Gerald Howard

  • Can I Get a Witness?

    For decades, the forbidding bulk of the 808-page hardcover edition of Witness (1952)—Whittaker Chambers’s fam-ous apologia for his life as a Communist spy, his eventual political apostasy and religious rebirth, and his sensational agon with New Deal golden boy and probable fellow agent Alger Hiss—had resided on the bio-graphy section of our bookshelf, the legacy of a long-ago college paper written by my wife. I mentally filed it away in the category of books I was happy we owned (a valuable Random House first edition) and that I might get around to reading one of these years.

    The occasion to

  • The Boys on the Bus

    There is scarcely an aspect of the American character to which humor is not related, few which in some sense it has not governed. It has moved into literature, not merely as an occasional touch, but as a force determining large patterns and intentions. It is a lawless element, full of surprises.

    —Constance Rourke, American Humor

    . . . BECAUSE YOU SEE, the whole New Journalism thing was always more of a brand, a concerted PR campaign to aggregate a bunch of wildly disparate nonfiction writers of great talent and huge ambition into a movement than anything approaching a coherent critical

  • Not That Innocent

    IN THE BEGINNING—before uncounted billions of sexual images of every description and for every voyeuristic taste had become endlessly, inexhaustibly available for viewing—was the Dirty Word. The etymology of pornography, after all, derives from porne, the Greek word for prostitute, and graphein, the verb for “to write.” Written representations of erotic acts have long been associated with the toppling of barriers of all sorts, the brain famously being known as the most sensitive sex organ and the place where the sensations of the eye are processed. And not just sexual barriers, but political

  • Dame Theory

    In terms of posterity, the late British novelist Iris Murdoch, who died in 1999, would seem to have all the equipment a distinguished literary figure might want. She left the planet as Dame Iris, having been awarded an OBE for her achievements in fiction and philosophy. A mere two years after her death she was the subject of Peter J. Conradi’s authorized and highly intelligent biography Iris. This year saw the publication of the skillfully edited Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995, which among other things put her complicated, busy, extramarital and bisexual erotic and

  • Think Pieces

    Some years ago my employer, Penguin Books, asked me to read Early Auden (1981), by the young literature professor Edward Mendelson, with an eye toward our reprinting it as a paperback. At the time I had only a survey course’s worth of acquaintance with Auden’s canonical poems and knew just a bit about his life in the States. A study of his poetic output from 1927 through 1939 seemed, on the face of it, of small commercial value and marginal interest. Then I actually read it, and I got unmarginally interested real fast. Mendelson’s marvelous, granular feeling for Auden’s writing, penetrating

  • politics January 15, 2015

    Robert Stone, 1937–2015

    In the early ’70s three important novels were published that sorted through the wreckage of the Faustian project that was the American ’60s and reckoned up the costs of our excesses and hubris: Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, and Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers. And the greatest of these was Dog Soldiers.

    Stone, who died last weekend, did not invent the literary thriller, the novel that serves up action and adventure in exotic locales along with a strong dose of moral inquiry into matters of good and evil. Credit for that goes to Joseph Conrad and Graham

  • Grand Illusions

    BY THE AGE OF THIRTEEN, bloodthirsty baby-boomer bookworm that I was, I was already well read in the literature of World War II, with particular concentration on accounts of POW-camp breakouts and the exploits of fighter pilots. (My father had served in the Army Air Forces.) So my eye was easily caught by the ad for a novel titled Catch-22 by Joseph Heller in the back of the paperback copy of Fail-Safe that I had just finished (I was big on nuclear war too). A guy with goggles and a flight helmet, with a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aloft behind him—what was not to like?

    But when I got Catch-22

  • The Bottle and the Damage Done

    As a young literatus in training, I got myself early and often to the Lion’s Head, a legendary and now-extinct writers’ bar on Sheridan Square. Lined with the framed covers of books by its denizens, it offered an atmosphere of boozy bonhomie and the opportunity for literary stargazing of a special sort. (Hey, I’m urinating right next to Fred Exley!) And it didn’t take long before I was told that gin mill’s trademark anecdote: A nonscribbling civilian drops into the Lion’s Head for a couple of beers. After taking in the scene for a while, he remarks to the guy on the barstool next to him, “There

  • The Making of American Literature

    ABOUT FOUR-FIFTHS OF THE WAY through this vast and rich omnium-gatherum of epistolary activity by Malcolm Cowley, this almost throwaway line in a letter to Yvor Winters arrives: “I’m weak, deplorably weak, in knowledge of the sixteenth century lyric.” Nobody’s perfect! The remark doesn’t come off as disingenuous; instead, it reflects Cowley’s enduring engagement (he was then sixty-nine) with verse techniques and history as both a critic and a practicing poet himself.

