Category Archives: Norman Mailer

Q&A: Evan Hughes, Literary Brooklyn

In his new book, Literary Brooklyn, Evan Hughes takes a close look at a handful of writers who have defined the borough, from (naturally) Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, Hart Crane, Norman Mailer, Paula Fox, Paul Auster, and more. Brooklyn’s current status as a literary hub has made it an attractive target for jokes, but Hughes resists both overhyping the place or indulging its critics. “[A] lot of people living in Brooklyn now might look back with nostalgia at the current era of creative ferment,” he writes, and the book’s mix of urban and literary history goes a long way toward explaining why the city has been so consistently attractive to novelists and poets.

If you happen to be in or near Brooklyn, there are a few upcoming events connected to the book. The launch party is August 16 (tomorrow night) at powerHouse Arena, and on August 26 Hughes and Nelson George will host a walking tour of literary spots in Brooklyn followed by a discussion of the book at Greenlight Bookstore. (More dates are on the book’s events page.)

Hughes answered questions about the book via email.

What is your personal relationship with Brooklyn, and how did it lead you to write this book?

I live in Brooklyn now, in Fort Greene, and I first moved there in 1998, after college. When I arrived, I knew only a little about its literary tradition and culture. It was a happy accident that Brooklyn is where I found a cheap apartment. (My own ugly place in Carroll Gardens for $750 a month—those were the days.) The discount from Manhattan is a common first impulse for writers to move to Brooklyn, and it has been for a long time, though the gap in expense has narrowed. But then, so often, a deeper relationship with the place takes hold. And when I get curious about a place, which I quickly did about Brooklyn, I want to know, What are the great novels or poems or memoirs about this place? Who are the key writers? And what portrait of the place have they created over time? Given not only Brooklyn’s rise to literary prominence but also its rich literary past, I was surprised to see that no one had written a book to address those questions about Brooklyn, to trace its history through its literature.

Literary Brooklyn seems to argue that the collected work of Brooklyn writers serves as a kind of imperfect but representative sample of the whole of American literature—Brooklyn is less like Manhattan and “more like America,” as you put it. Certainly there’s plenty about urban life, race, and assimilation in the books you discuss. But are there larger literary trends that Brooklyn doesn’t attend to?

That’s a good question. I can think of a couple examples. Brooklyn has more breathing room than Manhattan, crucially, but it’s still an urban place. Although Marianne Moore, say, wrote marvelously precise poems about animals and plants, Brooklyn lit as a whole is less focused on the natural world than is the literature of the plains states or the South or Texas, for instance. Also, Brooklyn fiction doesn’t have much in the vein of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton; it’s longer on grit and shorter on the society novel. Then again, you could say the same a number of major American cities, like Chicago; perhaps Manhattan is again more the exception than the rule (Washington Square, The Age of Innocence).

The first chapter of the book focuses on Walt Whitman, who wrote in the mid- to late 1800s, and chapter two leaps ahead to Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer wasn’t published in the United States until 1961. What was happening on Brooklyn’s literary front from the beginning of the 20th Century through the World War I era, when Miller began writing in earnest? Or is it more correct to ask about what wasn’t happening?

Not much of note was being published, but that’s not to say that nothing was being written, and it’s not to say that no books arose, indirectly, from that period. There were pockets of wealth, largely in manufacturing, but there wasn’t much of a leisure class with the time to pursue the arts and the connections that were often needed to get published. But that era saw a massive influx of immigrants from Europe, particularly Jewish immigration, that reshaped Brooklyn’s demographics and gave rise to important literature. Alfred Kazin, Daniel Fuchs, and Bernard Malamud were children of that immigrant wave, and in their work they often wrote about the experience of their own families of origin.

You mention a couple of Brooklyn writers in passing, including Gilbert Sorrentino and John Dos Passos, who didn’t quite rise to the level of his own chapter or chapter section. What criteria did an author need to meet to merit a fuller treatment? Were there writers who almost but didn’t quite make the cut?

You just mentioned two I would have liked to discuss at more length. There were tough choices, as probably there always are in writing a book. I focused mostly on authors who have not only lived in Brooklyn but also written about it, giving evidence of their relationship with the place. The book is urban history as well as literary biography, so part of my aim was to tell a story that captures the major trends that have shaped the place, and shaped the rest of urban America. So in some cases if I felt a certain theme or historical development was well-covered by discussing the life of work of one author, I would cover another similar writer more briefly.

