A supporter came by yesterday and left a donation of hundreds of books in excellent condition, every one of them the kind we don’t sell. Ludlum, Patterson, Clancy, Coben, DeMille, Cussler, Forsythe, Childs… it’s all here: every suspense paperback of the last ten years plus some, sitting out front, for free.

Every now and then the novels of Australian novelist Patrick White show up, and there they sit still, unbought. White won the Nobel in 1974, spurring reprints of his entire oeuvre, its subjects (Empire, Victorians, Australia, passion) ideal for cover art that would disguise his work as historical romance. Voss, published in 1957, surely blew the minds of readers expecting something steamy and easy. Most strikingly, it resembles and prefigures the brutal, Transcendental works of Cormac McCarthy. I’d go so far as to make the case for White as the Big Cormac Attack’s chief antecedent: a dip into the fierce and startling work of this writer puts the lie to the timeworn Faulkner/McCarthy comparison. Voss is every bit the equal of those American historical 80s-straddling monsters Beloved and Blood Meridian, and its long neglect should come to an end.

I think no other book has impressed me as deeply as McCarthy’s The Road (2006). Its hard to find readers of the novel who didn’t pick it up in the afternoon or evening only to read the last page sometime in the late hours before dawn. It is in that very small company of novels that hold the reader hostage, body and soul. Is it horror, science fiction, prophecy, or as one friend tells me, a love story about a boy and his father? Certainly no other book contains as many superlative passages: scariest scene in any book or film? Check. Bleakest futuristic vision? Yep. Best final paragraph? Easily. No campaign to care for the Earth will ever come on as strong, not least because the writer knows our human nature. There are lights in the ashes, but dim. We are fucked.

One book that would certainly make the shortlist of fever dreams a few citations below McCarthy’s apocalyptic opus would be Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), a painstaking, dark procession from isolated childhood to adult madness so resonant in its evocation of the Pacific Northwest landscape it alone made one writer friend of mine move to Seattle from the East twenty years ago, and stay. Robinson broke fifteen years of silence after this book with a pair of cloistered, clerical novels that would be better appreciated in their own right had it not been for the surgical devastation wrought by her first book.

Another literary novel in genre garb is Robert Stone’s A Flag For Sunrise (1982). This book was everywhere thirty years ago: a breathtakingly real spy story set in a barely fictionalized Guatemala and Nicaragua shortly before their bloody civil wars. The strongest impression this novel leaves is an undeniable and unsettling verisimilitude – one thinks Stone must have known these characters, and plenty of them are bad people of the kind whose acquaintance can itself be deadly. The tautness of the narrative as it switches back and forth between three main characters’ destinies – yes, I’ll say it - undermines the deeper quality of the book’s language and surprise that has nothing to do with plot, a bubbling spring of authentic, shocking voices, references and delicate contexts Stone seems to pull in from a world one can’t help but think he knows too well. When you see that part of the novel was published in magazine form in 1977, two years before the success of the Sandinistas, it seems uncannily prophetic, a transmogrified, secret history. I read it first in my early 20s, a period of literary omnivorousness I’ve only approached recently in quantity and never in indiscriminate scope, and I’m afraid I forgot or never apprehended the book’s deeper channels, instead remembering its ‘behind the headlines’ aura and rush of suspense and filed Stone away as a kind of slacker LeCarre (whose work from the 70s is absolutely first-rate IMHO). I only came to this book after recently picking up his stunning debut Dog Soldiers and being urged by the customer who recommended that to pick this up as well. Now I have to read everything else he’s written.

Can fiction be used for evil? Does bad fiction whose intentions are harmless damage our common world? I think first of movies and TV because I haven’t forced myself to read a bad book since trying Ayn Rand at the appropriate age of 15. (I’m not pushing some easy liberal agenda here – I’m no longer American exactly and not following that game - and have started to suspect the most generous interpretation of ‘No justice, no peace’ is ‘We will not rest until we are exterminated’.) I know McCarthy is supposedly a conservative by some broad definition as was Patrick White for that matter: for all I know Stone could be too, and Robinson is a Christian.

No, I’m thinking of wrong art like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Returns where he puts an American Soviet among interior design from the Terror and in the costumes of Occupy. I’m thinking of Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode where he plays a banker so immersed in Dickens he won’t relate to real people. To string one argument onto the end of an unanswered question here – it is the literature that doesn’t lie that leads out into the actual world (prescriptive works are plowshares no worker will pick up). Maybe it develops, at its highest levels, in tandem with our need for it, to combat the soporifics of our separate eras that would lull us into unfeeling, waking sleep: the factory, consumerism, Empire, Communism, the security state. It’s not a sideline or an eccentric hobby but a kind of life one can enter and leave at will across the years. It’s waiting for you here.

 

Want to help us double the quantity of our fiction titles? Go to https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/under-the-volcano-books-texas-book-run/x/6410484 and contribute to the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that will make our selection like no other in Mexico, at lower prices than ever. (Link to https://www.facebook.com/TexasBookRun on Facebook.) Our deadline is midnight on Tuesday, April 29th!

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