Thursday, December 29, 2016

TRAVELER OF WORLDS: Conversations with Robert Silverberg – Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Feeling a tad full of myself for no accountable reason of late, and beginning to worry this aberration might be so noticeable as to get me shunned or possibly punched in the nose, I took a friend’s advice and read an interview with a man who is undeniably and justifiably full of himself. It worked, returning me to my regular unassuming bookish self by means of a psychological mule kick to the ego. Thank you, Kitty, and thank you, Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg.

As a naif of the genre I had not heard of 80-something-year-old Science Fiction Grand Master Silverberg. Perhaps the best introduction to him for others like myself is this comment from his wife, Karen Haber, which is included in the afterward to Traveler of Worlds:

Traveling with Bob is like having one’s own portable database for a companion. Imagine Google with a goatee, a glass of Bordeaux in one hand and a fork in the other.
At times it can be more like vacationing with one’s own investigative news team: within the first five minutes of arriving in, say, Guadalajara, he’s taken in the air temperature, made a quick survey of the flora and fauna on the hotel grounds, speculated on the groundspeed velocity of an unladen peacock, scanned the hotel restaurant menu for tortas ahogadas, and mentioned in passing that the name Guadalajara, bestowed by the invading Spaniards, has Arabic roots, Wadi Al Hajara, meaning “river of stones.” Enlightening, yes. Tiring, occasionally.

There’s a saving grace of humor for those who otherwise might be inclined to dismiss Silverberg as an anal-retentive control freak after reading the above perhaps slight exaggeration by his wife. Here’s an example, as Silverberg tells it to his collaborative interviewer, Alvaro Zinos-Almaro:

There are in Sardinia prehistoric structures called nuraghe, which are built of massive chunks of stone, building up to several stories. They’re quite strange, and they’re not found anywhere else. They’re all over the Sardinian landscape, and they’re two or three thousand years old. We toured the nuraghe in between dining at Sardinian restaurants and one day as we were climbing one of the greatest of the nuraghe in southern Sardinia it began to drizzle. And then to rain. And then to deliver lightning. We’re out in the open, clinging to metal railings, as this electrical storm begins, and we’re at the highest point in this field. We looked at each other and thought, “What a way to go.”

Maybe explains the extraordinary interest in weather on subsequent excursions, although after experiencing a moment like that any frequent traveler might have gone on to pursue a working knowledge of meteorology.

In contrast a gentleness also comes through in these interviews. Silverberg’s admittedly strict adherence to form, to expectations of himself and others with whom he interacts, nonetheless allows a rather insouciant acceptance of the odd irregularity in certain encounters where one might expect resistance. An avid collector of ancient curios, he relates an incident where he knew a young boy in Mexico was swindling him. Silverberg was visiting a site “somewhere in Mexico, maybe Yucatán” where the child sold him a statue from country’s earliest known culture, dating back to five thousand BC. The price was five pesos, equal then to seventy-five cents.

“I couldn’t resist it, so I bought it, and here it is. I’m aware that the Olmec statue is not genuine, but it was fun buying it.”

After providing another, similar example of the small swindle, this time purchasing obviously bogus Roman coins, he observes, “We don’t only buy fakes. But when it’s an amusing enough fake we do.”

Robert Silverberg
It is admittedly churlish of me, a feeble attempt to mitigate Silverberg’s ego-vaporizing superiority (ultimately of vastly greater magnitude than necessary to affect my erstwhile need for moderate comeuppance...Don’t believe me? Here’s how SF Hall of Famer/author/editor Gardner Dozois puts it: “Robert Silverberg could without hesitation be added to the list of SF’s smartest practitioners, and even amongst this brainy bunch, his intelligence stands out as impressive...It’s not widely realized by SF readers today, who mostly know only his huge body of novels and short fiction, but in his time Silverberg has written over thirty acclaimed non-fiction books, on topics that range from El Dorado to the Mound Builders of the American West to Mesopotamia to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and from ghost towns to Sequoias to mammoths to atomic scientists to the tribesmen of prehistoric Europe.” It is, of course, to gasp.), that I highlight here his admission to having been unsurprisingly the typical brainy nerd as a youngster who had to be coached by his only friend to behave so as not to be pummeled to jelly by the ubiquitous dumb, resentful “ruffians” any of whom might well have conjured a virulent illusion of presidential timbre in later life.

