What It Was Like

Peter Seth: Today’s B&N Daily Find Author: Three American Novels I love

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What It Was Like is today’s Barnes & Noble Daily Find!

I’m in a controlled frenzy, trying to finish the first draft of my new novel (and make it great!), so for this blog, I’m going to talk about three novels I love and have studied … and try to channel some of their greatness into what I’m working on.

TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis

I’ve read this book twice. Everyone should read it at least once. Maddie Ross, the fourteen year-old narrator of this novel, is one of the most entertaining fictional guides that I’ve ever encountered. She is intelligent and naïve, sophisticated and childish, stubborn and fanciful. In other words, she’s a real person.

Listen to Maddie on the subject of animals: “I have known some horses and good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious ‘claptrap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.”

I wanted my narrator, the guy in WHAT IT WAS LIKE, to be good company, in the way that Maddie is. Huck Finn … Holden Caulfield … Maddie Ross … you get the idea.

The reason that the Coen Brothers movie was so good is that they stuck very closely to the book. There was gold there: all they had to do was mine it. Jeff Bridges deserved his Ocsar for his Rooster Cogburn, not for his part in “Crazy Heart.”

As Donna Tartt says in her loving Afterword for the paperback edition of the book, “I believe that TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis is a masterpiece.” I concur.

EDWIN MULLHOUSE by Steven Millhauser

Steven Millhauser is a “writer’s writer,” year after year crafting interesting novels and fantastic stories. Until he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for MARTIN DRESSLER, he was best known for his wonderful first novel EDWIN MULLHOUSE. When I first read it, I was entranced by the sheer cleverness of this book, the literary biography of a fictitious person by a fictitious author: but in this case, the Samuel Johnson-James Boswell pair are two children. Edwin Mullhouse is the author of a brilliant novel “Cartoons,” begun when he is nine, before his tragic death on his eleventh birthday. Jeffrey Cartwright, the narrator, is his lifelong friend and devoted follower. The whole thing is absolutely brilliant.

Millhauser’s depiction of the details of a mid-century, suburban childhood is precise and enormously entertaining. He remembers childhood very deeply (something I tried to emulate about adolescence in my novel.)

I also loved the way that Millhauser presented the book of fiction as a “real document,” discovered by a “real scholar.” A Nabokovian framing device that had a strange and lasting appeal for me.

THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover

Any novelist who introduces his novel with an epigraph from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment has a lot of guts. And Coover has major guts and major talent. He’s been an important American writer since the late 60s and taught writing for many years at Brown.  I loved Coover’s first novel THE ORIGIN OF THE BRUNISTS (and have the long-gestating sequel THE BRUNIST DAY OF WRATH high on my “to read” list.)

But THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION is something very special. It’s the story of a shy, lonely accountant who creates a baseball game that he plays on his kitchen table based on rolls of the dice and how it takes over his life. It’s been called “the best book written about baseball by anyone,” but it’s also about bigger things than baseball: Life. Creation. Tragedy. Sanity.

Even the name of our hero – J. Henry Waugh – is a veiled reference to “Yahweh,” so you know that Coover is fishing in deep waters.

This is one of those “you gotta read this” books.

Gotta cut if off at three. Back to work to try to measure halfway up to these Major Accomplishments.

Peter Seth

Peter Seth is the author of What It Was Like, today’s Barnes & Noble Daily Find. You can stay up-to-date on his blog posts at his website.

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