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 Secretsreads 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.
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 Rambler 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Samuel 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.
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.
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.
Flannery O’Connor, Prayer Journal ($18), Wise Blood ($15), Mystery & Manners ($16), and TheComplete 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
“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.”
“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)
“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins.”
“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 Reviewarticle, “Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamaphobia.”
William Faulkner came to New Orleans early in March 1939 for three days of fishing with local friends. (The Deutches? Hermann was the model for the reporter in his novel Pylon.) Someone from the newspaper spoke with Faulkner at the friend’s home and soon after published an article in the Item on their conversation. He disclosed Faulkner’s opinion that from the South would come the country’s finest art; another Keats would someday emerge. Also, he spoke of the poseur writers and the character of those dedicated to the craft; the unreality of his Hollywood days and a bit about the three-volume novel he was then working on—obviously the Snopes Trilogy. His description of Faulkner is incisive, particularly the emphasis on his eyes.
The complete article follows, thanks to The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Finds South Keeping Up Art Interest: William Faulkner Here Has Good Word For His Homeland
The New Orleans Item, April 5, 1939
William Faulkner, the writer whose books about Southern poor whites and more poor Negroes have pictured Southern decay, degeneration and doom, passed through New Orleans this morning and said quite a few good words for the South.
“The South seems to be the only place in the country that is interested in art these days,” he said at the home of friends who were preparing to take him on a three-day fishing trip. “Maybe it’s because the North is more industrialized than we are. Maybe in 80 years we’ll be as highly industrialized and we’ll quit turning out art.”
Looking for Keats
Faulkner, who’s lived most of his life in the little town of Oxford, Miss., and who still lives there with his wife and 6-year-old daughter, has a picture in his mind of “maybe a Keats coming out of the backwoods, a hardshell Baptist with a celluloid collar and a short tie, who writes good poetry.” He thinks maybe this backwoods Keats will show up one of these days.
Faulkner doesn’t have any hopes for the scores of would-be writers who are living down in the French Quarter, sitting around in cafes and bars nightly talking about what they’re going to write. Faulkner lived in the Quarter himself around 1925, wrote his first published book, “Soldier’s Pay” down there. “But the fellows who are going places are too busy working to sit around and talk about it.”
Not Very Sociable
Faulkner is a short, delicately built man, with a slender face, medium-sized mustache, and a rather high-pitched voice. His dark black eyes are his strongest feature, and they’re more impressive for their brilliance than their expressiveness. He’s not expressive, demonstrative, or really sociable, and he doesn’t like to talk about writing.
His novels are acute and keen studies of Southern characters, generally drawn from the lower economic levels. They contain a good many horrible and gruesome incidents. “Wild Palms,” his latest book, is really two books. He wrote one story and thought it was good but not enough. So he write [sic] another and slipped the chapters of the two in between each other like shuffling a deck of cards, only not so haphazardly. “I played them against each other,” he said. “Contrapuntally.”
It’s interesting to note that he, himself, can’t read his writings sometimes. But that’s only when they’re in manuscript. He writes in an extremely pinched hand which goes back to the days when he had to economize on writing paper. It is even and fine, but to anyone else not only looks like, but is, as unreadable as Greek. He says he can’t read it if he leaves it for a time.
The days when he was a struggling and unknown writer have left a slight touch of bitterness in him. The writing business, “which is a job,” would be all right “if you didn’t have to stop and boil the pot now and then.” He doesn’t consider any of his books pot-boilers, but was alluding to other work he couldn’t bring himself to mention.
On the other hand, when he was making fabulous sums in Hollywood he wasn’t happy, either. “It ain’t money you make out there. It comes and goes. It’s just tokens.”
He’s now working on a three-volume novel he began in New Orleans 5 years ago. He’d have finished it sooner, but for boiling the pot.
It’s about a poor white who comes to a little Southern town and teaches the populace corruption in government and…. M. A.
There was no byline. The M. A. at the end is speculated to be Michael Amrine.
Earlier I wrote that World War II began for me on December 4, 1941, the day before my 9th birthday, when my mother’s younger brother, who lived with us and shared a bedroom with me, was inducted into the army. Three days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. These two events awakened in me an unquenchable yearning to understand humanity’s greatest folly. The history of World War II became a reading obsession and the most recent book is Anthony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge (2015). I had read his Stalingrad, an exhaustive, illuminating and brilliant history of a bloody and pivotal conflict, the first major setback for the Third Reich. Ardennes 1944 is equally praise-worthy. Two, albeit remote, personal connections and an awareness that three prominent American writers were combatants in the Battle also drew me to Beevor’s latest book.
The German Ardennes offensive surprised our military commanders. The war in Europe, they felt, was virtually over; victory was weeks away. Paris had been liberated and Allied forces were at the Rhine River.
Adolph Hitler, feeling invincible after surviving a botched assassination attempt, was convinced that the alliance of the United States, Britain, Canada and France was fragile and would likely fracture if seriously challenged. To that end, a major force of two Panzer armies, brought to full capacity with older men, younger boys and with units moved from the Russian front, launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest on December 15, 1944. Though the counter-offensive began immediately, within two weeks German tanks and troops had advanced 90 kilometers through the middle of Allied forces, trapping several units.
