corporately callous towards the local responsibilities of a paper–who was starting to take print news in completely the wrong direction, even before the internet came along with that final coffin nail. It was befitting of the hardscrabble, no-nonsense society he depicted. It was easy to imagine him discussing the decision with one of the fictional characters he created for columns built around common man discussions of the news of the day, making a point through an imagined dialogue. Surely those fellows–Slats Grobnik, maybe–would have approved.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss

I have a dear friend who prefers her fiction sad. That’s my interpretation, anyway. She might say she simply prefers it to be truthful or poignant or even ruefully funny. All of those are true too, I suppose, but I always start from the assumption that if I dig into something from her suggested reading list that there’s going to be a heavy dose of sadness nestled into those pages. When I first moved to North Carolina and was holed up in a house that was empty save for myself, three dogs, an air mattress and a laptop propped up on a cardboard box, she kindly recruited me into a summer book club, meeting long distance over various Gmail interfaces. The first title we read together was one she’d been looking forward to for a while: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I hadn’t actually heard of it or her, nor had I, at the time, read anything by her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, so I went into it entirely without expectations, except for those engendered by the recommendation from one of the readers whose prolificness and thoughtfulness I still aspire to.

What I found in The History of Love was a writer keenly attuned to details, both those of the surroundings and of the emotional settings of the novel. Without plumbing the plot too deeply, since the prolonged sense of discovery is one the great pleasures of the novel, I’ll acknowledge that there’s a pivotal late moment on a park bench that moved me as deeply as anything I’ve ever encountered in a novel. I was taking advantage of my otherwise unwelcome solitude to redevelop my own passion as a reader, particularly a reader of novels, and The History of Love was one of the more striking experiences of that summer, admittedly in part because several of our other shared selections left each of us underwhelmed or worse.

Strangely, my resoundingly positive experience with The History of Love didn’t necessarily motivate me to quickly grab her next novel, Great House. As I recall, the critical tide had turned somewhat against the Foer-Krauss household by that time, and most of the reviews I remember reading of Great House were lukewarm (although I’m not sure how that would be the case, as I now look back at key sources and find raves). It was again my friend who steered me towards it, assuring me she’d read it and it was good. Centered on a massive desk, the book had a slightly different effect on me. I found it to be a bit of a trudge at first, but by the end, as Krauss pulled together pieces that I assumed would remain scattered, I found myself entirely drawn in, more invested in the story than I’d even realized. That, I realized, was her greatest skill: an ability to craft an engrossing narrative while making it seem unhurried, deceptively simple, even mundane. She can make the reader get lost in the story, forgetting to analyze and helplessly choosing to just experience. That’s what I need to remember when the next novel comes out. Don’t hesitate, just read.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen

Not to get overly mired in the process that led to this recurring feature, but I’ll note that when I made my original list of ten writers that had special meaning to me–prompted by a Facebook meme–Jonathan Franzen was one of the first names that leapt to mind. However, I couldn’t in good conscious put him on the tally because at that point I’d only read one of his novels. Of course, it was a hell of a novel. Franzen had a lot riding on his 2001 novel, The Corrections. Five years earlier, he’d published a famous (or infamous) essay in Harper’s under the title “Perchance to Dream.” Franzen later claimed it was intended to be a mere celebration of the act of writing and reading, both of them positioned as worthy unto themselves. The interpretation was a little different, however, and it was widely characterized as a lament about the sorry state of the American novel, which was seen by some as the height of hubris considering the author had all of two completed works to his credit, neither of them particularly well-received. The Corrections, then, was seen as a necessary rearrangement of Franzen’s proverbial money to put it in close proximity to his mouth.

In my estimation, he fully lived up to the challenge he inadvertently set for himself, delivering a hefty tome dense with detail, sentences sprawling out like the interstate as Franzen beautifully captured the long curve of American lives. The Corrections demanded attention, and it became one of the earliest examples of the peculiar information age cycle of praise followed by backlash followed by counter-backlash followed by endless debates as people start offering critiques on critiques until the original work becomes almost an afterthought. Franzen sometimes harmed his own cause as he was clearly ill-prepared for the demands of sudden celebrity, typified by his fumbling of the coronation handed down from Chicago when Oprah Winfrey selected his book for her hugely influential book club. All of Franzen’s awkwardness essentially confirmed the point he says he’d been making all along with his essay: writing has value, reading has value, and the rest of it is useless tomfoolery.

Franzen’s writing is wonderful, stretching concepts and themes like especially pliable taffy. If The Corrections was a trumpet blast of talent, then the follow-up, Freedom, was a tapping of the baton followed by a symphony. He’s clearly never going to be prolific in his fiction–there are almost ten years between the publications of The Corrections and Freedom–but he’s going to make the words, the paragraphs, the pages really count. He’s also a grandly talented essayist. One of the side effects of his uncomfortable notoriety is an increasing frankness in sharing personal details. When he writes incisively about the art of Charles M. Schulz, the piece is heavy with Franzen’s own history, as if in an attempt to reclaim some of what’s been wrested away from him by a curious, intrusive public. If this stuff is going to be out there, Franzen seems to say, he’s going to be one who uses it to creative benefit.

