The Raconteur is 314 pages long and comprises twenty-nine pieces of fiction, verse, memoir, criticism, reportage and interview. It begins with a fifty-eight page, un-credited dictionary of American literature. It ends with five paragraphs of Dylan Moore at the grave of Billy Wilder in Westwood Village Memorial Park. The pictures include Toni Morrison, Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Martha Gellhorn, a GI with brandished bayonet, a mid-west cornfield, a fried egg sunny side up. "The Raconteur" aspires to be Granta; it isn't, not yet but could be.
The editors adore their subject. It is manifest. Gary Raymond was eighteen, a guitar over his shoulder, when he left a tiny university town in Wales. It sizzles with the most quotable writers. Lincoln, on being introduced to Harriet Beecher-Stowe, says "So this is the little woman who made this great war." Philip K Dick declares that "we live in world in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, the government..." This was 1978. "A writer sometimes needs to be able" says Raymond Carver "to just stand and gape at this or that thing- a sunset or an old shoe- in absolute and simple amazement."
It contains much I did not know. That "Lolita", when it at last made it to print, sold 100000 copies in three months. Or that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was as much a theatrical as a literary phenomenon. Three million viewers had seen it staged by 1900. Theodore Roosevelt suffered chronic asthma. "Scufuffle" is a word from South Africa denoting a large group of footprints.
On the critical front Susie Wild revisits McSweeny's and Tom Foley the Beats. Allegra Goodman sees the hazards in writing workshops, where everyone is a critic, that writers lose sight of their objectives. A commentator convincingly sees the Shakespearean qualities in "the Wire". Less convincing is a piece on Dorothy Parker which is overly solipsistic. A couple of pieces barely make the jump from rambling bloggery to writing proper.
"America" is handsomely produced by Gomer of Llandysul, West Wales. There is the odd inelegancy of phrasing. Print publishing's response to the internet by way of fine editions is labelled "bibiophile porn". I am not quite sure what constitutes "a pixelated elderly lady." I would not agree that nothing happened on Broadway between Eugene O'Neill and "Angels in America". "Sweet Bird of Youth" , "Zoo Story", even "Company", did.
The attention of the proof-reader lapses at times. That Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in Hebrew is a scorching error. Waugh's "the Loved One" is turned plural. Eminent historian Richard Hofstadter becomes Hoffstdeter. Martin Scorsese becomes Scorcese
The best of critical writing is a spur to action. "America" made me want to find out why Gore Vidal disliked Updike's "Rabbit" trilogy quite so much. It made me want to discover Allegra Goodman, to blow the dust off travel-worn copies of "Herzog" and "the Bonfire of the Vanities", to seek out Poe and "Moby Dick". For a book to overflow with enthusiasm; that is no small thing.
1 June 2012