Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Anyone who’s been to Bourbon Street knows: the Big Easy contains its share of unique and interesting characters. It didn’t surprise the John Kennedy’s Toole’s fictitious account of the area would do the same. A Confederacy of Dunces introduced to literature the most eccentric and entertaining character I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. He took the form of Ignatius J. Reilly: one time college professor turned hot dog vendor. And how best to craft a story regarding the most original character ever devised? Why with a host of characters each distinctive in their own rights. A comic masterpiece resulted.

Aside from providing him a quirky personality that set a new standard for peculiarity, Mr. Toole ensured his protagonist showed his originality. Upon introducing Ignatius on page one, he cleverly combined how the character’s outer appearance reflected his personality.

…Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly. The hunting cap prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius. The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar. The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life. (Location 71)

Keep in mind this description occurred on the first page. Upon taking on the dual roles of hot dog vendor by day and political agitator by night, Ignatius modified his wardrobe. He switched to a veritable pirate costume. This one included a plastic cutlass and an earring. He wore them to both jobs. Now that’s unconventional.

In addition to his unusual attire, Ignatius had interesting philosophical leanings.

As a medievalist Ignatius believed in the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune, a central concept in De Consolatione Philosophiae, the philosophical work which had laid the foundation for medieval thought. Boethus, the late Roman who had written the Consolatione while unjustly imprisoned by the emperor, had said that a blind goddess spins us on a wheel, that our luck comes in cycles. (Loc 497)

Ignatius held a very high opinion of himself; believing all of society inferior. That’s remarkable for a 30 year old unemployed man living with his widowed mother. He engaged in hobbies that reflected his grandiose view of his genius. They included watching television programs while complaining about their degeneracy. He would frequent movies often and do the same. For some reason, he participated in these activities alone. Ignatius noted, “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.” (Location 1064)

Ignatius had a penchant for fibbing. On one occasion he commented:

When Fortuna spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life. Ignatius was about to say this to himself; then he remembered that he went to the movies almost every night, no matter what way Fortuna was spinning. (Loc 863)

Ignatius convinced himself that he was working on a “lengthy indictment against our century.” (Loc 146) The reality of what he completed often didn’t correspond with what he convinced himself he completed. His mother (finally) pressured him to get a job. She required financial assistance to pay someone whose car she damaged. Ignatius responded:

“Anyway it is inconceivable that I should get a job. I am very busy with my work at the moment, and I feel that I am entering a very fecund stage. Perhaps the accident jarred and loosened my thought. At any rate, I accomplished a great deal today.” (Loc 776)

The writing session he referenced produced one paragraph in a Big Chief writing tablet.

To accompany Ignatius on his fictitious quests, the author surrounded him with a series of characters each eccentric in his/her own way. His erstwhile college sweetheart, Myrna Minkoff, sent him letters imploring him to get his life in order. Patrolman Mancuso performed stakeouts in some very odd places. And, perhaps, Ignatius’ mother, Irene, served as the strangest of all. No matter how disrespectful, she tolerated Ignatius’ behavior.

John Kennedy Toole crafted a comic tour de force with A Confederacy of Dunces. It contained an even wittier corps of characters than Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. That’s quite an achievement. Unfortunately, Fortuna’s wheel did not bode well for the author. He passed away eleven years before the book’s publication. Shortly, thereafter she spun it once again. This time it landed more favorably. This book, his first novel, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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Book Review – The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer selected an extraordinary topic for his “true life novel.” In The Executioner’s Song, he provided a detailed take on the life and subsequent death of Gary Gilmore. The latter’s cold-blooded killings of two innocent men led to the State of Utah sentencing him to death in 1976. To add a twist to this saga, Gilmore didn’t contest the court’s decision. He actually wanted to be killed by a firing squad. At one point he even asked his attorneys: “Now don’t I have the right to die?…Can’t I accept my punishment?” (Page 510) Mr. Mailer took readers along the condemned man’s journey.

This set-up drew me into the story. I found myself anxiously flicking through the e-book version’s screens to discover the next event. While reading the opening sections that described Gilmore’s life following his parole, the author made me sympathetic for his protagonist. One passage reflected my own views rather well.

Court had seen some of his artistic work. Before he met him, Brenda had shown Mont Court a couple of Gary’s drawings and paintings. The prison information he was receiving from Oregon made it clear that Gilmore was a violent person, yet in these paintings Court was able to see a part of the man simply not reflected in the prison record. Mont Court saw tenderness. He thought, Gilmore can’t be all evil, all bad. There’s something that’s salvageable. (Page 55)

The author even added an element of sensitivity to Gilmore. He did so by detailing his relationship with Nicole; the true love of his life. In fact, while awaiting his execution on Utah’s Death Row, his one wish was for the opportunity to see her once more.