So I didn’t include Franzen in my original pass at the list because I felt like I hadn’t read enough to truly claim him as one of my writers. In retrospect, I maybe should have known better. If writing is its own reward, so is reading. Any amount of words can make a writer impactful to any given reader. Franzen’s shared plenty of his words, more than enough to make his value to me clear.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard

It seems wrong to structure this as obit, somehow. No one who writes words like that really ends, do they? Elmore Leonard writes–wrote, it’s wrote–with such a pungent, fierce, sly, inspiring, dizzying command of the language, mostly because he understood the key element was editing, keeping the prose as lean and tight and sharp as possible. He was a master with only the barest apparent interest in showing off his mastery, ignoring any inclination he might have had to dazzle with curlicue sentences or florid descriptions. Leonard always opted for the shortest distance between the story in his head and his readers’ enraptured eyes. That doesn’t mean his prose was simple. Quite the contrary, it was flush with personality. Some authors endeavor to capture how people really talk, some craft dialogue that essentially puts forth a heated suggestion about how people should talk. Leonard found a crazy sweet spot somewhere in between the two.

I started reading Leonard in the mid-nineteen-nineties, back when I was often basing my book list on what had notably been picked up by Hollywood for major, intriguing productions. My goal was to be knowledgable about source material before seeing a film, but it was also an easy way to find new titles, especially as I was extremely busy, regularly working around sixty to seventy hours a week. But I was also out of school for the first time in my life, meaning there were no more assigned texts, its own sort of blessed freedom. This was an especially fruitful time for Leonard on the big screen, overdue payback for a writer who had been notoriously ill-served by film adaptions. He was the beneficiary of the attention of strong directors working near their peak, such as Barry Sonenfeld and especially Steven Soderbergh. it’s telling that the weakest of the high-profile adaptations around this time was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino, whatever his strengths, never stops showing off. Leonard never starts. He doesn’t need to.

See there? I got the tense wrong again.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally

I checked out quite a few plays from the campus library where I went to college. This wasn’t a result of budding theater fandom or idle curiosity, but stemmed directly from the movie review radio program I co-produced and co-hosted. As much as I reasonably could, I tried to consume the source material of films adapted from other mediums before sitting before the newer works as they flickered on the movie screen. Given the limited time I had–I did have assigned text that I was supposed to be reading, after all–I often decided to trying to read plays was a more effective use of my time than slogging through novels. I still well remember, for example, the satisfaction in being able to knowledgably compare Norman Jewison’s film version of Other People’s Money to Jerry Sterner’s original stage play (the play is far better). Through it all, there was only one time I felt compelled to actually seek out a printed copy of the play for my own collection after finishing my borrowed copy. That play was Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally.

I read the play because of Garry Marshall’s film adaption, a largely dismissed effort that I like quite a bit. Marshall’s film, the title shortened to Frankie and Johnny, had a screenplay that was also written by McNally, and it’s a master class in preserving the original work while opening it up to take advantage of the greater breadth of place and character afforded by film. The play is confined to a single set, Frankie’s small apartment, while McNally carries the film into the diner workplace of the two title characters, a place alluded to in the play but realized with an astute attention to the wearying challenges of working on the lowest rungs of the service industry ladder (an area my cohorts and I at a small, Central Wisconsin movie theater knew very, very well). The screenplay brings in other characters, which serves to open up the social world of Frankie and Johnny only to accentuate their loneliness, the reasons why they ultimately need one another. And McNally’s dialogue captured that need beautifully. “Everything I want is in this room,” delivered by a instantly devoted Johnny to a deeply reluctant Frankie, remains a line that pierces my heart just by thinking of it.

For a time, I haunted the drama section of used bookstores, always on the hunt for another work by McNally. Luckily, they were fairly easy to come by throughout the mid-nineties, when McNally was regularly triumphing with plays such as Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class. Sadly, I’ve still never seen one of McNally’s plays mounted on the stage, but I’ve savored his words repeatedly.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore

Though I’m loathe to admit it, I read comic books for quite a while before the importance of the writer kicked in for me. Like a lot of fans, I think, the art is was the first driving force behind my selections from the new releases rack. After all, it is the most immediately impactful component of the form, even if my love of individual characters probably stemmed more from the way they were written than from any amount of cunning design that went into them. Sure, the rocky hide of the Thing might demand attention, but it was the Borscht Belt poetry and lurking tragedy of his alter ego, Benjamin J. Grimm, that truly moved me. It was years later before I even realized that certain writers–Roger Stern, Doug Moench–were the common denominator of separate titles that earned my ardor.

