Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War isn’t going well at all. His young son, Willie, has died, devastating Lincoln and his wife. At night, alone, the President visits the cemetery, retrieves his son’s body from its crypt and holds it in his arms. 

The President doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by ghosts or spirits. They are denizens of the bardo:

Used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan [Buddhist] tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena [Wikipedia].

The phenomena the ghosts experience are strange to say the least. Their incorporeal selves take on bizarre shapes, they are merged with other ghostly beings against their will, they enter Lincoln’s body and know his thoughts and memories. They sometimes disappear amid sound and fury, presumably emerging somewhere else. The conversations they have with each other make up most of the novel. 

The more I read Lincoln in the Bardo, the more I enjoyed it. It’s understandable that it won last year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Straight Man by Richard Russo

I’ve begun reading several books this year but hadn’t finished one until now. I wouldn’t have started this one except I read an article about how there aren’t as many so-called “academic” or “college” novels being published nowadays. Those are the novels about college life, mainly the lives of college professors, such as Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954) and The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy (1952).

Straight Man (1997) was one of the more recent novels the article recommended. The recommendation was so strong that I got a copy from the library. It’s written from the point of view of a disaffected, smart ass professor of English at a mediocre American college (the fictitious West Central Pennsylvania University). The descriptions of college life were amusing enough to keep me reading, but the good parts were offset by boring accounts of the professor’s relationships with his mother and children (his relationships with his wife and father were more interesting). If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t make that trip to the library.

The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford

The Short-Timers is the novel that was the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s great Vietnam war movie, Full-Metal Jacket. I always assumed it wasn’t much of a novel, never having heard any praise for it and assuming that, as people often say, good movies are usually based on bad novels. But this isn’t a bad novel. It’s a great novel.

The book tells the story of Private Joker, a U.S. Marine combat correspondent. He trains at Parris Island and then travels to Vietnam, where he’s involved in the battle for Hue and the fighting at Khe Sanh. The major difference between the book and the movie is that what happens at Khe Sanh in the book happens in Hue in the movie. And there are scenes involving Vietnamese prostitutes in the movie that don’t appear in the book.

The author, Gustav Hasford, was himself a Marine correspondent in Vietnam. That’s probably why the book, especially the dialog, feels so realistic. It’s a very ugly story but worth reading if you’re at all interested in what it was like to be a Marine in Vietnam.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes

Reading this book was a mistake. I saw a reference to it somewhere and discovered it was the basis for the classic 1950 movie also called In a Lonely Place. The movie starred Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame and was directed by Nicholas Ray. The main character, Dixon Steele, is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter with a bad temper who’s suspected of being a killer. In the book, Steele is a veteran with delusions of grandeur who lives off his rich uncle and kills young women for no apparent reason. Apparently, the book was one of the first depictions of the mind of a serial killer. That’s probably one reason it was included in the distinguished Library of America’s Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s. From that perspective, it was good enough. The post-war Los Angeles setting was also interesting at times (although the characters spend an awful lot of time smoking and drinking). I didn’t especially enjoy seeing the world from Dixon Steel’s perspective and mainly stuck with it out of curiosity. I wish I hadn’t.

Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg

Cutter and Bone, a novel from 1976, was the basis for the excellent movie Cutter’s Way. The story is set in Santa Barbara, California. An especially disturbing murder is committed. Bone (Jeff Bridges in the movie) is a witness but doesn’t get a good look at the killer. His friend Cutter (played by the recently-deceased John Heard) becomes convinced that the killer is a wealthy businessman. 

The characters of Cutter, Bone and Cutter’s common-law wife Mo make the story stand out. Cutter was severely wounded in Viet Nam and is now a fast-talking maniac. Bone is a good-looking deadbeat. Mo has her own problems. None of them are happy, but they’re interesting, somewhat in the way a car crash can be if you’re not in the car. 

A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Chicago, won the very first National Book Award for fiction for his 1949 novel The Man with the Golden Arm, and was Simone de Beauvoir’s lover. Among other things, he also wrote a long essay with the cool title Chicago: City on the Make. It upset the city’s elite. 

I started reading The Man with the Golden Arm recently, but found the Chicago slang difficult to follow, so I moved on to his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side. It was hard to follow at times too, but I’m glad I made the effort. 

It’s the story of Dove Linkhorn, an uneducated, poor young man from Texas who hops a freight train at the beginning of the Depression and ends up in New Orleans. There he scrambles for a living, gets drunk a lot, commits various crimes, and mostly associates with prostitutes, pimps, beggars and thieves. Dove comes across as a simpleton a lot of the time, and his vagueness often makes him invisible as a character. It also takes a while to understand what’s happening in some scenes, but Dove’s experiences and the people he bumps into on the very seedy side of New Orleans are almost always interesting. And Algren’s gritty, sometimes political, often poetical prose is even better (“Self-reliance for the penniless and government aid to those who already had more than they could use was the plan”).

If there’s a theme to the novel, it’s that the down and out people are often a lot better than the other ones.

The city fathers, Do-Right Daddies and all of that, Shriners, Kiwanians, Legionaires, Knights of this and Knights of that, would admit with a laugh that New Orleans was hell. But that hell itself had been built spang in the center of town…

There were stage shows and peep shows, geeks and freaks all down old Perdido Street. But it wasn’t geeks who ran that street. It wasn’t panders who owned the shows. There were chippified blondes and elderly rounders, bummies and rummies and amateur martyrs. There were creepers and kleptoes and zanies and dipsoes. It was night bright as day, it was day dark as night, but stuffed shirts and do-righties owned those shows.

For a Do-Right Daddy is right fond of money and still he don’t hate fun. He charged the girls double for joint-togs and drinks, rent, fines, towel service and such. But before any night’s ball was done, he joined in the fun. 

Later he had to be purged of guilt so he could sleep with his wife again. That where the pulpit came in….

There was a 1962 movie based on the book but, aside from the New Orleans setting and a few characters, I doubt they were able to cram much of the story – a lot of it not very nice – into a Hollywood movie. Years later, Lou Reed was approached to turn A Walk on the Wild Side into a musical. He only kept the title.

Here’s one more quote, part of which is pretty famous. An “old-timer” named Cross-Country Kline, “the only true criminal in the whole tankful of fools, the only one who had soldiered honestly against law and order”, is giving advice to Dove Linkhorn:

“Blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ’em all and I know. They don’t work.

Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

This is the English novel that begins: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. It tells the story of a boy named Leo who spends the summer of 1900 at the home of a wealthy friend. Without understanding the significance of his role, Leo begins delivering messages between his friend’s unmarried sister and a local farmer. He is told that the messages are secret and pertain to “business”, but of course there’s more to it than that.

The novel, published in 1953, was the basis for an excellent movie of the same name that starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates. It’s beautifully written, if a little verbose at times. The only odd thing about it is that it’s in the form of a memoir, as if the grownup Leo is describing events of 50 years ago. Since no normal person could possibly remember what happened that long ago in such detail, we have to assume that the narrator is unreliable or it’s a case of extreme artistic license.