Stewart O’Nan’s 16th Novel: An Underground Jerusalem Thriller

City of Secrets, Stewart O’Nan (Viking, 2016, 194 pages)

Militant Zionists bombed the King David Hotel in 1946 and killed 91 people. This terrorist attack occurs again in the lives of Stewart O’Nan’s characters, all Holocaust survivors and underground rebels operating in the British Crown’s Palestine. City of Secrets is a literary thriller, a fast but thoughtful read about survivor guilt, post-World War II Jerusalem, and the intoxication of violence.

O’Nan, a skilled storyteller with fifteen previous novels, won the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s first novel prize in 1992. Rosemary James (publisher of The Double Dealer) introduced me to O’Nan’s City of Secrets, and I’m compelled to share her recommendation. O’Nan builds suspense from the first page and carefully weaves the reader from past to present and back again.


Memories of the dead live on affecting the present. Ghosts of Brand’s wife and family members lurk in his mind as silently and destructively as the Haganah and Irgun rebels work in the shadows of the ancient city. Brand “wanted the revolution—like the world—to be innocent, when it had never been.” He lived through internment as a prisoner mechanic, spared by both the Nazis and the Russians, because they said “he can fix anything.” He “knows the truth,” but decides suicide cannot fix his pain.

Brand saw his wife murdered and speaks to her still. She watches him sleep with Eva, a compatriot and prostitute. As he drives sandy streets and feels the Mediterranean breeze, Brand considers this new life: “It was a kind of cowardice he would never understand, though he was guilty of it himself. How did you kill and still call yourself righteous? How did you live when you let the people you loved die?”

With the war over, survival now depends on trusting the mixed messages and clandestine codes of an insurgency network that supplied Brand an alias (“Jossi”) and a taxi. Jossi drives his taxi, steering the reader and tourists around the city, introducing foreigners to Jerusalem, “a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers.”

Like a low-level insurgent, the reader never knows more than what’s necessary to keep reading, to keep driving, keep trusting in the hope of learning how to survive. Such trust requires Brand to accept lethal orders from the unknown, courier weapons and spies through checkpoint searches. Leaders speak in propaganda, be they leading insurgents or occupying forces. He becomes a hero of a train stickup, not from action but from agreed-upon perception, by “barking” commands with the “familiar intonation” learned from years in killing camps.

City of Secrets reads with the speed of an action flick that matters. Brand must decide who to trust as he grapples with life after the Holocaust. Feeling expendable to the secret cause, he learns that only he can live up to his memories of lost loved ones and that true survival requires an open faith.

–Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

Samuel Johnson and the Rambler Essays


Samuel Johnson believed that “a man may write at any time if he set himself doggedly to it.” And in 1750 he did just that, agreeing to write andpublished two periodic papers each week while he was in the midst of composing his Dictionary of the English Language. The son of a bookseller, a voracious and thoughtful reader, and a close observer of life around him, Johnson was well-suited to the task. From his active mind, fertile memory and his uncommon common sense come many of the ideas and subjects he clothed in an extraordinary flow of precise language, always balanced and often
poetic. (Later in life he thought he was a failed poet. Not so; he smuggled poetry into his writing, as you will soon see.)

Boswell reveals in his biography of Johnson that he kept a small book with notes and jottings, topics for further development. A few examples:

Youth to be taught the piety of age—age to retain the honour of youth.

Every great work, the work of one man.

Common danger unites by crushing other passions—but they remain.

In his first Rambler essay, March 20, 1750, he wrote that his hope was “…not much to tire those I shall not happen to please, and if I am not commended for the beauty of my works, to be at least pardoned for their brevity.” Two years later, in the final Rimagehandler.phpambler essay, he confesses, “Nothing is ended with honour which does not conclude better than it began. He that is himself weary will soon weary the public. Let him, therefore, not obstinately infest the stage until the general hiss demands him to depart.”

In the 208 “Rambler” essays may be found Johnson’s timeless observations, sound wisdom, and excellent advice. Here are a few:

 he is young, consider that he shall one day be old and remember when he is old that he had once been young.
He that would pass the latter part of his life with honour and decency must, when

A wise man is never surprised.

Whom does not constant flattery intoxicate?

