[There are certain writers that I am drawn to (again and again). They obviously speak to me. It would take a shrink to tell me why. Whatever the deeper reason, I can tell you that I enjoy their work and I am curious to read more. In the spirit of this blog, I share them with you. jbm 8/17/2016]
[City Lights Photo above: Chronicle/Peter Breinig 1965]
Kurt Vonnegut: I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut since high school. I’ve never come across a more natural writer although I’ve read his process was anything but natural. His prose is so likable and infectious because it is conversational and anecdotal. One anecdote leads to another like most interesting conversations do. To this add a fecund imagination and you have a great read! He was nothing like the other authors I was reading in high school. I didn’t know or care much about sci fi yet I embraced his acerbic reflections on the human condition as I did Mark Twain’s. I liked the way he slammed human nature without hectoring or lecturing. He gave ordinary people extraordinary experiences (such as time travel) and we voyeuristicly witnessed their confusion, inadequate responses, reluctance and inefficiencies to cope with what was happening to them. Despite the circumstances, people always remained people, replete with their myriad foibles. (He was the king of portraying our foibles!) Also, he had such masterful control of his writing. His stories purposely and playfully meander, veer off course, take sharp left turns, and circle back on themselves. His narratives ramble and he often provides ongoing commentary on what you are reading – like an actor breaking the fourth wall in a film. That is generally frowned upon in fiction but KV makes it work. To me, as a young person, his work seemed extremely irreverent, even juvenile and I thought “Wow! Is this literature also?” It gave me new perspective on what could be done with writing. I learned that literature didn’t have to be formal and scholarly to be good. Personally, I am fond of “Cats Cradle,” “Breakfast of Champions” and “Slaughterhouse Five.” His short stories (collected in “Welcome to the Monkey House”) are fun also. And there have been many collections published posthumously that I have yet to check out.
Charles Bukowski: I discovered him only lately. I did not read him in high school or college. He was not part of the canon in my English classes, yet I kept seeing and hearing his name mentioned along with his impossible legend of alcohol, despair, and sleaze. I read his poetry first. I found an edition of his later work, posthumously published, which had a preoccupation, naturally, with death and dying. I really connected with the humanity of his writing. The no-nonsense style, the audacious truthfulness, the raw emotion and ruthless pragmatism. These are some of the inadequate adjectives that come immediately to mind. From the poem “the wasted profession” by C.B.
“all the words-we type away-on and on-most of us living lives
ordinary and without courage-are we sick to think that our
After reading much of his poetry, I moved on to the novel “Ham on Rye” which describes in unblinking terms the sheer wretchedness and futility of his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. I’ve also read “Tales of Ordinary Madness” and “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” which are collections of short stories containing indelible quotes about life’s ups and downs. The titles tell you all you need to know:
“Nut Ward Just East of Hollywood”
“Great Poets Die in Steaming Pots of Shit”
“The Stupid Christs”
You get the picture. Bukowski is probably too much for many: too brutal, too racist, too sexist, too kinky, or too crass. However, his work can nearly make you cry, it’s so genuine and truthful. He has the true author’s ability to sear his experience into your brain using mere words. [photo: Charles Bukowski in 1978 Hulton Archive/Getty Images]
Edward Abbey: I’ve been a big fan for many years and actually got to meet him during what was to be his last book tour. Living in the American southwest as I do, it is almost a requirement to read Abbey. Although he was a transplant from elsewhere, he felt truly connected to the desert, canyons, rivers, and mountains of the American southwest. And he was fiercely (fanatically) committed to protecting them. Desert Solitaire (nonfiction) is the best place to start your reading of Abbey. It is the epitome of his conservationist philosophy. I also recommend The Monkey Wrench Gang (fiction) which is a fun romp with an unforgettable cast of characters. Any collection of his essays is well worth checking out. He was an excellent writer with a bent towards philosophy (his major in college). His books can be irreverent and he has been called a misogynist, bigot, redneck and many other things. My take is that he was: 1. Not politically correct in any form or fashion (and proud of it) 2. Not particularly liberal in some of his opinions/radical in others and 3. Intractable on certain issues. So if you can accept him for who he was, you should have no trouble with his work. What I find most appealing is the quality of his writing, the passion with which he writes and his adventuresome spirit. I can enjoy his stories and essays without agreeing with all of his opinions.
Jack Kerouac: Like Bukowski, JK was not on the syllabus when I took university English classes. I had heard much about him, but had read next to nothing. I started with Desolation Angels, followed by Dharma Bums, and then On the Road. I have since read the unedited version of On the Road (the original scroll) which I prefer to the original published edition. I have also read some of his poetry and the biography written by Ann Charters: Kerouac, A Biography. I recommend it and the Portable Jack Kerouac as good starting places. If you are interested in The Beats, I recommend Charters’ the Portable Beat Reader which gives you all sorts of nice tidbits and in true Beat spirit, you can randomly open a page and start reading. What’s so appealing to me about JK is his spontaneity and unorthodox approach to writing. It’s refreshing to read and enjoy words for their own sake. He purposefully tried to write like we think, not in measured precise sentences but in stream of conscious bursts. But his is not the scholarly stream of consciousness of Faulkner or Joyce. His writing is more organic and natural. He didn’t worry himself about reasons why and just dove in! I believe that’s what the Beats were primarily about: do your own thing but be spontaneous; labor over something and you kill the creative urge, man! Sometimes his work gets mired down in all the words but it’s definitely worth the trouble. He attempted to document pretty much every aspect of his life and times and that is in itself a major achievement. [photo: Tom Palumbo]
Paul Theroux: I like travel memoirs and Paul’s are among the best I know. He’s a scholar but never comes across as academic. His writing style is personal, self-deprecating, but never maudlin. He’s got strong opinions but they are tempered with reason and research. When reading his travel books, you learn a good deal about the places and people simply by going along for the ride. You don’t feel like you’ve just been on a guided tour. He’s written just as much or more fiction and I admit I’ve only read The Mosquito Coast (fiction) which is a great read. I intend to read more. Good starting point on the nonfiction: The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom By The Sea. [Photo credit: Steve McCurry Studios]