The revenge part of this classic nerd-to-triumph story begins while Silverberg is still in his teens, with cash-money sales of his short stories to fantasy and science fiction magazines. No papering his study wall with rejection notices à la F. Scott Fitzgerald and virtually all other beginning fictionalists. His white-socked feet hit the ground racing and never turned back.

No question I hate him. I’ve read some of those early stories, published in the late 1950s, and they’re a damned sight better than anything I could write right now! This, when the author was 21, from a story that appeared in 1956 (the same year he won a coveted Hugo Award for “best new writer”--grrrrrr) in an issue of Amazing Stories:

It was beyond her to see that some grease monkey back at the Dome was at fault— whoever it was who had failed to fasten down the engine hood. Nothing but what had stopped us could stop a sandcat: sand in the delicate mechanism of the atomic engine.
But no; she blamed it all on me somehow: So we were out walking on the spongy sand of the Martian desert. We’d been walking a good eight hours.

See what I mean? How could he know at that callow age that women are always right? I’m rather more than a tad older and still get it wrong! Smartass punk, get off my lawn.

So how come I loved Traveler of Worlds and am trying to entice you to read it, too? Am I about to reveal some delightful, scandalous crash—drugs, gambling, plagiarism—something that brings this titan of scholarly, authorly magnificence down to only half a dozen or so tiers above my undeniably lamentable level? No. Have I discovered in myself in the reading a long-suppressed deep-seated reservoir of fetid masochism? Nah, I’m not that sorry a mess.

What saves Silverberg in my eyes, despite the information they convey, is the nature of the interviews. Billed as “conversations,” this is precisely how they come across. Zinos-Amaro, who started out similarly nerdlike as an SF aficionado, got hooked at seventeen while reading Silverberg’s 1968 multiple award-winning novella Nightwings (which I will download from Kindle soon as I finish this report). He says in the preface to Traveler of Worlds, “I was thrilled to realize that I had made first contact with a vast and cool intelligence, one that had spent decades producing enthralling stories now awaiting my discovery. I immediately hunted down as many Silverberg books as I could find, reading perhaps fifty over the next two years. It was a bibliophilic infatuation of the first order.”

Zinos-Amaro says his interest in Silverberg the man grew along with his fascination by the author’s work. They eventually became friends, collaborating on an SF novella, When the Blue Shift Comes, and, last year, holding the conversations contained in Traveler. For me the relaxed, friendly tone of Traveler lifts it far above the usual interview format pairing celebrity and questioner. Traveler of Worlds is truly an extended conversation. I felt like an eavesdropper, and I feel good about it. And I’ve been soundly, and properly, humbled.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, December 15, 2016

DOUBLE – Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller

Somewhere near the end of Double the title’s relevance emerges. I’d be sharing it with you here had I read the ebook version. Alas, I’m holding the library’s hardbound copy, which has no speedy digital search function. As I recall, it sort of surprised me as clever but a tad contrived, and I have forgotten the contrivance. No harm done, my forgetting. I’d assumed from the get-go the title was a play on its double authorship, and I think that’s what I was meant to assume.