    “Poet” ranks just above “translator” at the bottom of the multiple job descriptions usually applied to Malcolm Cowley, one of

  • Stocks and Bondage

    “DID YOU EVER NOTICE,” the Distinguished Older Editor asked in his patrician, Yale-inflected voice, “that it’s the slowest guys in one’s class who end up selling bonds on Wall Street?” One had heard that, yes. This was in 1985, about the last possible moment for that particular piece of old-school conventional wisdom to be entertained. By 1987, Tom Wolfe’s culture-conquering blockbuster The Bonfire of the Vanities had arrived to let the literary class know that money was king, money was cool, and maximalism was its proper style of representation.

    Wolfe’s first novel was the fiction equivalent

  • The List’s Seductions

    I MADE MY ENTRANCE into this world in the wee hours of September 9, 1950, a future bookworm and editor, the American reading public whose taste and custom I would later have designs on was caught up in the machinations of the Catholic Church and the criminal-justice system, the convulsions of the recently concluded Second World War and the anxieties of the newly developing cold war, the settling of the West and the folkways of the Old South, the intrigues of the courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It wanted to look younger and live longer, develop the power and maturity

  • culture April 27, 2011

    Performance Anxiety

    The La Ronde–like particulars of the making of Donald Cammell's film Performance obscure the fact that, in classic late-’60s fashion, it celebrates the liberating effects of madness, violence, and polymorphous perversity in a cerebral, even bookish manner. Cammell conceived this psychic collision/trans-migration between the Mob enforcer Chas—played with an unnerving authenticity of accent and demeanor by the upper-class James Fox—and the “stuck” rock star...

    Midway through Keith Richards’s largely genial Life, he uncorks a sudden barrage of invective against the film director Donald Cammell: “He was the most destructive little turd I’ve ever met. Also a Svengali, utterly predatory, a very successful manipulator of women. . . . Putting people down was almost an addiction for him.” Only the narcs and his frenemy Mick Jagger (mocked for his now infamous “tiny todger”) come in for comparable slagging off. Why Richards should harbor such animus against this relatively obscure figure will puzzle anyone unfamiliar with the seedier precincts of late-1960s

  • Performance Anxiety

    Midway through Keith Richards's largely genial Life, he uncorks a sudden barrage of invective against the film director Donald Cammell: "He was the most destructive little turd I've ever met. Also a Svengali, utterly predatory, a very successful manipulator of women. . . . Putting people down was almost an addiction for him." Only the narcs and his frenemy Mick Jagger (mocked for his now infamous "tiny todger") come in for comparable slagging off. Why Richards should harbor such animus against this relatively obscure figure will puzzle anyone unfamiliar with the seedier precincts of late-1960s

  • Descent of a Woman

    “I left Claude, the French rat.”

    This opening salvo in the verbal barrage that is Iris Owens’s sublime 1973 snarkfest After Claude is as good a first sentence as American fiction of the ’70s offers, right up there with “Fame requires every excess” (Great Jones Street) and “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic” (Ninety-two in the Shade). Mincing no words, Harriet, the laceratingly funny and thoroughly deluded antiheroine, launches her daisy-cutter diatribe with perfect economy. And, as she does throughout the book, she gets things exactly

  • Thirties Somethings

    On Sunday, December 22, 1940, at a crossroads outside El Centro, California, a husband and wife died in a car collision. The woman’s name and much of her private life were known to millions by virtue of a series of articles published by her sister in the New Yorker and the subsequent best-selling book My Sister Eileen (1938); in fact, a play based on that book would open four days later on Broadway to excellent reviews, followed by a record-shattering 864-performance run. The man, in contrast, was a novelist whose readers numbered in the thousands at best, according to the sales figures of his

  • culture September 04, 2009

    Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow

    Homer and Langley Collyer, two human relics from Edith Wharton’s New York, became legendary in late Spring of 1947 when they were discovered dead in their decaying Harlem town house on upper Fifth Avenue, immured behind a reported hundred tons of carefully hoarded debris. Most of that tonnage comprised books, as well as magazines and newspapers from as far back as a quarter century, stacked ceiling high to create a maze of tunnels, culs-de-sac, and trip-wired booby traps—one of which had collapsed on Langley, killing him. (Homer, the first brother to be found, died of apparent starvation;

  • The Puck Stopped Here

    If you are looking for signed first editions of the canonical novels of Don DeLillo, you need to be prepared to shell out roughly $375 for White Noise, $200 for Mao II, $175 for Underworld, and $160 for Libra. In contrast, a signed first edition of the 1980 autobiography Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League, by Cleo Birdwell, will set you back $425. How did an obscure book by a total unknown outstrip four of the most highly regarded works of fiction of the past three decades? Because, as DeLillo cognoscenti know, Cleo Birdwell is Don DeLillo,