Mr. Mailer crafted his prose in an unorthodox way. I interpreted the novel’s structure as a series of brief vignettes held together through the overall narrative’s scope. Each paragraph read like a newspaper blurb. It helped make the 1,109 pages read faster than I expected.

In spite of both the unpleasant subject matter and unusual presentation, Mr. Mailer worked in extraordinary uses of language. Some of them read more like verse than prose.

Overhead was the immense blue of the strong sky of the American West. That had not changed. (Page 20)

“Brenda, I am not insensitive,” said Gary, “to being called insensitive.” (Page 61)

It was as if somebody had hidden sparklers inside her heart in that place where she had expected to find nothing. (Page 172)

It was like waking up from a dream to answer a knock on the door but the knock came from the person you had just kissed in the dream. (Page 349)

Certain kinds of bad news were like mysterious lumps that went away if you paid no attention. (Page 475)

Whole fields of the soul could be defoliated and never leave a trace. (Page 419)

We are only stronger than the things we overcome. (Page 494)

My main criticism related to the book’s length. The beginning section that covered the period prior to Gilmore’s killings engaged me. I nervously read as quickly as I could. The author did an outstanding job piquing my interest in discovering the next event. After the killings, the story became rather cumbersome and even dull. I thought the sections on the individuals battling for the rights to Gilmore’s story too overdrawn. They also lacked the intensity of the book’s beginning. So did the parts on the efforts of various organizations to stay the execution. (By this time, is there anybody living in the United States who doesn’t know how this story ended?)

About a third of the way through the book I completely lost all empathy I had for the main characters. I’ll avoid spoilers for those interested in reading. I will note that depraved would be the best word I could use to describe these people’s behavior. Add to that the vicious nature of Gilmore’s crimes and the last 800 pages became a tortuous slog.

For Mr. Mailer’s efforts The Executioner’s Song received the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  That’s quite an achievement for a story that’s source material included myriad interviews surrounding true events. It’s also a fitting encomium for a work that took such an unconventional approach to an unorthodox subject. Still, I’m glad the author never wrote a sequel to it.

Book Review – The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk crafted the most brilliant bildungsroman I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The Caine Mutiny traced Willie Keith’s development from his pampered beginnings, his commissioning and early years as a naval officer through his participation in the most insubordinate act an armed services member can commit. To add even more drama to the later incident, it took place in the eye of a typhoon during World War II. If there’s a better war novel out there, I haven’t experienced it.

While the novel traced Mr. Keith’s maturation, three articles delineated in the Navy Regulations served as the cohesive theme holding the story together. These rules described the conditions under which a subordinate may relieve his superior of command. One has to credit Mr. Wouk for combining these disparate elements into a single story.

It would be hard to imagine more serious topics than those chosen by the author. I found it quite interesting that he began his career as a comedy writer. The entertaining way he managed to add humorous quips to the narrative made the reading much more enjoyable. Here’s Mr. Wouk’s depiction of Willie’s first meeting with the then skipper of the Caine, Captain DeVrees.

“Collared him did you? Nice work,” said a voice full of irony and authority, and the captain of the Caine came to the doorway. Willie was even more startled by him. The captain was absolutely naked. In one hand he carried a Lifebuoy soap, in the other a lighted cigarette. He had a creased old-young face, blond hair, and a flabby white body. “Welcome aboard, Keith!”

“Thank you, sir.” Willie felt an urge to salute, to bow, in some way to express reverence for supreme authority. But he remembered a regulation about not saluting a superior when he was uncovered. And he had never seen a more uncovered superior than his commanding officer.” (Location 1437)

Thomas Keefer, one of Willie’s shipmates and a budding novelist, observed: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” (Location 2020)

When Willie expressed his admiration for Keefer’s writing ability, the later provided him with a tutorial on how to write an official Navy report. It read like a passage out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

“Are you kidding?” said the communications officer. “I wrote that as fast as I could type it. Probably a minute and a half. You just have to develop an ear for Navy prose, Willie. For instance, note that split infinitive in paragraph three. If you want a letter to sound official, split an infinitive. Use the word ‘subject’ very often. Repeat phrases as much as possible. See my beautiful reiteration of the phrase ‘subject man.’ Why, it’s got the hypnotic insistence of a bass note in a Bach fugue.” (Location 3398)

The author included one conversation with semi-comic effect. Here’s part of an exchange between Willie and Ed, the captain of another ship, regarding the rules governing a commanding officer’s removal.