He whose fortune is endangered by litigation will not refuse to augment the wealth of his lawyer.

Most authors are forgotten because they never deserved to be remembered.

The disturbers of our happiness in this world are our desires, our griefs, and our fears.

We rate ourselves by our fortune rather than by our virtue. Men who share in the highest ranks of society seldom hear their faults.

Knowledge of the world will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good.

He who would know himself should consult his enemies.

Love only can soften life.

There are countless more. Years ago, I thought of assembling a group large enough for a small book, to be titled, Rambling in the Rambler: The Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson. Maybe, someday.

–Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books

Balancing the Scale

Frontispiece and title page of Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
James Boswell at 25, by George Willison

Much have I written on Samuel Johnson, and deservedly so. The focus here, however, will be more on James Boswell, Johnson biographer, a reluctant lawyer, son of a Chief Judge in Edinburg. He wrote two books on Johnson. The first, Tour of the Hebrides, published in 1786 two years after Johnson’s death, is an account of a journey the pair of them made to the Hebrides, the western coast and islands of Boswell’s Scottish homeland. Much more than a travel journal, the Tour brims with Johnson, his ruminations, comments and observations, a brilliant memoir. Boswell’s masterpiece, The Life of Samuel Johnson, came five years later in 1791. Subsequent editions of it have often merged the two chronologically.

Boswell and Johnson met in a London tavern on May 16, 1763. Johnson was 54 and Boswell just 22. Their 21 year friendship and the union of their special talents—Johnson: the classic scholar, a voracious reader, a gifted writer, an articulate conversationalist, his wit and humor often ascerbic; Boswell: a fine writer, an inveterate journal-keeper with an astonishing memory, his dramatic sense, his capacity for admiration, the ability to draw others into conversation—out of all that came The Life.

Despite its continuing popularity, the most readable and read book of the 18th century, scholars still squabble about it, writing new versions of Johnson’s life and volumes of mostly unread and unreadable analysis and criticism.

Caricature of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. --- Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis
Illustration of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell: Walking up the High Street, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1786

The dispute seems to be between Johnsonians on the one hand and Boswellians on the other. Both seem to forget that Boswell respected and loved, even idolized Johnson, as Johnson did Boswell.

Instead Johnsonians believe that their man is too important a literary figure to be left to Boswell, a fool who wrote his book on Johnson, according to Thomas B. Macaulay, by the freakish of accident, nothing but a compilation of edited excerpts from his massive diaries. Half the biography is about the last nine years of Johnson’s life when he was old, fussy and querulous. It doesn’t do justice to Johnson’s literary personality which is best inferred from his formidable body of work. With its many flaws and omissions, particularly of Johnson’s early life, with Boswell’s tendency to talk too much in his own person on many matters, The Life of Samuel Johnson is not a biography at all, rather an autobiography of the author himself.

Even those who reluctantly concede The Life to be a minor masterpiece argue that the good is often enemy of the best. Boswell so persuades his readers that his Johnson is the Johnson that it is virtually impossible to read Johnson’s writings without Boswell’s version of him rising from the pages.

One suspects, too, that part of the criticism of Boswell grows out of resentment for his excesses. Boswell had little control of himself. He talked too much, drank too much and he died from an acute and chronic urinary tract infection following repeated gonorrheal strictures. In his personal discipline, Boswell neglected all the principles desired in men who accomplish important things.
The Boswellians feel the quarrel stems from the Johnsonians’ preference for biographies that convey information with absolute fidelity to truth and their dislike of literary biographies. In a literary work, an author feels free to invent, dispose, weigh and enliven his writing to achieve an intensity of effect. He may sacrifice a little truth to portray a greater verity.

Title page of Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson

Few biographies are unequivocally literature. Boswell’s is. For its readers it produces a powerful effect closely akin to those which characterize the best works of fiction. Boswell’s finest artistic talent is his selection of facts, conversations, letters and events, all conveying Johnson so concretely in a literary form that Johnson himself invented with his biography of Richard Savage.

After all the flaws and omissions of Boswell’s book are enumerated, one is inclined to respond, “So what?” The issue is not whether the Life is distorted by Boswell’s concentration on the last few years of Johnson’s life. Rather, if Johnson’s character is essentially unchanged throughout his life, then the abundance of material available on the last few years was as useful to Boswell as the same amount of material spread evenly over Johnson’s 75 years. Also, if Boswell has failed to stuff his biography with criticism of Johnson’s works, remember that literary criticism is datable. Today’s theory expires tomorrow.