Husband/wife writers Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller team up to put their well-known protagonists—Pronzini’s “Nameless Detective” and Muller’s “Sharon McCone”--into harm’s way, themselves teaming up to investigate a complex mystery linking murders, kidnappings, sexual high jinks, and endangered species (and possibly a couple of things I’m forgetting) that had me flipping the pages so fast I sometimes had to flip back to make sure what I’d just read was what I thought I’d just read. And while I was flipping forth and back and forth thusly I pondered a growing sensation of déjà vu that eventually morphed into full-blown certainty I had read Double some years ago.
Ordinarily such recognition would bring great swatches of remembered plot and scene slashing into my vicarious involvement in kibitzing the protagonists as they faced unthinkable dangers and wrestled with maddening conundrums tossed their way by clever authors bent on keeping me rapt and flipping pages and fooling me until pretty much the grand finale. This, I am almost entirely happy to say, the spoiling by memory, did not happen. My reluctance to go all out with entire happiness stems from a niggling worm of unease that my powers of recollection are flagging a tad, a concern that would seem to contradict my 200-milligram daily regimen of the memory “miracle herb” gingko biloba. But I shall leave that worry alone for now.
Pronzini & Muller
I vaguely recall liking Double the first time around despite occasional moments of confusion over which private detective—McCone or Nameless—was narrating which of the alternating chapters. Same as this time. I like McCone and Nameless. They’re believable, engaging characters. The ending surprised me this time, as it most likely did before, assuming my cognitive powers are not flagging. I wore a smile this time closing the covers. Then again, I read to be entertained, rarely employing a critical eye. I’d read one other of the Nameless series—Boobytrap--and none of McCone’s. I’d read one other Pronzini/Muller collaboration, The Plague of Thieves, a light, humorous mystery with a mysterious character who thought he was Sherlock Holmes.
Double has its moments of humor. It also has less savory scenes, albeit well written. Only one death is described as it happens, through the eyes of Nameless:

I came around a clump of bamboo, and straight ahead there was open space and I could see most of the east side of the hotel. The tower jutting up on that corner caught my eye: it had open arches on four sides with waist-high railings in them, so that people standing up there could take in the view in all directions. I saw movement inside—one person, maybe two. I couldn’t be sure because of the angle: the inside of the tower was a blend of light and shadow.
Overhead the droning of two or three approaching Navy planes began to build in volume. I glanced up at them briefly, then looked back at the tower.
And somebody appeared at the rail, came flying over it like a person diving off a high board—a woman dressed in something pink, arms clawing at the air, screaming.
She screamed all the way down, a death cry that was barely audible above the pulsating roar of the planes. Something moved up in the tower, a suggestion of someone there in the shadows peering down. Or maybe it was just an illusion; I couldn’t be sure of that either, because I was already running by then, with that sense of shock something unexpected and frightening always instills in you. There were fifty yards separating me and the hotel when the falling woman hit and the screaming stopped. But even with the noise of the planes I swear I could hear the sound of impact—that melon-splitting sound of bones breaking and tissue ripping that you can never forget once you’ve heard it.

Or once you’ve read a well-crafted description of it. I do remember this scene from my first dance with Double. But I didn’t recall it until it reached out again and grabbed me by the throat.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, December 8, 2016

1776 – David McCullough

To avoid being sternly censured or even prosecuted for trying to practice psychology without credentials I shall limit testimony to my own experience as therapist/patient. The diagnosis: acute non-hip funk, i. e. terror of being discovered at any moment by credible authorities of being an incompetent fraud hopelessly unfit to measure up to the performance standards expected of me by others and myself. It’s the kind of funk where I’m apt to slap myself in the face real hard, I mean REAL HARD!!!, welt-raising hard, again and again in the hope I’m only dreaming and can slap myself awake. Of course, being in the throes of expectant imminent discovery of my incompetence, a state in which I’ve come to believe at my deepest innerness that my self-doubt extends to my competence to slap myself hard enough to awaken from the nightmare funk, I don’t bother to eye the palm of my slapping hand. I sigh a desperate rasping torrent of anxiety-wreaking oxygen-depleted breath and roll the eyes of my inner patient up to those of my inner therapist.

You’re in trouble, Bunky, the therapist thinks, and prescribes David McCullough’s incisive look at 1776, the most critical year in our country’s history to date. Don’t call me “Bunky”, the one inner self says, silently, to the other, and agrees to look at the book I picked up for half a buck at the public library’s fall used-book sale and put off reading for fear it was full of obscure names, dates and geography, etc.--in a word, dull.
Long story short, 1776 is full of obscure names, dates and geography, etc. What it’s not is dull. And it cured my funked-up self of its funk and made it want to crow like a rooster.
In all but one instance 1776 focuses on men. The exception is a brief mention of Molly Corbin, who went into the disastrous battle for Fort Washington at her husband’s side. When he was killed she stepped up to the cannon he’d been loading and firing, and continued “manning” the gun until she was wounded so severely she nearly lost an arm. After the Americans surrendered, the British allowed her to return home to Pennsylvania.
The Fort Washington fiasco was one of a series of ignominious defeats suffered by the Continental Army, with much of the blame rightfully placed on the commander in chief. Disease, lack of supplies including clothing and gunpowder, lack of training, desertions in droves, and failure to re-up when annual enlistments expired continually dragged down morale. Bad battlefield decisions came near providing the camel’s back-breaking straw, especially when sheer fortune, such as weather or unexpected decisions by the British, played against the Colonials as well. Confidence in Gen. Washington eroded steadily until, following the surrender of Fort Washington Nov. 16, his most trusted assistant, Joseph Reed, in utter desperation, sent a confidential letter to Charles Lee, Washington’s chief rival for command of the Army, expressing concern that his boss was faltering:

Oh! General, an indecisive mind is one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall an army. How often have I lamented it this campaign. All circumstances considered, we are in a very awful and alarming situation—one that requires the utmost wisdom and firmness of mind. As soon as the season will admit, I think yourself and some others should go to Congress and form the plan of the new army.

Washington’s reaction when he inadvertently read Lee’s response to Reed gives some insight into the character of the man we one day would honor with his face on the dollar bill. Knowing now he’d lost the confidence of Lee, his second-in-command, and Reed, his most trusted aide, he resealed the letter and sent it off to Reed with a note acknowledging he’d read it by mistake, but saying nothing more. Lee’s note to Reed had concurred with the latter’s view “that fatal indecision of war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage. Accident may put a decisive blunder in the right, but eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the men of the best parts if cursed with indecision.” Washington later told Reed he was hurt not because he disagreed with the accusations but because Reed had gone behind his back. McCullough says Washington possibly agreed the battlefield blunders were his fault.

Washington had at least one staunch supporter in Congress, Delegate William Hooper of North Carolina, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. “Oh, how I feel for Washington, that best of men,” he wrote. “The difficulties which he has now to encounter are beyond the power of language to describe, but to be unfortunate is to be wrong and there are men...who are villains enough to brand him. There are some long faces here.”
Washington refused to show outwardly how discouraged he felt. In a letter to his cousin, who managed his home at Mount Vernon, he wrote that was “wearied to death” with troubles, mentioning among them how few troops he had left in the Army. “In confidence I tell you that I never was in such an unhappy, divided state since I was born.” All the while “within a stone’s throw” of the enemy.
David McCullough doing it the old-fashioned way
Right here is where we get a glimpse of the trait in Washington’s personality that might have been most critical in keeping the Army going, albeit at its lowest strength of only a couple thousand men. It was the trait we call today “compartmentalization” (at least I think that’s what it’s called). It’s the ability to keep various issues and priorities separate from each other so that a person can focus on one at a time without distraction from any of the others, so that worries can be kept in their own compartment and not interfere with or override everything else in the mind. Here’s the glimpse of Washington’s compartmentalization--in the same letter to his cousin, an instant shift from the woe-is-me lament, he discusses his concern about fireplaces at Mount Vernon:
That in the parlor must, I should think, stand as it does; not so much on account of the wainscotting, which I think must be altered (on account of the door leading into the new building), as on account of the chimney piece and the manner of its fronting into the room...” Are we getting the drift here? This is The Father or His Country bringing about the birth of the United States of America. We know this story has a happy ending for many of us. Was Washington afflicted with what we know today as Attention Deficit Disorder, and if so had he learned to manage it to his—and ultimately our—advantage? Is there something of value here for all of us modern ADDers?
I am feeling verklempt at the moment. You may wish to discuss the idea amongst yourselves.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Roger Ebert surprised and annoyed me with his review of the movie version, grumbling that it didn’t do justice to John Berendt’s book version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Rarely one to compare with expectations the two forms, I saw no point in this instance. And this was before I read the book. I thought I had read it right after I saw the movie when it came out in 1997. Turns out I hadn’t—I bought the book and maybe started it, but now, after reading it over the weekend, I know I had not. Despite going ass backward with the sequence of versions, I still do not share Ebert’s umbrage.
I agree the movie took liberties with the book, but Berendt acknowledged in a 2015 interview he took liberties, too: “The only thing I moved around was my appearance on the scene. Clearly Danny Hansford had already been killed when I got to Savannah. Everybody knew that. I wasn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. When I sat down to write the story I had been there awhile. Jim was already out of jail and acquitted.”
What strikes me as a tad ironic about Ebert’s comparison was his reliance on the power of imagination. A renowned film critic who understood the sometimes magical authority of the silver screen to seize control of viewers’ fancy and bring them into the mood and hearts of the characters, Ebert found he preferred the subtler involvement of the book. The film, he said, “is a determined attempt to be faithful to the book's spirit, but something ineffable is lost just by turning on the camera: Nothing we see can be as amazing as what we've imagined.” I disagree. If nothing else, the movie is what made me want to read the book.
As to structure, Ebert sounds almost offended that the movie used a substitute for Berendt’s first-person narration, introducing a character nowhere to be found in the book. Ebert never suggested voice-over, which would appear to be the only alternative and is a device yawned at by the hipper film aficionados. Nor did he quibble with John Cusack’s performance in this role as the writer visiting Savannah and through whose eyes we meet the characters and curious ambience of their milieu. Ebert said Cusack’s role might have worked had his character been as quirky and nutty as the others. I find that idea quirky. Cusack’s character served as straight man, someone with whom I could identify without worrying I might exit the theater, go straight home and attach strings to flies and tape them to my shirt and walk around town with the little insect aviators circling my head to the presumed horror of everyone who had not seen the movie. Not to mention I might not be the only moviegoer next day walking pet flies. I actually contemplated doing it after watching the movie, just to see how far I could get in my neighborhood before someone called 911. Thank the good juju John Cusack’s exemplary performance shooed that notion away before it could gain any traction.
Jim Williams and attorney Sonny Seiler. Kevin Spacey played Williams in the film version, and Seiler played the judge