The overall arc of the book suggests that Brooklyn’s literary culture slowly shifted from a proudly unschooled, outsiderish tribe—you point out that “Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, and Hart Crane together had not one semester of college”—to one more connected with “liberal brownstoners” and the Manhattan publishing world. How has that changed the tone and style of Brooklyn-based fiction? Is it now a more whitebread, “classy” creature that would exclude the likes of a Hubert Selby Jr.?

I think Selby might have a hard time getting published now; it wasn’t easy then, either. Last Exit to Brooklyn’s publication owed a lot to the bravery of Barney Rosset of Grove Press, who also endured censorship battles to bring Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s work to American readers. And there are writers in Brooklyn today who consider themselves autodidacts and outsiders—and the hard time many of them are having breaking through to larger audiences is the same hard time that Whitman had. It’s part of what we mean when we say “outsiders,” right? When we talk in a decade or five about the Brooklyn writers of today, we might be talking about a different cast than we talk about now. Also, in certain respects Brooklyn’s literary culture is much more inclusive than it was in the past. You have many more women being published now than in the past, and more non-white writers as well.

If it’s true that Brooklyn was a sanctuary for artists looking for cheap rent, how likely do you think it is that we’ll see the ascendance of a literary Staten Island or a literary Queens (something that’s already happening, on the evidence of recent books by Sam Lipsyte and Ha Jin)? What is Brooklyn’s expense doing to its status as a literary hub?

It’s certainly possible we’ll continue to see more literary activity in the other “outer boroughs,” but I think Brooklyn has the advantage of a century and a half of a storied literary past. That attracts literary types. And so do Brooklyn’s trademark brownstone streetscapes where, as L. J. Davis observed, “the 19th century city is surprisingly intact.” But the rising cost of living in Brooklyn is a threat when it comes to drawing writers, no doubt about it. A place that a lot of people want to be is a place that’s more expensive, and writers, as you may have heard, do not typically make a lot of money. I don’t think, however, that the vitality of Brooklyn as a subject is going anywhere. Whether Brooklyn is becoming a better or worse place to live is a matter of spirited and sometimes acrimonious debate, but I think it’s more a question for the newspaper than a question for the novel. Literature can thrive on prosperity and it can thrive on terrible struggle—and on the tension between the two.

Mailer’s Last Stand

The new issue of PEN America includes a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the 1986 PEN Congress, which was organized by Norman Mailer and brought in dozens of top-shelf writers: Czeslaw Milosz, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Susan Sontag, E.L. Doctorow, Mario Vargas Llosa, and so on. On the evidence of a pair of excerpts available online, squabbling was the order of the day during the conference: Saul Bellow and Günter Grass got into a brief slapfight about poverty in America, while during the closing session Mailer labored to explain why so only 16 of the 117 participants in the congress were women. Many notable female invitees turned him down, he explained, then climbed upon a high horse:

But you are all middle-class women, as I am a middle-class man, and in the middle class—if I may finish—the center of activity is obligatory excellence. There’s no excuse for the middle class if they don’t become progressively more excellent. I will take full responsibility for the list we ended up with. And I’ll take it without bitterness but with the whimsy, in my own heart, that there were six months for everyone to complain, and you did choose the week of the congress to come down. [SHOUTS FROM THE FLOOR.]

In New York magazine, Rhonda Koenig shed a little more light on how petty the discussions could get (including some parrying between Mailer and Koenig herself). Much of it seems to have been reflective of the Cold War politics of the time—when Updike praised the sweet corner mailbox provided for him by the U.S. Postal Service, Doctorow worried about the missile silo nearby, and just about everybody was unhappy that secretary of state George Shultz was invited to speak. And Koenig captures the congress’ raucous collapse:

As some women began leaving, shouting as they went, Mailer called after them “You can leave with the surrogate literary pope’s blessing, and “Thank you for your courtesy.” Norman Mailer had blown it yet again. Though all his remarks were correct, they weren’t the right ones to hurl at an audience of frazzled, indignant women, especially not by someone with Mailer’s history of sexual swagger and woman-baiting. Well, as Vargas Llosa rather sweetly put it, “Perhaps one good thing that comes from these conferences is that we see great writers are human, too.”

Links: Unstructured Play

Robert Coover: “A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth.”

Visiting the Orlando house where Jack Kerouac drafted The Dharma Bums.

Is blogging dying? (via) When people say this it’s a safe bet that what’s really being said is, “Blogging is dead as a way to make money.”

