Great Moments in Literature

“Julian shooed Sasha into the other bedroom like a peaceable teenage goatherd. Asking if I needed anything before he said good night. I was taken aback—he reminded me of the boys in school who’d become more polite and high functioning on drugs. Dutifully washing the family dinner dishes while they were tripping, mesmerized by the psychedelic magic of soap.”

—Emma Cline, The Girls, 2016

 

“AND THEN THE UGANDANS CUT LOOSE WITH THEIR MORTARS. THERE WAS NOTHING I COULD DO FOR HER. ALL I FOUND WAS A TOOTH. AND TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, MY COPY OF THE RED PONY WAS IN FLAMES. THERE WAS NOTHING LEFT FOR ME HERE. I SET MY COURSE FOR MARIN. THE NIGHT HAD CLEARED, AND THE STARS TWINKLED WETLY, AS IF THEY TOO WEPT FOR THE POOR BRAVE GIRL WHO HAD GOTTEN HER WISH. SOMEWHERE A BELL TOLLED. AND, BROTHER, YOU CAN BET I DIDN’T ASK FOR WHOM!”

—Will Jacobs & Gerard Jones, THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS, Vol. 1, No. 1, “Meeting Girls,” 1987

Great Moments in Literature

“Outside the house, a shadow moved, an autumn wind rose up and faded away. But there was something else in the silence that he heard. It was like a breath exhaled upon the window. It was like a faint drift of greenish luminescent smoke, the motion of a single huge October leaf blowing across the lawn and away.”

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953

 

“A MELODY OF ALARM IS WAFTED BY THE WIND THROUGHOUT THE MOST SECRET RECESSES OF THE JUNGLE … RECOGNIZED BY ALL ITS CREATURES … AS THE SONG CEASES … RAUCOUS LAUGHTER TAKES ITS PLACE …”

—Robert Kanigher, RIMA, THE JUNGLE GIRL, Vol. 2, No. 6, “Safari of Death,” 1975

Great Moments in Literature

“My mother poured recklessly but perfect, capping off my glass just before it overflowed. Still, a trick to get it to my mouth without spilling. She smirked a little as she watched me. Leaned back against the newel post, tucked her feet under her, sipped.”

—Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, 2006

 

“ONE OF THOSE QUIET EVENINGS, WHEN EVEN THE CITY SOUNDS FADE INTO GENTLE, DISTANT MUTTERINGS — ONE OF THOSE SILENT PERSONAL MOMENTS A MAN SPENDS JUST BREATHING — JUST FEELING AN INSTANT OF TREASURED LIFE.”

—Gerry Conway, DAREDEVIL, Vol. 1, No. 80, “In the Eyes … Of the Owl!,” 1971

My Writers: Robert Caro

master

The books are massive, which makes them intimidating. Just glancing at one of the spines, likely wide enough to place a comfortably discernible portrait on it, is enough to tingle up a feeling of exhaustion. And yet one of the things I find most remarkable about Robert Caro’s biographies is the clarity of the writing. There’s a plainspokenness to his writing that makes it approachable, as if a story recounted rather than heavily detailed reportage based on unbelievably exhaustive research. That doesn’t mean the material is simple. Caro locks in on the complexity of lives of people who changed their worlds through sheer will of force.

There is nothing dashed off and no supposition lacking a mound of evidence. And Caro is notorious for his meticulous approach, reworking every last words of manuscripts that swell near to — and sometimes over — one thousand pages. He doesn’t farm out the research, nor does he easily acquiesce to the alterations of editors. Every word is his.

And those words lead the reader expertly, with a constant pull forward. Although Caro is master of the time-honored craft of ending every chapter with a promise for what will come next, he assiduously avoids anxious cliffhangers or other overt manipulations. In Caro’s craft, the pending page is as necessary and as natural as the twinkle of tomorrow.

Caro’s first book was published in 1974. His recent tome was unpacked onto bookstore shelves in 2012. In that multi-decade span, Caro effectively wrote about two men. The earliest biography covered the life and career of Robert Moses, a towering public figure in New York for a sizable chunk of the twentieth century. Four other books — thus far — have traced formative years and political ascendancy of Lyndon B. Johnson, the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Caro was in his forties when the first part of his multi-volume Johnson biography was published. As he’s chipped away at the fifth and probably final volume, the writer has become an octogenarian. Half of Caro’s life has been devoted to the Johnson books. It’s astonishing, speaking to a stalwart sense of mission. And the resulting extended biography is staggering, demonstrating that it is still possible — through dedication, precision, purpose, and artfulness — to create a work that is truly definitive.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Writers: Lester Bangs

bangs

When I arrived at college, it took me some time to use the university library for academic purposes. That’s not wholly accurate. I spent an adequate number of hours in that bulky building partaking in endeavors that were associated with assignments, whether researching for papers or claiming a quiet cubby to study for a looming exam. But my strongest memories revolve around the times I stalked the stacks in search of books that would never have made their way into the local library of the small Wisconsin town I called home during my high school years. One of the first tomes I sought out was a compendium of the writing of Lester Bangs.