Where, then, does that leave us. Let us hope, exactly where we should be. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is for everybody, one of those rare books whose principal characters give it universal appeal. We read it slowly because we want it to last longer. Johnson’s personality overwhelms us; we envy him his never failing wisdom and his acerbic wit. But Boswell is intensely interesting, too, not only because he is so interested in himself but also because we find in him more of ourselves.

James Boswell died May 17, 1794. May the recent anniversary of his death remind those of us who treasure literature and who feel no compulsion to overexamine it for whatever reason of our responsibility to preserve it. Too many once commonly admired books have been dropped from our canon. The loss of generally shared texts puts basic communications in jeopardy. We build a new Tower of Babel. Our literary works of genius are much too valuable to society to entrust their future to experts or any other self-appointed arbiters of taste or correctness.

–Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books

Samuel Johnson—The Seer


Thirty years ago virtually all the world’s knowledge was to be found in books gathered in libraries. With their comprehensive holdings, with their cataloging methods, reference works, and their expert staff, libraries were the traditional centers for researching the assembled knowledge. Access to it was seldom quick or easy, often tedious and time-consuming.

800px-Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds_2Samuel Johnson—the son of a bookseller—my favorite 18th century literary scholar, likely frustrated with the then conventional methods of obtaining desired information, wrote in one of his Rambler essays, March 19, 1751:

“I was lately considering among other objects of speculation, the new attempt of a universal register, an office in which every man may lodge an account of his superfluities and wants of whatever he desires to purchase or to sell. My imagination soon presented to me…the advantages which might be justly hoped from a general mart of intelligence where every lawful passion may find its gratification and every honest curiosity receive satisfaction.

Amazing! A presage of what today’s cyber world technology offers, including with the digitization of books a ready access and rapid retrieval of knowledge and information from an Internet source.

The lingering question is: What prompted Johnson’s thoughtful speculation? Of course we cannot know for certain, but a cursory look at what Johnson was working on in 1751 in addition to his twice weekly Rambler essays yields a credible answer.

Five years earlier in 1746 Johnson, then 37, agreed to compile and write a Dictionary of the English language. He thought it could be done in three years; it took nine. In 1751, therefore, he was still struggling with it. Adequate libraries were unavailable to him. He worked instead in the garret of his home, virtually alone, looking for words, searching for examples of their correct usage. His sources were his prodigious memory, his own books, and others borrowed from friends.

Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1755, defined and set the spelling of more than 40,000 words and illustrated their proper usage with almost 115,000 excerpts from the works of English writers from the Elizabethan era on. It was one of the most influential reference books in the English language; browsing in it is still enjoyable.

One last insight into Johnson’s state of mind during those tedious and difficult days: To the definition of lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries, he could not resist adding, “a harmless drudge.”

                                                        Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books

                                                        Lifetime member of

                                                        The Samuel Johnson Society*


*The Johnson Society offices are in Litchfield England, his birthplace. He wrote the Dictionary in his Gough Square, London residence; I still remember the awe I felt in the garret there.




Matthew Brucolli – Remembered

Among the literary photographs and ephemera in the bookstore, the one that evokes the most questions is a small photo of the Jefferson Society, University of Virginia. One of the dozen students in the picture gave it to me in 1990, 30 years after it was taken. In the foreground is John Dos Passos, his body turned to the left almost in profile, his head tilted forward looking at a diminutive William Faulkner. Dos Passos appears to be talking to Faulkner, who is facing the camera, gazing down and away, seemingly bored and inattentive. When the photo was taken, Faulkner was the writer in residence at the University, and the gathering was a reception following the Dos Passos address to the group.

Ten years ago, Matthew Bruccolli came in, saw the photo and immediately turned toward me and said, “I must have a copy of that picture. For years I’ve been telling people that I was at an intimate meeting with Faulkner and Dos Passos and no one has ever believed me. Finally, there’s the proof.” I asked him to point himself out and half hidden behind Dos Passos, with a crewcut and dark framed glasses was unmistakably the young version of the man beside me.