A reference librarian at Gallaudet University, a premier school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., on the deaf protagonist of Carson McCullersThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “He is a surprisingly sympathetic deaf character, given that this novel was written in 1940, which was not a period in which deaf people were understood and accepted in mainstream society. His deafness—or at least muteness—appears to be a device that allows him to work as a “blank slate” on which the other characters project their own understandings of his responses—or lack thereof—to their needs.”

Tales from Norman Mailer‘s Brooklyn lair.

Rachel Syme asks what would constitute a revival of 90s books. You could make a small shelf of what you might call alt-rock lit, including Pagan Kennedy‘s The Exes; Bruce ThomasThe Big Wheel, a roman a clef about his bandmate Elvis Costello; and, of course, Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity, increasingly an artifact from the time when record stores were cultural hubs.

Nelson Algren to a student: “Reading this was like trying to nap when somebody is pushing a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window.” Related: Chicago magazine’s Whet Moser unearths a 1988 feature on Algren chronicling his last days in Sag Harbor, where he lived—not particularly happily—in the orbit of Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and Betty Friedan.

[Paul] Auster has even published six of his novels in Danish before they appeared in his native English.”

Victoria Best writes on how Willa Cather‘s books were co-opted by critics for their own purposes, and adds some excellent additional thoughts on the role of the critic in general.

Mark McGurl versus Elif Batuman on MFA programs, with additional thoughts from D.G. Myers and Seth Abramson. Questions of historical accuracy and needless snark aside, I’m struck by this bit from McGurl: “[P]art of my motive for adopting this position [that postwar fiction is the richest and most multifaceted body of fiction available], at first, was that no one else has ever wanted to occupy it. Some instinct told me that praise would, in this case, be a more powerful critical instrument than blame, troubling my colleagues in creative writing (What, he doesn’t hate us? What’s up with that?) just as much as it would the members of my own uncreative tribe, the literary scholars, for whom contempt for the discipline of creative writing had become lazily automatic.” McGurl later expresses actual respect and admiration for the stuff, but to say you like something because it is “rhetorically strategic” to, even in part, seems disingenuous. (I haven’t read The Program Era, so I don’t know if that attitude works its way into the pages of the book itself.)

Richard Ford: “Michigan is the place we think of when we think about work in America. It’s where people stick a thermometer when they want to take the temperature of the economy and understand how people are getting along.” Recommendations of great Michigan fiction welcome. (via)

David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech inspired many of the graduates who were there. It may have done a little something for Mel Gibson too.

Links: Good Old Days

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson delivers helmet hits to today’s unthinking critics, who admire any piece of pabulum before them; to the mooing rabble that’s increasingly eager for books full of simple writing and easy lessons; and to the new generation of readers who’ve lost sight of what makes for good literature because the culture wars of the 90s made “canon” a four-letter word. Edmundson’s plea for more thoughtful reading is reasonable enough, but without much evidence for his claims of our downward spiral, the piece feels born out of nostalgia for a time that never really existed. Isn’t the point of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that it’s always been thus?

Richard Ford: “I wrote [his forthcoming novel, Canada,] for the American audience, and they are not interested in politics. This is a human interest story.”

The popularity of e-books mean we no longer get to show off what we’re reading on the train—or easily peek at what others on the train are reading.

Joyce Carol Oates on writing about widowhood in fact and fiction. “Fiction is much better for some things, definitely. The sort of thing I want to do is strike a resonant chord of universality in other people, which is best done in fiction.”

Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup channels Katie Roiphe (remember?) and wonders why our fictional characters can’t be more busily fucking. This article is shorter, at least.

Sort of related: the true story of the porn movie Norman Mailer almost made.

Do we need an American Writers Museum? (My reflex is to say yes, and if it got built I’d visit it, but efforts like this always remind me of “Rock N Roll Hall of Fame,” a song by the punk band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments that mocked the useless, lesson-free ephemera that tends to show up in these places: “I don’t wanna see the liver of David Crosby! I don’t want to see all the drugs I couldn’t take!”)

At some point I’ll go through all the author names collected on the sidebar of this blog and see how the gender breakdown goes. I suspect I’ll do no better than what the literary organization VIDA discovered when it looked at the bylines and reviewed authors in magazines like the Atlantic, Granta, Boston Review, Tin House, and more. If so, what would it mean? Knowing the proportions doesn’t explain the causes. Slate‘s Meghan O’Rourke suggests “it may be that more men than women write what editors consider “important” books—in part (and this is speculation) because more men than women write about international affairs and politics.” (So why did I blog about Richard Ford?) In a related post on VIDA’s website, Percival Everett argues that the words we use to praise books have gender prejudices built into them: “I cannot recall a novel written by a man that was described as domestic…. Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy?”