The 101st Airborne Division, commanded by General Anthony McAuliffe was encircled at Bastogne, Belgium. Though weakened by recent bitter fighting in Holland, it was moved there on December 18th. Four days later a German truce delegation approached General McAuliffe’s Headquarters with an ultimatum: to surrender or face annihilation. The General’s one-word response was “nuts.” Airdrops of critical supplies enabled the Division to maintain its defense until General George Patton’s tanks broke through the enemy lines on December 29th. The next day Patton himself entered Bastogne wearing his trademark pearl-handle pistols.
Soon after the German attack began, my father received a notice to report for an army physical. He was 33, married with three children. He passed the examination and was ordered to report for training on February 1, 1945. I still recall the overwhelming gloom; the worry—how would we manage?—and the fear—mother and I were aware of the enormous casualties, many from the unrelenting frigid weather. Troop replacements were hastily trained younger boys or, like my father, older men.
Near the end of January and after suffering 80,000 casualties, what remained of the two Panzer armies had been pushed back to the German border. The Russian winter campaign had begun and my father’s army induction was canceled. In less then 4 months, Allied armies entered Berlin, Hitler killed himself and Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945.
Ten years later, I am a 22-year-old recently commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Military Police Corps at my first duty station, Ford Hood, in Killeen, Texas. General Anthony McAuliffe is the port commander. Late on Sunday afternoon the M.P. at the Fort’s main gate stopped an erratically driven car from exiting the Fort. A few minutes of conversation convinced the M.P. that the driver, a Captain, was drunk. He then called me—I was the duty officer that day—and said I needed to come and resolve the matter since an officer was involved. Amid the storm of abuse that greeted me, he insisted that he had to return that day to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Much too risky, I concluded. So we locked the car, left the keys at the main gate, and I arranged for the Captain to spend the night in the Bachelor Office Quarters. His final threat was that I would regret my decision and should expect to be before the post commander in the morning.
Sure enough, waiting at Company Headquarters on Monday morning was an order for me to report immediately to General McAuliffe. The meeting was military formal. The General asked what had occurred Sunday afternoon with the Captain. I explained the Captain’s incapacity to drive safely, his behavior with the gate M.P. and with me, and the action I felt it essential to take. He listened without interruption and acknowledged that what I had done was proper. He apologized for the Captain’s attitude and explained that he obviously had too much to drink at a reunion celebration for men who had been trapped at Bastogne 10 years earlier. He thanked and dismissed me.
Not attending any reunion were the three prominent American writers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge: Ernest Hemingway, J. D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut.
Ernest Hemingway was a war correspondent, but journalism wasn’t a high priority. He demonstrated his fearlessness under fire many times.
J.D. Salinger, with the 12th Infantry Regiment, wrote short stories throughout the Battle whenever he could find an unoccupied foxhole. He was fortunate enough to receive a fresh pair of knitted woolen socks each week from his mother.
Kurt Vonnegut, the least fortunate of the three, was in the 423 Infantry Regiment. His fellow soldiers he described as a mixture of college kids and others who had likely enlisted to avoid jail. His regiment, encircled by German artillery, chose surrender rather than annihilation. Some 8,000 men were taken captive. It was the second largest of the War after the Bataan Death March in 1942. In his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut writes about the horrors of war. He survived the firebombing of Dresden where he was held prisoner.
So there you have it: a good book, a bit of history, some literary trivia and a touch of the boy and the young lieutenant I once was. For the last I ask your indulgence. At 83, I seem to spend more time remembering than I do dreaming. My sincere desire remains, however, not only to share what I’ve learned but also to use what I know to help me learn what I don’t know. One is never too old for that.
Join Roy Blount, Jr. and the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society on Sunday, March 13 to celebrate Roy’s new book, Save Room for Pie. The event is free and open to the public. There will be free pie for all, so save room for it.
The celebration will take place from 2:30-4:30 p.m. at Faulkner House, 624 Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans. To reserve a copy of Roy’s book, call Faulkner House Books at (504) 524-2940.
Please RSVP at email@example.com, so we have plenty of pie to go around.
To learn more about the author, go to Roy’s page on the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society website. You can also watch Roy’s YouTube video to hear his advice on how to eat in the South.
About Save Room for Pie:
One of America’s most cherished comic writers, Roy has been compared to Mark Twain and James Thurber, and his books have been called everything from “a work of art” (Robert W. Creamer, The New York TimesBook Review) to “a book to read till it falls apart” (Newsweek). Now, in Save Room for Pie, he applies his much-praised wit and charm to a rich and fundamental topic: food.
As a lifelong eater, Blount always got along easy with food―he didn’t have to think, he just ate. But food doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s the global climate and the global economy to consider, not to mention Blount’s chronic sinusitis, which constricts his sense of smell, and consequently his taste buds. So while he’s always frowned on eating with an ulterior motive, times have changed. Save Room for Pie grapples with these and other food-related questions in Blount’s signature style. Here you’ll find lively meditations on everything from bacon froth to grapefruit, Kobe beef to biscuits. You’ll also find defenses of gizzards, mullet, okra, cane syrup, watermelon, and boiled peanuts; an imagined dialogue between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; input from Louis Armstrong, Frederick Douglass, and Blaze Starr; and of course some shampooed possums and carjacking turkeys.
In poems and songs, limericks and fake (or sometimes true) news stories, Blount talks about food in surprising and innovative ways, with all the wit and verve that prompted Garrison Keillor, in The Paris Review, to say: “Blount is the best. He can be literate, uncouth, and soulful all in one sentence.”
— Hayley Lynch, Editorial Associate, Faulkner Society