I had known of Matthew Bruccolli for some time, had read his excellent biography of Scott Fitzgerald and his book about Fitzgerald and Hemingway. So I sent him a copy of the photo and we became friends. Rosemary and I visited him in Columbia, S.C. and had dinner with him and his wife Arlyn at their home. He twice participated in our Words and Music Conference and was scheduled to come again in 2008. Sadly in the spring of that year he was diagnosed with brain cancer and on August 8 he died.

Matthew, a dedicated bibliophile, loved contemporary writers. He collected their work and wrote more than 50 books about them. He was the editor of the Pittsburg Series in Bibliography. He was constantly busy, his task list endless.

He studied at Yale and at Cornell where Vladimir Nabokov was one of his teachers. He received his doctorate degree from the University of Virginia in 1960. He taught there and at Ohio State University before settling in for 40 years at the University of South Carolina. Just before he died he sent me a copy of a paper he presented at a meeting of The Print Conservancy, a group formed in response to the future of reference books imperiled by digitization. In an amusing footnote he pointed out that the attending librarians had a session on “weeding collections.” His terse comment to that was “Books are not weeds.”

I moved the 1960 photograph of the Jefferson Society, John Dos Passos and William Faulkner from the bookstore to my office. I look at it and always remember my friend Matthew Brucolli and the day he found himself in it.

Thanks, Matthew, for enriching my life.

Celebrities in the Bookstore

Twenty years ago, Adrian Lyne, a film director, writer and producer, best known for his Fatal Attraction with Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, came into the bookstore to ask if the building were available for a scene in a re-make of Lolita. He wanted to put a camera on the second floor balcony to film Lolita riding her bicycle down Pirate’s Alley in an artificial rain shower. Without any hesitation, Rosemary and I agreed, even to his wish to repaint the front of the Faulkner House olive-drab green.

When production began, the cast for the alley scene, Dominique Swain, Lolita, and Jeremy Irons, Humbert, found the bookstore and our home a welcome place of respite and relief.

Dominique, a very young teenager, was in New Orleans with her school tutor and the second floor dining and living area of our home was their temporary classroom. Jeremy Irons was often in the bookstore and the adjoining back rooms, very interested in the rare books. Since he was British, I showed him my collection of books by and about Samuel Johnson and his literary circle of friends, Boswell, Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick and others. A biography of David Garrick, the famous 18th century Shakespearean actor, I thought would be ideal for him. Paul Muni had owned it; in the book he had neatly tipped in clippings about and pictures of Garrick. Both Jeremy Irons and Paul Muni had won best leading role Oscars, Muni in 1939 for The Story of Louis Pasteur, his very first screen appearance, and Irons in 1990 for his performance in Reversal of Fortune.

The price of the book, as I recall, was about $250. Irons asked to see it several times and was, I sensed, tempted but wanted more time to think about it.

Late one afternoon, I’m in the bookstore, and Jeremy Irons is in the back room talking with Adrian Lyne. Through the front door comes Steven Soderbergh. (He had been in before, bought Randall Jarrell’s Picture from an Institution.) He is visibly aggravated, he complains about blocked streets, no parking anywhere close, near impossible getting to the store, what’s going on? I smiled and said, “I have a nice surprise for you. Your friend Jeremy Irons is here making a movie, that’s what’s going on; in fact he’s in the back room. Go see him!”

In 1991 Jeremy Irons starred in Soderbergh’s film, Kafka. Two years earlier Soderbergh won the Palm d’Or for Sex, Lies and Videotape at the Cannes Film Festival. He began his film career as a teenager in Baton Rouge using 8mm cameras and equipment borrowed from college students. (His father was Dean of Education at LSU.) After high school Soderbergh moved to Hollywood. In 2001, two of the five films nominated for Best Director were his, Traffic and Erin Brockovich. He won with Traffic.

In a couple days, everyone was gone, no congestion, no blocked streets. Workmen were outside painting over the olive drab with the lemon yellow color the building was weeks before. The David Garrick biography that Paul Muni had owned was still in the bookstore and Jeremy Irons continued thinking about it. I know because two weeks later, he calls and asks if I had sold it and if not he wants to buy it and have it shipped to him. Of course I did, savoring the extra satisfaction I always feel when I find the perfect home for one of my unique books. O, the life and joys of a bookseller.

–Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books

Lolita 1997


Embrace the Mystery: Easter & Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor, Prayer Journal ($18), Wise Blood ($15), Mystery & Manners ($16), and The Complete Short Stories ($18)

Futurebirds, “Sam Jones,” Hampton’s Lullaby


On Easter Sunday, this north Georgia Baptist sat in a New Orleans Catholic church thinking of Flannery O’Connor. I recently finished Mystery & Manners, O’Conner’s posthumous publication of essays and lectures about writing, religion, and peacocks. Mystery & Manners led me to several so-called “Southern gothic” short stories from The Complete Short Stories collection. So there I sat in St. Francis of Assisi’s stained glass-colored nave with a head full of Flannery O’Connor’s characters—murderers and grandmothers, a bigot barber, and a Bible salesman who ran off with a woman’s wooden leg after she seduced him, leaving her one-legged up a ladder in a barn’s second floor.

The priest’s sermon directed us to confront Easter confusion with Easter faith and, in full embrace, surrender ourselves to the mystery of life. The priest read from the Gospel of John, showing how Mary Magdalene walked in the dark before dawn and discovered that new life had risen from the tomb.

My wife and I recently read aloud O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, which she wrote when she was 21, away at college and drafting Wise Blood. It offers an intimate connection between reader and author because, in reading someone’s prayers, we recognize shared insecurities and fears. For example, O’Connor writes, “My mind is a most insecure thing, not to be depended on. It gives me scruples at one minute & leaves me lax the next.” She prays for divine strength to restrain her ego from eclipsing her view of God: “You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self as the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.” She prays for grace and for faith. She admits confusion and prays for Christian principles to “permeate” her writing.

I asked Joe DeSalvo (owner of Faulkner House Books) about the Prayer Journal and he responded that, “Any writer who wants to be a great writer must read Mystery & Manners.” I quickly appreciated Joe’s advice when in the first chapter, “The King of the Birds,” I underlined and reread a dark truth: “Necessity is the mother of several other things besides invention.” Her clarity of verse draws us closer to understanding the human condition.

In her essay, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” O’Connor discusses living with the teetotaler descendants of famous Methodist evangelist, Sam Jones. It reminded me of a song, “Sam Jones,” by Futurebirds, a critically acclaimed Athens, Georgia-based band. A full century after Sam Jones converted Tom Ryman, the riverboat casino and country music barroom owner, Futurebirds’ Sam Jones gives up on the mystery of life, scratches lottery tickets and waits to die.

O’Connor argues that Southern identity is found not at the surface of “mocking-birds and beaten biscuits [or] hookworm and bare feet,” but in the deepest “qualities that endure,” passed along generations of scripture-haunted people living in the balance of good and evil. Futurebirds’ Daniel Womack questions over a whining pedal steel guitar, “Sam Jones, are you liking what you see?” O’Connor may answer that the truth “is known only to God, but of those who look for it, none gets so close as the artist.”

O’Connor demands that artists and writers stare at everything possible to seek meaning worth extracting. She worries about her generation, which was groomed to eliminate mystery. She defends herself as a Christian writer because, having embraced the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, she is able to see other mysteries of life on earth.

During St. Francis’s Easter service, a little boy sat doodling in the pew behind us. At a quiet moment, he shouted to his mother, “I found the mystery!” In good manners, his mother shushed him.

O’Connor writes about people and their manners which, she argues, reveal to the reader—and writer—mysteries of the human condition. She claims that she did not know her Bible salesman would steal the woman’s wooden leg until five lines before he stole it. Like Mary Magdalene on the first Easter, O’Connor walks in the dark until she has discovered the story worth sharing.

Below is a sampling of her advice to writers about good writing.

–Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

On grace:

In my stories a reader will find that the devil accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective…. There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment…. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.

On good fiction:

A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.

On mystery and manners:

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind…. The mystery [Henry James] was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.

On the job of a writer:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.

On experience:

If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” (84)

On perception:

The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins.

On drawing:

Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.

More on looking:

But there’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it…. People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

See also, generally, David Griffith’s Paris Review article, “Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamaphobia.”