The latest entry in This Recording’s “Why and How to Write” series includes comments from Charles Baxter, Flannery O’Connor, and Joan Didion, who noted the benefits of sleeping near your manuscript: “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.” (via)

The National Post discovers The Abaton, a literary journal published by Des Moines University, a medical school, and ponders the number of fiction writers who’ve also been doctors.

Another report from the Jaipur Literature Festival panel on the crisis in American fiction: “Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and its success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel…There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humboldt’s Gift, nothing happens at all.”

Karen Russell on how her debut novel, Swamplandia!, may or may not have been influenced by Katherine Dunn‘s Geek Love: “I’m afraid to read it now because I’m sure that she’ll take me to the People’s Court for plagiarism. I think that a billion years ago, when I first read it, it must have been the proto-proto-influence. She made it possible to have an eccentric family that exists off the grid and to use it to explore universal family themes, which just ends up highlighting how the most mundane sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts that any family in New Jersey can relate to … it’s that, but instead there’s Arty the flipper boy. I owe her a great debt.”

Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

Links: The Big Tent

The National Book Festival is this Saturday on the National Mall. Enough people have confused me for an expert to ask if I have tips regarding what to do there and how to do it, but my suggestions are all pretty obvious and simple. Bring an umbrella, regardless of what the forecast says; make a point to at least walk through the Pavilion of the States, in which every state has a table plugging its literature (it’s as close at the event will get to promoting small-press books); and get a seat early for the bigger names. (There are probably people already parked for James Patterson.) Lastly, don’t stand in line for those C-SPAN tote bags; C-SPAN brought plenty, and one must preserve one’s dignity. The lineups are largely big names and self-explanatory, but seek out David A. Taylor, who’ll be discussing his history of the WPA Writers’ Project, Soul of a People; I interviewed Taylor for the blog earlier this year.

Marianne Wiggins‘ list of the best works of American fiction.

John Krasinski discussed his film version of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men shortly before David Foster Wallace died.

The Wall Street Journal has an excerpt from Look at the Birdie, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s unpublished short fiction.

The most powerful influence on David Updike‘s fiction wasn’t his dad—it was Ann Beattie.

The Guardian uses Granta‘s Chicago issue as an opportunity to wonder if the big-city novel is dead.

Mark Twain, animal rights activist.

It’s the 25th anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany, where Mary Gordon may or may not have tried to slug Norman Mailer in the middle of a panel discussion.

Catherine Corman‘s photography book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City, which has a preface by Jonathan Lethem, sounds fascinating, and it has a stellar Web site to match.

Links: Pocket Symphony

James Ellroy has very strong opinions about classical music: “‘I dig late Mozart,’” he says. ‘There’s a hair of dissonance, there’s more vavoom, the late symphonies. I got Böhm, the Berlin Philharmonic. I love the 21st Piano Concerto – “Elvira Madigan” – Sinfonia Concertante, the Clarinet Concerto. But that’s it. Haydn you can have, Handel you can have, Baroque I can’t listen to.’”

Matthew Yglesias
is still catching hell for liking Moby-Dick. A Mother Jones blogger retorts: “I didn’t care for it. I’ll spare you the details since I’d just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that?” Yglesias did make an error in saying that you can’t understand America without it; the only book for which that’s true is the Bible, and then just the angry parts.

“Mailer felt obliged to make literature, or better yet a demonic theoretical broadside, out of his hump-piles and pungent smoke.”

Montana: America’s new home for werewolf fantasy novels.

The Ransom Center has a host of online materials relating to Edgar Allan Poe, in relation to the exhibit that opens there next week.

Eudora Welty‘s One Writer’s Beginnings helped keep Mary Chapin Carpenter from becoming miserable when she was starting to play her songs at D.C. clubs.

Production of the film version of Don DeLillo‘s End Zone is on hold.

The Chicago Tribune‘s Julia Keller, who once worried in public whether a graphic-novel adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report represented “an advance or retreat for civilization” (no, really), is now sweating a graphic-novel adaptation to Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451: “I find myself wishing graphic novels weren’t so hip; their popularity has made me question my own motives. Am I just trying to sound cool? Is an affection for graphic novels by anyone over 25 simply the literary equivalent of buying a sports car or getting a face-lift?”

There’s a seminar on September 15 on whether Mark Twain would use Twitter. For some reason, Michael Buckley will be a part of this; frankly, I’d be more interested in reading a long essay by Twain about “What the Buck?”