“…Want me to tell you something? One night down in Noumea I got drunk with the exec—under the Iron Duke (Captain Sammis), this was—and he quoted Article 184 to me by heart. And he said he was just waiting for the Duke to do that one really impossible thing, and he’d nail him. But he never mentioned it to me again. You should have seen the way Sammis made him crawl, too—“

“They never do that one thing, Ed. That’s the catch.” (Location 9703)

Mr. Wouk crafted the novel in a way that stimulated my curiosity for what would happen next. He wrote the events leading up to the mutiny against Captain Queeg brilliantly. The subsequent court martial also read well. I found myself wavering on whether or not the captain deserved to be removed. In the events leading up to his displacement, I agreed with the officers’ analysis of his behavior. During the court martial I agreed with the JAG that Willie and the executive officer acted improperly. Now I’m not sure. That makes me want to re-read a book I just finished.

I found Willie’s development absolutely outstanding. His father wrote him a letter stating:

It seems to me that you’re very much like our whole country—young, naïve, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock. (Location 1237)

The author did an exceptional job animating these traits in his protagonist throughout the novel. Marcel Proust once wrote, “We don’t receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us, or spare us.” Willie embodied this sentiment. I liked the ways he came to discover and struggle with his personal shortcomings on his own.

I’d classify this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel as a masterpiece of historical fiction. Willie Keith’s development amidst the backdrop of real events made an outstanding read. At the book’s conclusion, I found myself wanting to learn about the next stages of Willie’s life. Mr. Wouk celebrated his 101st birthday in May. Would he be open to writing a sequel after all these years?

Book Review – The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s brilliant character crafting made me sympathize with the communist sympathizer in The Sympathizer. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction earned the honor for that feat alone. The author didn’t stop there, however. He presented not just a unique take on the experience of a North Vietnamese agent under deep cover as an officer in the South Vietnamese secret police. This gifted novelist also delivered an exceptional character study of a “man of two minds.”

I liked Mr. Nguyen’s atypical choice of character names; or rather, in many cases, the lack thereof. He told the majority of the story through the nameless narrator’s confession; a person whom others in the story simply referred to by his military rank: “Captain”. We also met the “General”, his wife “Madame” and—most memorably—“the crapulent Major.” These unorthodox apellations gave the tale a unique character all its own.

It’s difficult for a novelist to generate reader sympathy for an unreliable narrator. It’s nearly impossible to do so with one who is a traitor and engages in morally objectionable activities to cover it up. I won’t give away spoilers, but several of the Captain’s actions caused his guilt to overwhelm him to the point of making him hallucinate.

While the narrator may have had misgivings about his dubious conduct, he didn’t allow them to influence his behavior. The author, therefore, humanized the character through his recollections of his departed mother. While consulting on a film regarding the war, the Captain painted her name on one of the prop gravestones in a cemetery. He explained why:

At least in this cinematic life she would have the resting place fit for a mandarin’s wife, an ersatz but perhaps, fitting grave for a woman who was never more than an extra to anyone but me. (Location 2589)

Most authors insert clever uses of language into their works. Nguyen included more than most. Here are my favorites.

Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of my body. (Location 1934)

What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? (Location 411)

Before the communists won, foreigners were victimizing and terrorizing and humiliating us, now it’s our own people victimizing, terrorizing and humiliating us. I suppose that’s improvement. (Location 2554)

One only needed to ask why the idealist was not on the front line of the particular battle he had chosen. (Location 3536)

And the most notable: “We would all be in Hell if convicted of our thoughts.” (Location 3368)

I was suffering from an eye injury when I began reading The Sympathizer. Because of that, I opted to listen to Francois Chau’s audio narration of the book. While I thought it excellent, I did catch one mistake. The line in the text read, “Innocence and guilt. These are cosmic issues.” (Location 1756) During the narration, Mr. Chau said comic as the penultimate word. I point this out because the error altered the sentence’s meaning.

The author set the pace and delivered tension exceptionally well through most of the book. The most noteworthy example occurred towards the beginning when the Captain and General evacuated South Vietnam. In one of the most outstanding passages in modern literature the aircraft came under enemy fire. Between scenes like this and the various tense conversations the sympathizer had with other characters the novel held my attention.

This is why the Captain’s interaction with the Commandant and the Commissar disappointed me. At this point the book became heavily philosophical. While relevant to the story it froze the pace. This section reached its climax when the captors placed the Captain under duress and forced him to answer the question, “What is more precious than independence and freedom?” I remembered that issue coming up earlier in the book. The drawn-out interrogation caused me to lose interest in the answer.

In spite of this one shortcoming I’d still recommend reading the novel. Mr. Nguyen found creative ways to keep the story interesting. During this portion of the narrative the author wove in a surprise plot twist. In addition the Commissar expressed his concurrence with Ayn Rand’s observation that those who support communism never lived under it.