Savannah transvestite "Lady Chablis" played herself in the film

Of course I enjoyed the book! Of course I enjoyed the film! For different reasons, as well Ebert should know. Which did I enjoy more? That’s not fair! Visually scenes from the movie continue to float around my head as though taped to strings attached to my shirt. More subtly, here are some examples of the stories that didn’t make it into the film but are as memorable as anything I’ve ever seen in a theater. Part of the credit belongs to Berendt’s gifted writing.Giving Berendt a tour of the city his first day in Savannah, a local woman, Mary Harty, takes him to one of the cemeteries and points out the graves of the poet Conrad Aiken’s parents. Both died on the same day.

“This is what happened,” she said. “The Aikens were living on Oglethorpe Avenue in a big brick townhouse. Dr. Aiken had his offices on the ground floor, and the family lived on the two floors above. Conrad was eleven. One morning, Conrad awoke to the sounds of his parents quarreling in their bedroom down the hall. The quarreling subsided for a moment. Then Conrad heard his father counting, ‘One! Two! Three!’ There was a half-stifled scream and then a pistol shot. Then another count of three, another shot, and then a thud. Conrad ran barefoot across Oglethorpe Avenue to the police station where he announced, ‘Papa has just shot Mama and then shot himself.’ He led the officers to the house and up to his parents’ bedroom on the top floor.”
Miss Harty lifted her goblet in a silent toast to Dr. and Mrs. Aiken. Then she poured a few drops onto the ground.
Believe it or not,” she said, “one of the reasons he killed her was … parties. Aiken hinted at it in ‘Strange Moonlight,’ one of his short stories.

Then Mary Harty told Berendt he was sitting on Aiken’s grave, as the two of them were perched on a marble bench that constituted his gravestone.
And here’s an amusing account of one of the most engaging characters in the book and the movie, Joe Odom, as he learns tricks on how to make a success of the bar he’s just opened:

Joe sought the advice of Darlene Poole, who knew the bar business inside out.
Darlene had worked as a barmaid in a number of local saloons and was engaged to the owner of a successful club on the southside. She and Joe sat at a table having a drink. “You got a nice setup here,” she said. “The blue-rinse-and-foxtrot crowd finally have a place to go. Can’t hardly go to the Nightflight, can’t go to Malone’s, can’t go to Studebaker’s. You got ’em all to yourself, honey. Nice going. Plus I see you’ve got Wanda Brooks coming in here. Broads like Wanda are what I call insurance. With her bumping into everybody and knocking drinks over left and right at three bucks a shot, you can’t help but make it work. Now, if you can just keep the freeloaders out and stop giving away the liquor, you should do all right. Just make sure nobody’s glass stays empty too long.”