It’s Labor Day weekend, so I likely won’t be around here until after the holiday. In the meantime, you can read the story about Studs Terkel, Labor Day, the yuppie couple, and the bus stop in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—over and over again.

Links: The Meta Angels of Our Nature

The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, lists 61 essential postmodern reads. Lists are designed to be argued over, so there’s no real point in interrogating all the selections. One thing, though: Reading Percival Everett‘s I Am Not Sidney Poitier a few weeks back, I didn’t think for a moment about whether it was “postmodern” or not. At the risk of invoking some ungainly term like “post-postmodern,” it may be that the postmodern novel is just something that happened, not something that’s happening—a method of wrestling with an increasingly mediated existence in the years before mediated existences became commonplace, before a ten-year-old kid could embed video and songs on a MySpace page and make virtual friends with some stranger in Bali. A lot of the stuff on the list, like I Am Not Sidney Poitier, seems more like metafiction than postmodernism, which aren’t synonymous terms. At any rate, I’m sure one of those ten-year-olds will grow up to write a novel that sorts it all out for us.

Scott McLemee considers the new biography of Saul Bellow‘s ill-fated colleague, Isaac Rosenfeld.

A book on Flannery O’Connor‘s Catholicism is in the works.

And a film based on Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth might be.

Also in the works: A documentary about bad writing. The trailer features George Saunders delivering one of the smartest and most succinct explanations of what bad writing is that I’ve heard.

The Ransom Center has an online exhibit of artifacts from Norman Mailer‘s coverage of Apollo 11.

And Ted Gioia considers whether the moon landing was science fiction writers’ finest hour, and one from which it never quite recovered.

There’s too much damn fiction from Montana writers coming out. (Though I did enjoy Kevin Canty‘s new collection, Where the Money Went.)

Lionel Shriver: “I probably had more reading stamina and much loftier literary tastes at the age of 16 than I do now.”

“I am a man in my mid-50’s and starting to feel the weight of the years. I am wondering if there are some good books for me to read that address my station in life. I have never read any Updike or Roth, but I have the impression these authors address the concerns of the aging male. Do you have recommendations?

The Elegant Variation has just wrapped up a four-part interview with Joseph O’Neill.

Museums dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are celebrating anniversaries.

H.L. Mencken once inscribed a book for Carl Van Vechten with a list of the kinds of alcohol he drank during the three years he was writing it. It’s a long list.

Links: International Anthem

Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666 may be the Great American Novel.” Well, can’t blame a critic for trying.

In related news, on Sunday National Book Award chief Harold Augenbraum will appear on WordSmitten, where, if the rhetoric of the accompanying press release is to be trusted, he will all but strap on the brass knuckles and set to pummeling Horace Engdahl live on air. Actually, looks like he will arrive brandishing…a reading list.

Speaking of which: A recommended reading list for Barack Obama includes a pair of novels—David Lozell Martin‘s Our American King and Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?—as well as Tobias Wolff‘s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War.

Toni Morrison responds to John Updike‘s review of A Mercy: “‘He says I like starting stories smack in the middle of things and you don’t know what’s going on,’ she says softly, a smile on her lips and a spark in her eye. ‘I was laughing at that because I thought, all stories start in the middle of things!’”

One of the more entertaining sections of William Least Heat-Moon‘s new book, Roads to Quoz, is a defense of the Beats framed around his visit with Jim Canary, the caretaker of the scroll version of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road. “Sometimes I wish he would have written on sheets, but then I wouldn’t have had this job,” Canary tells the Loyola University Phoenix.

“His Usual Obscene and Bitter Style”

After Norman Mailer died last year, the Washington Post FOIA’d the FBI’s files on the author. And inside that file (165 of its 171 pages were released) was evidence of … not much—except, perhaps, J. Edgar Hoover‘s pettiness. The Mailer file started in 1962, when the author called Jacqueline Kennedy excessively soft-spoken; from then on, the file mainly became a stack of press clippings and Mailer book excerpts, though occasionally FBI agents were a little more nosy, impersonating friends to extract his current whereabouts. But one bit in the story suggests that at least one anonymous Fed had to play book reviewer. An angry, partisan book reviewer:

In 1969, at Hoover’s direction, an agent prepared a five-page, single-spaced review of Mailer’s book “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” about the 1968 political conventions. The review carefully itemized all six references made to the FBI.

“It is written in his usual obscene and bitter style,” the agent wrote. “Book contains reference to . . . uncomplimentary statements of the type that might be expected from Mailer regarding the FBI and the Director.”

One question: Why won’t the pioneering washingtonpost.com post documents from the FBI file alongside the article?