This was 1988, well before Bangs was immortalized on film in a beautiful performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but in the wake of him being memorably namechecked in R.E.M.’s monumental “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Bangs, who died in 1982 at the tender age of thirty-three, was already a mythic figure. He famously (or infamously) wrote about rock ‘n’ roll music with an opinionated fervor that was too challenging for Rolling Stone. The venerable magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, fired Bangs over a scathing review of a Canned Heat record, which only cemented the writer’s legend.

By the time I picked up the collection of Bangs’s reviews, entitled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, I’d already been reading rock reviews with a mortifying intensity for years. Accordingly, I knew the names of many rock writers, mostly in the Rolling Stone stable — Anthony DeCurtis, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh among them — but aside from a couple of artist preferences, I couldn’t identify distinctive traits associated with any of them. They represented a monolithic example of how to write about rock and pop.

Bangs was different, immediately and immeasurably. I disagreed with some of his opinions — sometimes vehemently — but I recognized that they were written with a headlong urgency, a haphazard freedom that could only be indulged by someone with a vivid command of the language. The rock writing I to which I was accustomed was comparatively dutiful and serene. That writing was, in short, antithetical to the raucous rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll itself. Bangs was different. He channeled the tense exuberance of the music he loved and transformed it into words on a page. Other writers might have been better at describing how a song sounded, but Bangs was peerless in describing how it felt. Other writers strained to make rock ‘n’ roll into art. Bangs knew it was better, brighter, rawer, realer if the music was met as something more primal.

Some writers I emulate and some I adore. Bangs is one of those writers who I simply stare at his words, agog that the mechanics of assembling ideas and tapping them onto a page can be accomplished in quite that manner. I could never do that. I’m glad someone could.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

From the Archive — Flashback Friday: 1978

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I think I’ve already dug through and shared all the old reviews I have that detail the usually dire outcomes with film adaptations of Stephen King’s work. In order to tie-in with this weekend’s big new movie — which reportedly falls right in line in terms of its quality — I need to look to the “Flashback Fridays” feature I had for a few weeks at my former online home. It basically gave me a chance to write about whatever I wanted, as along as it related to the year I’d reached in a chronological procession. For 1978, I wrote about the King novel that I long maintained was his very best.

1978: Stephen King’s The Stand is released

I was a sucker for Stephen King when I was younger. He was probably the first author who wrote books for adults that I followed with a collector’s intensity. It started with a copy of The Shining that sat unread on my bookshelf for a long time because I had trouble getting past the fact that the persecuted, paranormally gifted little boy at the center of the story shared my name. I eventually overcame that discouraging factor, and consumed the book as rapidly as I could. The Shining may have been my first, but The Standwas my favorite.

That was in part because of the heft of the book. I was just over 800 pages in its original version, and the little brick of a paperback somehow made it seem like it was even longer. All those pages gave it the veneer of something that was a little more important than King’s other typed-out creepshows. That combined with the novel’s story of societal breakdown and reformation in the face of a devastating illness gave it a sense of literary weightiness, at least to my still juvenile palette. Every plot intricacy, every burrowed-in character detail, every broadly drawn theme felt imperiously significant to me. It was, I was sure, King’s masterpiece, the book that proved he deserved recognition beyond his reputation as a proficient, prolific crafter of genre bestsellers.

King revisited the novel for a “Complete & Uncut Edition” in 1990 that added around another 300 pages to its length. There was also a 1994 miniseries, and, more recently, a succession of comic book miniseries adaptations that strike me as utterly pointless. The tinkering and the variants have only served to diminish the memory of the original book for me. It’s made it feel more like a product than the book that I once loved. Selfishly, I want it to be just what it was when I first read it, a comparatively lesser known work from a writer who everyone knew with a daunting length that made it the province of the true fan. I want it to be that book I raced through in my basement bedroom, conjuring up the archetypal battle of good and evil in my mind. Of course, as I type that wish out, it strikes me as exactly the sort of thing I think we all want from those books that first captured us. We just want to find a way to preserve that feeling of immersion, of transformation, of ownership. I know there are the other versions out there, but for me there’s only one The Stand.

Great Moments in Literature

“None of us could stand it if every place were a grizzled Chicago or a bilgy Los Angeles — towns, like Gotham, of genuine woven intricacy. We all need our simple, unambiguous, even factitious townscapes like mine. Places without challenge or double-ranked complexity. Give me a little Anyplace, a grinning, toe-tapping Terre Haute or wide-eyed Bismarck, with stable property values, regular garbage pick-up, good drainage, ample parking, located not far from a major airport, and I’ll be the birds up singing every morning.”

—Richard Ford, The Sportswriter, 1986

 

 

“AS WE PART, JIM SQUEEZES MY SHOULDER AND GRINS. ‘YOU JUST NEED A WOMAN,’ HE SAYS. …WHILE IN MY GUT THE CREATURE WRITHES AND SNARLS AND TELLS ME WHAT I NEED… I LEAVE MY CAR IN THE LOT. I CAN’T STAND TO BE INSIDE ANYTHING RIGHT NOW. I WALK THE STREETS OF THIS CITY I’M LEARNING TO HATE, THE CITY THAT’S GIVEN UP, LIKE THE WHOLE WORLD SEEMS TO HAVE. I’M A ZOMBIE. A FLYING DUTCHMAN. A DEAD MAN, TEN YEARS DEAD…”

—Frank Miller, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT, Vol. 1, No. 1, “The Dark Knight Returns,” 1986