In the opening of the book, Mr. Nguyen wrote, “After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you.” (Location 173) The brilliance of The Sympathizer shows how both can influence the same author.

Book Review – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It’s never a good sign when a novel reminds me of something my lawyer told me to do. He gave me the following instructions, “whenever you’re on the stand, be brief. Get right to the point. Keep it simple. When people ramble they give the prosecutor lots of things to question.” As I am a free man who’s never been convicted of criminal wrongdoing, I think it fair that I use the same criteria as a book reviewer. Unfortunately, the inordinate length of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, gave me a lot of things to question while reading it.

Overall, I liked the premise of the book. Tartt presented the tale of Theodore Decker, a thirteen year old who lost his mother in a terrorist attack. He responded to this tragedy in the way one would expect a troubled young man to behave: through drugs, alcohol and art theft. Okay, maybe the later was an atypical reaction, but he did eventually graduate to consumer fraud.

In spite of the protagonist’s bad behavior, the author presented his story in a way that made me wish him the best. I thought of him as a Holden Caulfield type only lacking in self-restraint. Part of my empathy stemmed from having lost my own mother four years ago. One of the lines in the story really resonated with me.

Every new event – everything I did for the rest of my life – would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer part of, an ever growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away. (Page 89)

It’s a sad thought, but, nevertheless, an accurate one regarding the loss of a loved one.

The author presented some good uses of language. I liked the expression, “oddly screaming silence.” (Page 45) Another memorable passage read: “the blue-green transparency of the stones, their wicked three a. m. gleam, were as much a part of her as the color of her eyes or the spicy dark smell of her hair.” (Page 344) Lyrical flourishes like this made the long narrative a bit more appealing.

The Goldfinch contained a lot of memorable characters. Theo made for a very compelling protagonist. The members of his surrogate family, the Barbours, each had unique quirks that kept me wondering what unusual things they would do next. I also enjoyed reading about Theo’s father and his “associates” in Las Vegas. To put it in the most polite language I can, Xandra, the father’s girlfriend, was a train wreck as a step mom. Please remember the book as a work of fiction when I write: that enhanced my enjoyment of Xandra’s character.

With that out of the way, I did find serious flaws in the book. As I wrote earlier, it could’ve used some serious editing. The Goldfinch came in at a monumental 775 pages. A number of scenes in this book were way too drawn out. In the beginning when Theo and his mother traveled to the museum I almost gave up on the book. As I kept thinking “get to the point, get to the point” so often my mind drifted away from the story. I’m not going to mention every scene that could’ve been paired down, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this book could’ve been cut by at least 300 pages.

And then there was the exposition. Here’s Mr. Silver’s description of his origins in the town of Canarsie.

“My family, they were there for four generations. My grandfather Saul ran one of the first kosher restaurants in America, see. Big, famous place. Closed when I was a kid, though. And then my mother moved us to Jersey after my father died so we could be closer to my uncle Harry and his family.” (Page 311)

Mr. Silver played a very minor role in the story. I didn’t care about his family’s provenance when I first read it and I care even less about it now. I’d classify this blurb as exposition for exposition’s sake.

And there was more. In the passage below Theo’s summarized a conversation between his father and Xandra.

…I knew this story. My dad, who’d been a drama star in college, had for a brief while earned his living as an actor: voice-overs in commercials, a few minor parts (a murdered playboy, the spoiled son of a mob boss) in television and movies. Then—after he’d married my mother—it had all fizzled out. He had a long list of reasons why he’d broken through, though as I’d often heard him say: if my mother had been a little more successful as a model or worked a little harder at it, there would’ve been enough money for him to concentrate on acting without worrying about a day job. (Page 199)

I have to admit, I knew the story as well as his father’s acting career came up various times during the narrative. In addition, since the father and Xandra lived together and had been dating for some time: wouldn’t he have already had this conversation with her? I guess his skill at self-editing as deficient as the author’s.

One last point I’d like to make: I didn’t think this book would ever end. In the last section Theo ruminated on the new direction his life was taking, he drew parallels between the painting The Goldfinch and life itself, etc. The rest of the book, while verbose and drawn out, had a decent narrative flow. This part read like a philosophical treatise the author rushed through. It lacked the same conversational tone of the rest of the story.

Ms. Tartt did an exceptional job creating memorable characters. She deserves great credit for making a reprehensible protagonist a likable one for readers. For me, the author took way too much time doing so. The Goldfinch could’ve been more effective in half as many pages. I’d suggest waiting until an abridged version comes out before reading it.