Alan Moore wasn’t the first comic book writer who I knew by name, but he was the one who locked into my psyche most forcefully. Sadly, I can’t claim to have discovered Moore early on. I wasn’t one of those people who was reading The Saga of the Swamp Thing, DC Comics’ shaky attempt to revive the boggy creeper created in the nineteen-seventies by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, when a brash British writer took over, in late 1983. His first issue was mere clean-up of dangling plot threads, intriguing but unremarkable compared to what followed. It was issue #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” that announced a startling talent. Grim, cerebral, atmospheric, challenging and–perhaps the rarest of qualities–genuinely fucking scary, the story completely transformed everything previously understood about the character, in a manner that was utterly logical and satisfying. Current-day comic events are touted with promises of staggering changes that almost always prove to be phony. Moore actually did something markedly different with the character he was handed, and did so largely without fanfare. He wasn’t trying to stir the frothing ire of fanboys. He just wanted to tell the best story possible.

I heard about Moore repeatedly before I ever read any of his stories, finally breaking down and ordering back issues of select Swamp Thing issues, largely, as I recall, on the recommendations found in Don Thompson’s Comics Buyer’s Guide reviews column. They were stunning. I wasn’t fully hooked, but I definitely wanted to keep reading what he had to offer.

Around roughly the same time, Moore was bringing out his masterpiece, one issue at a time. Watchmen began life as a pitch from Moore on how to utilize the old Charlton Comics characters DC had recently acquired the rights to. As Moore’s concept grew darker, editor Dick Giordano encouraged him to keep pursuing it but with original characters, albeit ones that wound up as thinly veiled takes on the Charlton heroes. Watchmen was and remains a stunning achievement, a story that upends, deconstructs and then subtly reinforces the very concept of heroism as presented in these ongoing comic sagas, doing so with an intricate command of the medium unlike anything seen before. The scripts Moore gave to artist Dave Gibbons were famously dense with detail, and every bit of every last panel contributes to the overall story and themes. Behind again, I wound up buying all twelve issues at once and reading them straight through in one dizzying night. Now I was fully hooked.

From then on, I remained as committed to Moore as I could, even as his place in the industry grew more compromised. Shortly after publication of his brilliant, defining take on the relationship between Batman and his arch-nemesis, the Joker, Moore split with DC, largely due to his dissatisfaction with how the publisher was breaking promises related to Watchmen, deliberately depriving Moore of owed merchandising royalties by categorizing items being sold as “promotional” and orchestrating ways to avoid the contractual promise of returning the series copyright to Moore and Gibbons. He avoided various overtures at reconciliation over the years, many of them halfhearted, undoubtedly passing up highly lucrative opportunities because he believed strongly in his principles. If Moore was perhaps unduly critical of those who participated in the misbegotten Before Watchmen prequels, given that most of his best work has hinged on appropriating characters originally conceptualized by others, his ire can be read as an indication of just how badly he was once burned by those he trusted.

Moore’s work may have been tougher to come by once he committed himself solely to independent publishers, but it was always fruitful to seek it out, from the unnerving Jack the Ripper story From Hell (with artist Eddie Campbell) to his unlikely triumph with the Rob Liefeld creation Supreme to the entirety of the America’s Best Comics line, probably best known as the home of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I have a special fondness for 1963, a series of comics he did for Image in 1993 that brilliantly reimagined the earliest days of Marvel Comics. Even when a title didn’t completely work–and Moore’s works increasingly had a whiff of disengagement, sometimes seeming like he was cranking out deconstructionist homage in a cerebral form of muscle memory–it always held some fascination, some spectral aura of a mind as complex and majestic as a pipe organ at work.

In fact, some of my favorite words from Moore in recent years have been those deployed when he simply ruminated, in print or in interviews, on the current state of, well, everything. Cantankerous, uncompromising and fiercely intelligent, he’s like Harlan Ellison with the gray haystack hair of a wizardly demigod. He folds provocative ideas in on themselves, as if doing origami with flaming paper. Lately, I’ve been especially prone to share this quote of his:

Yes, there is a conspiracy, in fact there are a great number of conspiracies that are all tripping each other up. And all of those conspiracies are run by paranoid fantasists and ham-fisted clowns. If you are on a list targeted by the CIA, you really have nothing to worry about. If however, you have a name similar to somebody on a list targeted by the CIA, then you are dead.

I can’t even begin to fathom the spiraling gears that lurk within his boundless mind. Luckily, I don’t have to resort to too much speculation. Moore has always been deeply generous and eloquent in sharing his thunderous ideas. Sometimes those ideas have the mists of madness around them and sometimes they’re borderline impenetrable, but grappling with what he presents has always been rewarding.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider

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