The only question remaining in my mind is which should come first, the book or the film. Ebert read the book first and claims this ruined the movie for him. I saw the movie first and therefore had no such problem. The book did slow down and become a tad tedious in places. This never happened for me with the movie. So which version might I revisit first should I wish some day to revive my interest in the fly trick? That, my friends, is a dumb question.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Were I Police Detective Edelman and I had the faded TV star Stephen Wade in my custody I'd lock him up, close the case and take a long, well-deserved vacation. This is one murder rap not even my buddy Jack Dwyer--former cop, now private eye and sometime actor—is going to upend, believe me.

I mean, look. Let's be realistic here. Wade's fingerprints are all over the knife that's buried in Michael Reeves's back. Okay? Need more? Opportunity: A reliable witness sees Wade enter Reeves's apartment around the time of the murder. Motive? Hours earlier Reeves had shoved, slapped and humiliated Wade in front of the rest of the cast of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night following Wade's drunken bumbling, stumbling, mumbling performance. Reeves directed the production and is the local theater's resident director.

One might think even Jack Dwyer would let this one go, especially considering the victim was not a likable guy. Somewhat of a loathsome guy, actually. The kind of guy who probably had it coming anyway. But, then, Jack Dwyer's not the kind of guy who gives up easily. Not the kind, either, to rush to judgment, no matter how loathsome it might be to keep an open mind.

One suspects Ed Gorman was a Dwyer kind of guy. He created Jack Dwyer and used this quote by the late British author Gerald Kersh to introduce Murder in the Wings, our currently discussed Dwyer mystery: ". . . there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment."

In Murder in the Wings, Jack Dwyer neither hates the man charged with murder nor has to look for any chinks in his armor. There is no armor. Stephen Wade is himself writhing in torment, destroying his career and his life with drink. He is also Dwyer's friend. Dwyer was one of the cast members in this disastrous performance of O'Neill's classic play. He restrained the actor after a fight broke out between the two enraged men. It was Dwyer whom Wade called, in a drunken stupor, from Reeves's apartment where he said he found his tormentor lying face down in bed with a knife protruding between his shoulder blades.

Nope. No way Jack Dwyer is going to let this one go. Not even after Wade admits he isn't positive he didn't stab the loathsome director to death. Not even after he waves a .45 at Dwyer and flees sobbing into the night. Dwyer couldn't let this one go if he wanted to, if only because his lovably flaky girlfriend, Donna Harris, has decided that “sweet” Stephen Wade did not—could not—murder anyone, not even someone as loathsome as Michael Reeves.

Besides, taking a closer look one sees there are plenty of folks, in the theater group alone, with motive, opportunity and means to have done the dirty deed.

Ed Gorman was at the top of his game with this novel. The writing is crisp and insightful, with moments of pure poetic joy. His characters are so real you feel you know them, or would like to. His plotting is intricate and daring. He keeps you guessing right up to the eminently satisfying denouement.

And the humor. Oh, mercy. It sneaks up and gooses you when you least expect it. There seems always to be a scene or two in every Gorman novel that sets me to laughing so hard I worry I will not be able to stop. Or that the neighbors will call 911. This time, about halfway through Murder in the Wings, I grabbed my cell phone thinking I might need to make the call myself.

Turns out I didn't. But I was ready.

[find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]


Thursday, November 17, 2016

MAGGIE: A Girl of the Streets – Stephen Crane

With no knowledge the expression gadzooks did or did not exist in the latter part of the 19th century I presume here to employ the aforementioned expletive to burst forth with appalled astonishment from the throat of Rupert, our imaginary reader at the imaginary distinguished Manhattan publishing house Lyttel, Pettibone & Throckhauptman, as he begins reading the manuscript of a short novel by one historically accurate Johnston Smith.

Rupert’s outburst coincides with his hurling of the manuscript across the room he shares with three other readers of what one day would come to be known as slushpile submissions, most of which were returned to their authors with notes of polite rejection. Our historically accurate manuscript is thusly returned after Rupert composes himself and sheepishly gathers up the sheets from the floor to stuff into the self-addressed-stamped envelope its author had enclosed with his submission. Doing so, Rupert notices the name on the return envelope is not Johnston Smith. Rupert shrugs, assuming the name is that of Smith’s agent, pastes the flap shut and drops the envelope into the outgoing basket on his desk. He pauses for a moment before releasing the envelope and wonders why he does not recognize the "agent"’s name: Stephen Crane. Rupert and the other New York publishers who rejected Maggie: A Girl of the Streets wouldn’t have this problem two years later when Crane dropped the pseudonym for his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage. Then any vocal sounds they might have produced likely would have been expressions of dismay for having rejected Maggie.
Frustrated by his failure to find a publisher for Maggie, Crane went the self-pub route, spending nearly $900 to have 1,100 copies printed. Reflecting back on this venture he was quoted as saying, "how I looked forward to publication and pictured the sensation I thought it would make. It fell flat. Nobody seemed to notice it or care for it... Poor Maggie! She was one of my first loves."

Of course once Red Badge was a hit, critics took another look at Maggie, and, voila!!!, declared it a work of cutting edge naturalistic/realistic brilliance. Uh huh. A real publisher even came out with a new edition, dropping the pseudonym and emblazoning Crane’s name on the cover! To be truthful here, rather than simply snarky, the publishers who rejected Maggie the first time, felt the theme of a girl raised in poverty in a Bowery tenement who turns to prostitution was a tad risque for the popular market. Some also objected to Crane’s meticulous transcription of the Bowery dialect, something other critics praised it for. I found it difficult and unnecessary beyond a little taste initially to get the Bowery voice into the reader’s head before switching to more comprehensible English. Here’s an example:

Pete made a furious gesture. “Git outa here now, an’ don’ make no trouble. See? Youse fellers er lookin’ fer a scrap an’ it’s damn likely yeh’ll fin’ one if yeh keeps on shootin’ off yer mout’s. I know yehs! See? I kin lick better men dan yehs ever saw in yer lifes. Dat’s right! See? Don’ pick me up fer no stuff er yeh might be jolted out in deh street before yeh knows where yeh is. When I comes from behind dis bar, I t’rows yehs bote inteh deh street. See?”

There are patches of overwriting that would have had me shouting gadzooks and hurling the manuscript across the room. I won’t include a sampling here as a gesture of respect for my readers. But then there are gems like this:

The air in the collar and cuff establishment strangled her. She knew she was gradually and surely shriveling in the hot, stuffy room. The begrimed windows rattled incessantly from the passing of elevated trains. The place was filled with a whirl of noises and odors.
She wondered as she regarded some of the grizzled women in the room, mere mechanical contrivances sewing seams and grinding out, with heads bended over their work, tales of imagined or real girlhood happiness, past drunks, the baby at home, and unpaid wages. She speculated how long her youth would endure. She began to see the bloom upon her cheeks as valuable.
She imagined herself, in an exasperating future, as a scrawny woman with an eternal grievance.

I did a double-take and then emitted a sardonic chuckle when I finally recognized that Chapter XVII was breaking the proverbial fourth wall this way:Upon a wet evening, several months after the last chapter, two interminable rows of cars, pulled by slipping horses, jangled along a prominent side-street.”
As one might expect, the naturalistic realism of Maggie is not remotely upbeat and ends on a note so gloomy the movie version, were there ever to be one, likely would use Beethoven’s Funeral March as a background accompaniment.
Can I in good faith recommend Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as “a good read?” No, I can’t and I shan’t. But anyone interested in the seminal work of a genius should find it informing as well as a solid study of Bowery lingo that might some day come in handy should one find oneself stranded in “Rum Alley” or “Devil’s Row” and need directions.
My copy of Maggie is included in the Karpathos complete works of Crane, on Kindle for 99 cents. I shall revisit The Red Badge of Courage soon to see if it holds up to my first reading of it as a youngster. 

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]